Hierarchies are unnatural – it’s time for a liberating revolution

Hierarchies – accepted by most as the ‘normal way’ of running a business – are unnatural, since they are counter to universal human needs. The hierarchical workplace as we know it today emerged during the industrial revolution, because work had become complex and required coordination. Bureaucracy developed because managers got tired of repeating rules; they wrote them down and they became enshrined.

This structure was perfect for optimising productivity in a world of stability – and, initially at least, for organising workers who probably couldn’t read or write. We aren’t living in this world anymore. The hidden costs of non-productive managers cannot be sustained, because demand and margins are less predictable. Organisations seek agility. And employees expect brains to be used, not simply told what to do.

A more natural way to organise is what I call the ‘liberated company’. These ideas are based on the observation of close to 100 transformations, including companies such as Harley-Davidson and Michelin. It’s not a model that you can impose on any organisation, but a philosophy that must be bought into and articulated in company context by its leader: that employees have complete freedom and responsibility to undertake any action they – not their superiors or procedures – decide is best for the business.

This philosophy is in tune with the three universal human needs that the hierarchical model ignores: intrinsic equality and respect for their intelligence; the willingness to grow and fulfil their potential; and the willingness to self-direct.

Developing an organisation that meets these needs is a difficult and lengthy process, and it must be driven by the company’s leader – hopefully with HR’s help. The number one quality liberating leaders have in common is that they are ego-less; they understand their ego prevents trusting others’ intelligence and is the enemy of transformation. The second quality is having enough political influence to get a mandate for transformation.

But even if a leader possesses these qualities, something else triggers them to start corporate liberation: an ‘a-ha’ moment. And I’ve seen two forms of this: admiration and exasperation. When you are in admiration mode, it pushes you into action. It’s not enough for a leader to like how another firm has organised itself; they have to say: ‘I want to be that leader. I want my business to be like that.’

Exasperation is even more powerful. If you are exasperated at your company, you get up and leave – or you overhaul how it works. Deciding to transform, in this case, isn’t an intellectual matter: you have to feel it in your heart.

The transition to a freer way of working will inevitably be slow. The leader has to start small and under the radar. There is no point making a big speech and claiming everything will be different from tomorrow onwards: it won’t be, and employees will be disheartened. If you start to ask people what they need, and reply to their needs, they will start to feel respected. At the same time, make your employees work on a common vision for the company – what are we trying to accomplish together?

Once shared, that vision empowers employees with the criteria to determine if an action is right for the business or not. Fewer managers will be needed – and fewer policies and procedures, too, as new, more natural behavioural norms emerge. Then a leader can launch the official liberation by asking their staff what organisational practices don’t chime with these norms, and what should replace them.

It all comes back to universal human needs and how we naturally choose to organise ourselves. Do you have procedures and policies written on your wall at home? No. Yet your children don’t leave the dinner table when they want. Why should our workplaces – populated by adults, not children – be any different?