A New Approach to Hierarchy in an Organization 

18. February 2022

Paddling Your Own Canoe? 

Hierarchical structures are a natural part of our world. So natural, in fact, that for years they went virtually unquestioned. Luckily, a few daring souls who like to experiment, come up with new ways to work, and verify facts stepped up to the plate. And then wrote books about it*. Is self-management and abandoning position-based structures for everyone? No, but we should definitely ask ourselves why that is so. 

My name is Katarzyna Duk, and just under two months ago I joined SYZYGY Warsaw, where I am in charge of content creation, among other things. I have spent most of my career in corporations and I must say that something always felt off to me. When I found myself within the dynamic structure of SYZYGY Warsaw, I realized that what didn’t sit well with me might have been… traditional hierarchy. Below are a couple of my thoughts on the subject. 

I already have hierarchy at home

When I hear the word “hierarchy”, the first thing that comes to mind is the stately British queen sitting on a throne with her sons. Arranged marriages, formal audiences, and power. Above all – power. But this example is quite far removed from our everyday life, and in fact we have all experienced a hierarchic structure at the earliest stages of our lives. 

Even though the current standard family model allows for more equality between family members, “in my days” the average Polish family was obviously hierarchical. Parents and grandparents would often say that fish and children don’t have a voice. You needed permission to do anything, from early childhood through your school years, and sometimes even beyond.

We were used to the fact that, in a sense, someone was always making decisions for us, and only in the distant future would we be able to do things “our way”. But even that moment would not come just like that, we’d have to first earn that privilege. That’s how I understood hierarchy – unless you are in the upper echelons, you will never know freedom. 

When it was time for me to enter the job market, once again I would often bump into hierarchic walls. I’d hear that only complete loyalty and long years of working the same job would ensure the trust of my superiors. Which would in turn translate into a semblance of responsibility for my own decisions, which I craved so much. But did I really? 

All in all, I’m just another brick in the wall

Do we all want the responsibility that comes with being free and not having a boss hovering over our shoulder? The truth is that many people would rather be able to say “But he wanted it this way!” Trying to understand this reasoning, we should once again take a look at the system in which we were brought up. 

Regardless of our parents’ approach, we all had the same experience in school – all our actions were being controlled to some degree. We were told what to do and how to do it, when we could leave the room, what we could wear. There was usually only one correct answer to any question, and the teacher was the only one who knew how we were being graded. Our only responsibility was showing up and doing the work. 

College was a bit more challenging – not all classes were obligatory, no one told us what we should wear, and the number of decisions we had to make increased dramatically. Luckily, the system was still transparent – there were still correct answers, grades, you had to make up for any missed classes, and the dates of classes and exams were given in advance. 

Hierarchiczne podejście wywodzi się z systemu edukacji

Therefore, it seems logical that we would also accept this model in our workplace. Attendance is mandatory, someone else makes the decisions, and we do what we are told. Actual engagement? Optional. And so, the “natural” order of things is preserved. 

Obviously, some of us will be left wanting more. Raised in a hierarchical system, not knowing any other way, we’re going to start climbing the corporate ladder to achieve happiness. And some of us might actually find it at the top of the corporate world. 

The lack of responsibility translates into not having any say in introducing changes to the organization.

With great power comes great responsibility

But the traditional hierarchic structure also has its drawbacks. The most obvious one being the uneven distribution of power. Important decisions are made by a handful of people, while the majority is there to merely follow orders. 

The lack of responsibility unfortunately also translates into not having any say in introducing changes to the organization. From the lowest tier employee’s perspective, implementing grassroots initiatives is pretty much impossible. You are met with empty slogans about “everyone contributing to the success of the company” and have to deal with a lack of appreciation, mounting obligations, unrealistic deadlines, and often also being treated patronizingly by management. For those of us who can’t look forward to a promotion in the near future, this can cause a lot of frustration. 

Meanwhile on the managerial side, too much responsibility can also become a curse. Holding a top-tier position comes with certain expectations. You feel obligated to be infallible, and are often stressed about your employees not doing their jobs diligently enough. Every mistake seems to be a stain on your honor, which you have to explain to your own superiors. And if you happen to have a bad day, you can’t ask anyone for help, as this could be seen as a sign of weakness. 

For some people living like this is easy enough, but it might appear “machine-like”. And while some of us don’t mind being a cog in their organization, others would rather function as a “living organism”. 

Let’s talk about a “lack of hierarchy” – how does that work?

Abolishing hierarchy in the classic sense does not have to mean all-encompassing chaos, as I initially assumed. It turns out that “no bosses” does not equal “no structure” – it’s just that power within the institution is distributed differently. 

Instead of positions, we have roles, all dressed in shining armor. You can find a more comprehensive take on those in an article by our Technology Lead, Andrzej Duś: Positions in Organizations– Can They Be Done Differently?

Here’s my two cents: Before, when someone would ask what I did at my company, I’d reply with a five-word description of a position which said next to nothing about what my job was, but broadcast my place within the hierarchy (junior/senior, etc.). Now when someone asks what I do, I just list my roles, and even though it takes a little more time, it makes it much easier to understand where my responsibilities lie. You could say that trading positions for roles is an attempt to mirror reality more accurately. 

My role is assigned to me based on my competences. I have full autonomy within it – I don’t need a superior to sign off on my decisions. What guides me during the decision-making process? That’s easy – my organization’s best interest. I merely have to remember that, in the end, responsibility for all my tasks lies with me. 

“Lack of hierarchy” = redefinition of hierarchy – a hierarchy of roles and competences

Additionally, a single role can be performed by a number of people. What is the decision-making process in this case? It’s not a democracy, but everyone can voice their opinion on the subject. At the end of the discussion, we jointly determine which solution is potentially best for the organization, making our decision based on facts (as opposed to subjective judgments). 

You could say that a “lack of hierarchy” in a modern organization is actually a redefinition of hierarchy – a hierarchy of roles and competences. The emphasis shifts from individuals to roles, which are meant to realize goals set in advance. 

Firsthand experience – the hierarchical revolution at SYZYGY Warsaw

We have undergone a hierarchical revolution at SYZYGY. We have dropped the classic management model and introduced a simplified structure without any ladders for you to climb. It wasn’t a decision taken lightly, and it’s not a process with a specific beginning, end, and benchmarks along the way. It started with a conversation and admitting to ourselves that we wanted something to change. Then came numerous hours of company-wide online meetings during which everyone was able to talk about their needs and ideas, and to share feedback. But at first, as far as everyone’s mindset was concerned, it was merely the names that changed. Many people still saw the management board as a management board, even though officially hierarchy was abolished. Naturally, that led to chaos. We had to learn how to function in this chaos and to sort it out ourselves. 

Paweł Piotrzkowski, one of the founders of SYZYGY Warsaw, whose current roles include: Company Finance & Budget Guardian, Company Strategist and New Work Evangelist, described this revolution like this: 

“The main thing is trusting and believing that other people are competent. There isn’t a decision that will satisfy absolutely everyone, but a decision that might not suit you personally could be good for the company as a whole. That “good” is our guiding light. Our teal is about the hierarchy of competences – you are a specialist in your role and so you take responsibility for all decisions related to it. The role’s significance does not change regardless of who performs it, so it is based on roles that we build our hierarchy.” 

Eventually we started codifying our principles, which turned out to be an important step in “rounding out” our structure. Trust remains a key factor. I trust that the person performing a given role is capable of making the necessary decisions and acts in the organization’s best interest. But separating the person from the role remains a challenge. 

Separating the person from the role remains a challenge

You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip – where to find satisfaction?

The last issue I want to discuss is satisfying your ambitions. In a hierarchical workplace, you can climb the corporate ladder. If you want to assume more responsibility, being promoted usually brings you satisfaction and serves as objective proof of advancement. So how are you supposed to feel important if you can’t take on a leadership position? 

Former Managing Director and current Partner & Business Lead – Michał Łukawski – says that power is like a drug, but one that can be easily replaced. More and more often what we actually look for in work is a deeper meaning. In the Po co Ci sens istnienia organizacji? episode of their podcast, Paulina Grabowska (Employer Storyteller and Internal Coach at SYZYGY Warsaw) and Ewa Bocian (New Work Guide and Consciousness Coach) delve into precisely this topic. 

One of the unquestionable upsides of roles is their malleability. When a role becomes obsolete, we don’t have to keep performing pointless tasks. We can organize a refinement to update the team structure by modifying existing roles, adding new ones, or removing those that have stopped furthering the team’s goals. Meanwhile, if you know that you’re a bad fit for a given task, or you want to grow in a new direction, you can make it known and, if the organization has a matching need, you are assigned a new role. There is a whole spectrum of needs that have to be met, so everyone can find an area that will be of interest to them and will allow them to feel fulfilled at their job. Thus the system allows you to truly realize your potential. 

According to research, it is precisely a sense of meaningfulness and engagement that brings people the most satisfaction at work. When the entire organization is geared towards growth, encouraging people to experiment and dare to make mistakes, they are allowed to develop new competences and realize their ambitions. They also have a bigger say in how their organization functions, and are offered an optimal environment for tackling new challenges. When this is your reality, you don’t really need dumb names on business cards or label-based positions. 

*I am referring to Frederic Laloux’s book “Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness”. 

In SYZYGY I have Social Media & Community Master roles, among others…
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