It has been told (and written) a lot recently about “flat organizations”, companies without bosses in the traditional sense. There are a lot of theoreticians and practitioners talking about businesses without typical forms of hierarchy. In such a company a founder or a CEO is not a boss acting and operating as a military officer – commanding and controlling. In a “flat organization” a boss is rather a coach, a partner, a mentor. This new type of business organization is considered to be more modern, more fitting with the reality of the XXI century. Employees now don’t want to be slaves of their bosses – they want to be creative and proactive, and would like to be supported in their endeavors. Especially in the IT industry.
About twenty years ago a sociological study was conducted by a Russian scientist. The scientist had been studying the types of social hierarchy in a lot of isolated societies. He studied the hierarchy in distant tribes living in South America or in the Russian North; he also studied social structures in small sub-societies such as groups of prisoners. And he discovered that the type of hierarchy was absolutely the same in such different and distant places, in such different societies. And that was the classical kind of hierarchy – vertically oriented pyramidal, with a boss on top. And he came to the conclusion that this type of social hierarchy is natural for human beings. And for the time being we haven’t see a lot of successful attempts to refute this conclusion.
We are all different. Some of us want to do everything by ourselves. Typically people of that mentality become businessmen or self-employed persons. They have enough will, skills and knowledge to be independent. But there are a lot (actually, many more) people who are happy to be a part of a structure, to be employees, to have a boss. That’s why only a minority of people become businessmen or freelancers – it is much more comfortable for a lot of human beings to obey the rules or orders. And I don’t think the situation has dramatically changed since we were Neanderthals.
A lot of freedom usually means a lot of responsibility and uncertainty. If you are self-employed nobody gives you orders but, on the other hand, nobody gives you a paycheck every week. You have to rely on yourself completely which sometimes seems risky and even dangerous. I have seen a lot of people who had tried to be businessmen but finally decided to work for a wage. They claimed that this decision saved them a lot of time for their families and a lot of psychological energy they spent for themselves. So even though you may see a lot of so-called “motivators” on the Internet – inspiring pictures with short and typically catchy phrases underneath – about the advantages of being self-employed, a lot of people don’t agree with them. They prefer to leave their offices at five o’clock to go back to their private lives.
Some people are just not self-organized enough to work effectively without somebody being in command of them. I have seen a lot of employees who could work hard only if they have tight schedules signed by higher-ups. As soon as they became free and uncontrolled their efficiency came down. So they actually need bosses to be good workers.
There is also another side of the problem. The Apple company is not just Tim Cook, it is Tim Cook and thousands of programmers, engineers and technicians working as parts of a large and well-organized hierarchy. It is just impossible to launch a new iPhone on time if all of your employees are too creative and work hard only when (or if) they feel enough inspiration. A computer or a mobile phone is a very sophisticated device, in which hardware meets software, and the market is very tough. You are afloat only if all of the departments of your company work precisely on the schedule. And up to now the only way to achieve this goal has been invented – to create a framework, a structure, a hierarchy, in which there are people who control the processes, motivate employees and sometimes punish ones who don’t work hard enough. In other words, the bosses.
It is a very hard work – to be a boss nowadays. On the one hand you must be a coach, a supportive and kind person, who motivates and inspires your staff. On the other hand you must be tough enough to control the situation – to achieve the highest level of performance. And you may not hope that you will be able to assemble a team of self-motivated, loyal and self-organized people. Being a boss may be an unpleasant job from time to time but you have to do it anyway. Being an efficient manager is always about finding a balance between controlling people and motivating them to work without control.
So don’t throw away the good old pyramidal hierarchy without a second thought. In some cases (for instance, in IT-startups) the “flat organization” may really be the best solution to unlock the potential of your staff. But if your organization is large, if it has a lot of subsidiaries, you will be unlikely to do without some formal organizational structure in which some people will be in command of others.