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Flat hierarchies: A fashion theme fails because of its implementation

Blog / June 2, 2017 / with Stefan Melbinger
Flat hierarchies

Flat hierarchies have become a fashionable topic in today’s corporate world: Employees at all levels should be involved as comprehensively as possible in decisions – and be able to make them independently wherever possible. As attractive as the idea may sound, it has hardly become a reality to this day. The top-down principle still retains the upper hand. What advantages does one get from changing this – and how can it be done successfully?


When management gives its employees more responsibility, it supports a good working atmosphere – and meets the wishes of more and more employees. Since it is especially important for career starters to manage their own projects, the topic also plays an important role in the fight for young talent. The trend towards fewer hierarchies is underpinned by various studies that show trust and responsibility are important factors when it comes to employee satisfaction. Employees want clear tasks and goals, but at the same time they want to be free in their work and in coping with their daily challenges*.

When companies enable this, they not only benefit from a better working atmosphere but also gain another advantage: they simplify processes and can thus react faster and in a more agile manner to new challenges.

Flat hierarchies – much discussed, rarely lived

Even if there’s a lot of talk about it: Studies show that the principle of employee responsibility has so far hardly been accepted in practice, especially in large corporations. In practice, decisions are usually only made at management level. But that’s not all: Often there are strict controls to ensure that employees implement things as planned by the management. There are various reasons for these rigid processes with numerous control authorities:

  • Management doesn’t trust its employees enough to delegate responsibility
  • Executives are afraid of losing control
  • Companies don’t know how to dismantle hierarchies at all

Change needs a strategy

It will not be possible, from one day to the next, to establish flat hierarchies and distribute responsibility over more shoulders than has been the case so far. This requires a long-term change process that also changes the corporate culture – towards more openness and a new way of communication. In order to make this change possible, a well thought-out change strategy is required.

Promoting networking and exchange with a new network culture

The first step in this direction can be taken if companies enable more permeable communication and better exchange between employees, managers, and executives. Networking at eye level, and developing common ideas – such topics are facilitated by meetings in which participants of all levels participate. However, specifically employees often do not dare to present their own views in a large meeting. Therefore, the exchange on a small scale makes sense. A project with a low number of participants or a joint lunch between two colleagues who came into contact by chance can work wonders.

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Preparing middle management

A structural reorganization fundamentally changes the role of middle management. The classic manager role – which is often unpopular anyway – is largely eliminated. The aim is for managers to see themselves instead as consultants, moderators, and visionaries. Targeted preparatory measures such as training, information events and coaching help managers to grow into their new role. Discussions with employees help them to better understand their everyday challenges. More than just talking to colleagues who are already acquainted, it can help to talk to previously unknown employees from other departments – for example over lunch or coffee.

Targeted support for employees

As a rule, employees have the knowledge and competence to carry out their tasks independently. Companies should therefore offer their employees support from two sides: On the one hand, it is a matter of consistently delegating the responsibility for their area to them. This is a step-by-step process that can be prepared in Jour Fixes and accompanied by training if required.

Establishing a “culture of proposals”

The management – just like the employees – can benefit from a regular exchange of ideas that takes place within a manageable framework. This can happen, for example, during a breakfast meeting in a small group, in which a member of the management participates in addition to employees.  This gives the management team an additional opportunity to explain strategic steps. At the same time, employees can make suggestions and management can take those up. It is often the employees who have ideas for improvements – whether it is about their own work area or about other levels.

* Example: A study by Kienbaum and the Stepstone job portal, according to which 80 percent of employees want flat hierarchies with clear specifications at the same time. More information: https://www.kienbaum.com/de/news/fachkraefte-wollen-flache-hierarchien-und-klare-ansagen

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Originally published on June 2, 2017 at 10:00 AM, amended on January 22, 2024 at 5:47 PM


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