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Essential Leadership Lessons From Flat Organizations

Essential Leadership Lessons From Flat Organizations

"Flat" organizations offer lessons about inclusive, effective leadership

Some of the organizations with the best leaders are working hard to reimagine "leadership." 

In fact, you could say they are dismantling “leadership” as we’ve known it.

Sounds like a paradox. But our research suggests that there are lessons to be learned from organizations that have built more egalitarian work environments, demonstrated through the mindsets and practices of their leaders. 

We refer to these companies as "flat." Some organizations are experimenting with less-hierarchical structures, such as Holacracy, but the success of the flatter companies we studied is not dependent on a particular organization chart or structure. 

Instead, the behaviors and beliefs of leaders—especially senior executives—create an egalitarian environment. 

We studied 20 organizations with the highest scores on two statements from our employee survey, the Trust Index®, that speaks to a culture of egalitarianism. The statements address whether people feel treated as a full member, regardless of their position, and whether they feel involved in decisions that affect their jobs or work environment. 

In other words, these organizations are the strongest—in a set of more than 300 large companies studied—when it comes to sharing power and building meaningful connections across managerial levels. 

These same organizations with less-hierarchical workplaces also had some of the largest percentages of what we call "For All™ leaders." 

As documented in our book, A Great Place to Work For All, For All leaders create a great workplace experience for virtually every employee regardless of tenure, seniority, racial background, or any other characteristic. These leaders also fuel better performance in productivity, agility, and retention than less-inclusive managers.. 

Of the 20 companies with the highest percentage of For All leaders, 17 ranked in the top 20 on one or both of the statements mentioned above - statements that point to a flatter, more democratic culture. 

Do For All leaders build less-hierarchical workplaces? Or might an egalitarian corporate ethos foster For All leaders? We haven't yet sorted out this chicken-or-egg question but what seems certain is that the two reinforce each other. 

 Our previous research has shown that For All leaders nurture genuine human connections, develop their teams continually, and enable employees to bring their unique selves to work.  

They also tend to challenge their assumptions by seeking to understand multiple viewpoints (which improves innovation by generating diverse ideas). 

These sorts of leaders cultivate an environment where employees—no matter their role in the organization—feel equally valuable and experience a measure of power in their jobs.

Similarly, organizations that consciously opt for self-managed teams, distributed decision-making and workplace equality tend to generate certain leadership traits. Rather than producing command-and-control executives giving orders from above, democratic cultures tend to give rise to curious coaches standing alongside employees. 

That is, flat cultures are likely to foster For All leadership.

So what does flatness look like in practice? Especially in a large, complex organization? 

Well, it can take the shape of the CEO carrying around a plunger. 

That's what Hilton CEO Chris Nassetta has done to demonstrate that his hotel chain respects and involves employees at every level. Nassetta rose to the top of one of the world's largest hospitality companies without forgetting his humble roots in the industry. 

He got his start as a maintenance staffer at a Holiday Inn, where he did the dirty work of unclogging guest room toilets. 

As CEO of Hilton, he launched an "immersion" program requiring Hilton execs to spend a week working in roles like housekeeper, dishwasher and bellhop. Nassetta himself took a turn as a maintenance team member in the Capital Hilton in Washington, D.C. 

Not only do Hilton executives walk in the shoes of frontline staffers, but the company ensures that frontline staffers enjoy the kind of first-class hospitality business executives are used to. 

In recent years, Hilton has upgraded staff break rooms, locker rooms, and team member restaurants—to the point that these are as classy and posh as facilities experienced by Hilton guests. 

Photo: A staff cafe at a Hilton property in Beijing, China—the Waldorf Astoria Beijing.

Hilton also encourages and expects employees at every level to have a say at work. The company's "Make It Right" mantra means team members of every job title ought to start fixing problems they see, as soon as they see them. 

Along these lines, Hilton has introduced a smart-phone app that enables housekeepers to snap photos of flaws like peeling wallpaper and carpet stains and zap these reports to hotel managers quickly. 

On the strength of its staff empowerment and its efforts to minimize distinctions between employees of different levels, Hilton has made great strides in equalizing how employees feel about work.

And based on a consistently positive employee experience, Hilton took the #1 spot on the list of the 2019 Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For®.

Hilton also ranked as a 2019 Best Workplace for Diversity. This isn’t surprising given the way For All leaders like Chris Nassetta not only cultivate egalitarian environments but tend to foster diverse, inclusive cultures.

Flatness looks different in different organizations and industries. In a follow-up blog, we'll share more about what employees experience at a range of less-hierarchical organizations. 

The common thread is that an egalitarian approach represents a compelling challenge to the top-down style that has dominated management for so many years.

So, if you want to level up leadership in your organization, consider following the leaders at the flattest companies.

Join them in redefining "leadership" as we've known it. 

Lorena Martinez is Emprising Implementation Consultant, Nancy Ceseña is Data Scientist and Ed Frauenheim is Senior Director of Content at Great Place to Work.

To learn more about Hilton’s leadership, join us at the 2020 Great Place to Work for all Summit and see Chris Nassetta speak on the main stage. Register today.