June 17, 2024

‘There was a real sense of chaos’: Is it time to embrace the corporate ladder?

About four years ago, managers at the London-based consulting firm where Dani works decided to shake up the company’s traditional hierarchy. The goal was to simplify the corporate structure and make the office less bureaucratic – reducing the rush-to-the-top competitiveness that encourages employees to relentlessly chase the next promotion and title.

Dani says the managers thought it would improve the company culture. He achieved the opposite.

“They completely abandoned the seniority ratings and titles of our consultants and just kept some broad bands to indicate how advanced someone was in their career,” explains Dani, now 39.

She remembers being a “dream” employee with the changes. “Some of them felt like they were unemployed,” she says. “Instead of creating a less competitive environment, it created a bigger competitive environment, because people were desperate to prove their worth.” Many of her colleagues – especially younger employees who did not see a clear path to seniority – quit.

Other colleagues, Dani says, lost motivation to do their jobs well because they couldn’t see how they would be rewarded in a meaningful way. “Many seemed to be saying, ‘if I don’t see my progress reflected in an obvious job title, what’s the point of even trying?'”

For most workers, the default corporate structure has always been hierarchical – like a pyramid with a broad base made up of the bulk of the workforce, which gradually rises to a narrow apex of top managers and C-suite executives.

Over the past few years, however, some organizations have experimented with smoother arrangements – fewer levels of seniority, and therefore fewer reporting lines from the most junior to the most senior employee. These approaches are based on a less rigid hierarchy, with elements of self-management and autonomous departments and teams.

In some cases, employees have pushed hard for these changes, hoping for more responsibility in a smoother organization, independence and control on how they structure their working days and their careers more broadly. The pandemic had no effect on these efforts, as workers they challenged traditional workplace norms, small and large. Many employees were also keen to explore way of working which departs from the command-and-control setup that many feel is outdated and leaves workers feeling stressed and disengaged.

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