December 6, 2017: Horizontal Organizations

2016-2017 Issue 1

What kind of management style do you prefer? Do you value decisiveness, firmness, and courage in assuming responsibility? Do clear instructions, well-defined responsibilities, a chain of authority, and reporting schedules reassure you in the boss’s ‘competence’ and the metrics you can apply to your own performance? If so, then as in the scenario in our last article, an organization with a vertical, multi-layered accountability structure is where you will likely thrive.

Now what would the opposite look like? Imagine this:

Scenario B: Horizontal Structures

“’Morning, Guys!” says the new team lead, wearing a widespread smile and worn-out jeans, as he walks over to each of you to shake your hand. “How’s it going? My name is Mike and I am very excited to embark on this adventure with all of you. I propose that we take some time this morning to get to know each other, maybe head over for a coffee together, and learn about your priorities and any recurring concerns. What do you say?”

For the rest of the morning, informal exchanges on everything from your project roles to your hobbies occupy center-stage, with everyone encouraged to engage equally and without protocol. The next few months echo those first introductions, as Mike positions himself as one of the ‘team,’ aspiring to transparency at all times and to fostering a culture of high-morale engagement and teamwork. Decisions are made through democratic consultations and frequent informal check-ins, where the leader is actually more of a facilitator than a director.

Does this kind of environment excite you? Do you need to see a flat, rather informal approach, and multilateral discussions to feel respected and engaged? If you felt suffocated, and borderline insulted, by the manager’s ‘paternalism’ in our first example of a top-down organization, then the more consultative, horizontal organization is more likely to feel like home.

But Maia, I hear you saying, the ideal is somewhere in the middle! Fair, but if you had to prioritize either employee buy-in and project nimbleness or a methodical, confident leader with a clear long-term vision, towards which one would you lean?

How power is delegated, what is considered the norm in management structures, what you associate with ‘competent leadership’ – all these assumptions and practices are quite different from one organization to the other. And if either of these scenarios got your blood boiling, make it a priority to find out about the hierarchical expectations in decision-making processes before you accept the new job.

Just remember to phrase it in impartial language, like asking if they have vertical or horizontal management structures. Such neutral formulations allow you to gain real insights without provoking either defensiveness or the ‘right answer’ based on what you seem to want to hear. Just like the organization’s emphasis on teamwork vs. individual accountability, the company’s hierarchical norms may be a key factor in genuinely assessing your long-term fit.

Until next time!

Connect with Maia and McGill’s School of Continuing Studies on LinkedIn.

This article was originally published in French in 24heures Montreal.

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