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Putting humans before hierarchy at work

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red sand

Before we get into generalizing, let’s just acknowledge that workplace cultures are as special and different as snowflakes.

But there is one thing that permeates, especially as organizations grow beyond two or three people.


Which mostly makes sense. There comes a time when someone needs to direct traffic; hold the final decision; be ultimately accountable.

But hierarchies can have a dark side. When these power structures start to supersede the humans in them, aggrandizing some and disempowering others, results and people can suffer.

Often, hierarchies serve to dampen the human talent inside of them. One of the main reasons my clients seek to transition is that the hierarchies they’re a part of either demand way too much from them, or fail to see or offer room for what they have to give.

Questioning roles and value

I am curious about hierarchy. And power. I have thought about it a lot since becoming a parent – mother specifically – and grappling (ad nauseum, for my friends I’m sure) with the aftermath when two high functioning professional people need to reckon with traditional parenting roles. Long story short, I have come to a whole new set of viewpoints on power dynamics between co-parents of all kinds.

If I’m being honest, a combination of influences had led me to see traditional family roles as consisting of tyrant and prisoner – pretty unfortunate, right? I see it differently now. Now I see the highest functioning families operating like this: acknowledge the jobs that need to be done, and split them up according to strengths and interests.

It’s a collaboration. It puts people to work where they are best utilized and satisfied.

Which is a lot like how high functioning workplaces operate. Of course, different roles have different levels of responsibility, require different levels of experience or technical expertise, and pay differently. I’m not suggesting every role should be paid the same. Far from it (my compensation colleagues would disown me).

But all roles have value. And over-investing in the notion of the hierarchy can result in lopsided, irrational and destructive power dynamics. For the more senior folks, this can show up as working constantly and micro-managing everything in order to “earn” your title and salary, leading to burnout and errors. For the more junior folks, it leads to missed opportunities to actually contribute, build skills and build confidence.

Hierarchy versus ecosystem

So you work in a hierarchy. Most people do. Here’s how to subvert the power dynamics, just a little. Wherever you sit in the hierarchy, practice acting more like an ecosystem. Look around you and consider these reframes.

When you look “down” in the hierarchy: remind yourself that your team members are people too. That the great majority are in fact fully functioning adults. That they may have great ideas you are not tapping into you because you are not asking. That what you see as disengagement may in fact be boredom, disenchantment, or a human having a tough season. That by inviting them into higher level conversations, you could unleash increased motivation, commitment, ideas, confidence, potential and impact.

When you look “up” in the hierarchy: remind yourself that your leaders are people too. That the great majority are in fact regular people. That they may crave input, but are not sure how to get it. That what you see as arrogance may in fact be stress, fear, or a human with poor communication skills. That by leveraging the channels that exist to weigh in, and chipping away at new channels, you could unleash increased trust, collaboration, vulnerability, mentorship and learning.

When you look “sideways” in the hierarchy: remind yourself that your peers are people too. That the great majority are in fact a lot like you. That they may crave support, but are not sure how to get it. That what you see as competitiveness may in fact be an overcompensation for low confidence, or a lot of energy, or just the way they work. That by opening up a space to connect, you could unleash camaraderie, partnership, development, and career opportunities.

When we play with this idea of ecosystems over hierarchies, we acknowledge the value of each role, and we limit the toxicity that can arise when people are put above and below one another (even if, for practical purposes, it makes sense to do so).

To sum it up, working in an ecosystem looks like: All roles have value; respect flows in every direction; fewer pedestals; more voices.

I would love to know how this resonates. Comment below or DM me over here .

I’m cheering you on.

Want to learn about coaching? Here’s a link to get on my calendar for a free intro session.

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