Career Progression in a Flat Organization

Furthering Careers Without Promotions

Career Progression in a Flat Organization - Furthering Careers Without Promotions

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How to get ahead when the working environment is "flat".

Imagine this scenario: You work for an organization that you really love. Your team is great, the work is enjoyable, and the pay is pretty good. There should be nothing to complain about, right?

Well, there's one problem. Your company is a "flat" organization, which means that it has a horizontal structure. Promotion opportunities are rare – because there are very, very few openings at the next level up, and there are many colleagues at your level who would compete for those few openings.

Flat organizations often benefit from a small bureaucracy. For example, decisions and response times are usually much quicker. But how can you stay motivated when you know that, most likely, you'll still be in your current position years from now? And if you manage a team in a flat organization, how can you help team members develop their careers without the promise of promotion?

In this article, we'll look at what flat organizations are, and how you can keep yourself – and your team – motivated and excited about work.

Flat Organizations

Flat organizations have very few management layers in the company hierarchy. So instead of allowing workers to "climb the corporate ladder" and move up to higher-level positions, flat organizations tend to give more power to workers in their current positions.

There are two main types of flat organizations:

  • Organizations that are flat by choice – These could be larger companies that want to be able to respond quickly to change, want to keep their payroll costs low, or have a large staff doing essentially the same kind of work (like a call center).
  • Small businesses – In a small business, the owner is often the chief executive. But because the organization is small, he or she usually has time to oversee the other functions of the business, each of which often includes only a few individuals. There isn't a need for layers of hierarchy when the chief executive's span of control is reasonable.

Developing Careers in a Flat Organization

If you're a manager in a flat organization, you most likely know that it can be challenging. After all, you probably can't offer a job promotion to anyone. So, how do you keep staff excited and motivated?

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Here are some suggestions:

  • Rotate some tasks to everyone on your team – If you give people the chance to do different tasks within the same team, it allows them to not only add new skills, but also to have new responsibilities to enrich their jobs and keep them interested in what they're doing. And you'll be in a better position if someone leaves or takes time off.
  • Move team members horizontally – Allow workers to move to a completely different department or team to try something new. This can keep morale high and help generate new ideas. If appropriate, increase pay and benefits to reward for increased responsibilities.
  • Give your team the power to make decisions – Yes, you're the boss, but allow staff to take their own risks, where appropriate. You never know – they might do something great!
  • Let your team create new roles – Allow workers the freedom and creativity to design their own roles, if any new roles are needed. This might lead to much more productive results than if you defined their jobs for them.
  • Help your team gain additional qualifications – If there's an appropriate class, weekend workshop, or skills training conference, try to have team members attend.
  • Offer tuition reimbursement – Education benefits everyone. Your team stays stimulated, and your company gains additional knowledge and skill sets that can keep you ahead of your competition.
  • Upgrade job titles to reflect expanded roles and skills – For instance, an accountant could become a senior accountant.
  • Give your team goals, not projects – Let your team decide how to design a project to reach their objectives. Again, this freedom will likely empower them, and you also might get some really creative results.
  • Consider the types of goals you set – Giving your team a goal that will really help someone is often far more motivating than simply setting a "profit goal." For example, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently changed to a flatter management structure. In the past, OSHA inspectors were judged based on how many fines or penalties they gave companies. But with the new flat system, the focus is now on reducing injury, illness, and death. This change has motivated staff and greatly increased productivity.

More Tips

Here are a few more ideas for managing in a flat organization:

  • Find out what motivates your team – Upward career mobility is a huge motivator for many people. But if that doesn't exist, you have to really focus on other areas to make sure your team is happy and excited about what they're doing. Learn more about what might truly motivate your staff in our article on Herzberg's Motivators and Hygiene Factors.
  • Hire people who are comfortable working in a flat organization – Google, one of the biggest flat organizations in the world, follows this guideline. People who are very concerned with job titles and upward mobility will probably be unhappy in a flat organization after a while, and this doesn't help anyone. So, ask new hires about their long-term career goals, and carefully analyze candidates' past work history.
  • Offer "soft" benefits – You can't give team members promotions, but can you give them flexible work hours, telecommuting options, or children's day care services? Can you do anything to help them achieve a better work-life balance? These little things might not seem like much, but they can go a long way toward ensuring that your workers are happy with their jobs.

Key Points

Career growth in a flat organization can be challenging, and it definitely takes creativity to maximize your team's productivity. Focus on giving workers more, and varied, responsibilities as well as more opportunities to make their own decisions. Be willing to let them define their roles, perform new tasks, or even change departments to keep things fresh and interesting for them.

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Comments (3)
  • Over a month ago James wrote
    Hi Colin

    Beyond the general strategies we talk about in the article, I think it's a matter of managers understanding team members personal goals (not necessarily career goals) in detail, and doing what they can, creatively, to help their team members achieve these.

    For example, if people want to spend more time with families and individuals are self-motivated, it may work for people to work from home one or two days a week. (I find that just being around occasionally for just a few minutes at coming-home-from-school-time makes a huge difference to my quality of life!)

    If they want to travel, perhaps some form of (unpaid) sabbatical can be agreed. If people have other goals, then perhaps they can be accommodated in some way.

    How far they can do that depends on the organization and the individual. It also depends on other employees response ("It's not fair!") - but that, in my view, can unnecessarily constrain managers' creativity - if these things are done for the very best performers, measured objectively, then it can motivate other staff members to reach these levels of performance.

    But we also have to realize that there's only so far that people and organizations can go to keep someone happy. There's a point at which individuals have to take a measured, objective view of where they are, and decide for themselves what the best way forward is - either to accept the situation as is and be satisfied, or look elsewhere.

    Hope this helps!

  • Over a month ago ladyb wrote
    Hi Colin,
    What we try to do is based on job enrichment and personal motivators. I will sit down with the person and have an honest discussion and get the issue on the table so to speak. It's not actually happened that often for us since we're not really flat, but certainly getting flatter as the economic environment changes. For one person what he wanted was to develop project management skills so we put him in charge of a small project and watched him flourish. He's since evolved his position and is involved as a PM on a regular basis. As well, a person in our admin department had reached the top of her grid with no where to go and no good outlooks for a promo since the next step up was taken by a long-term employee with no intentions of leaving until retirement. What we did here was sit down and create a long term career plan then we started chipping away at the requirements she'd need to accomplish her goal. She spent some time in finance learning more about accounting - and this ended up being a great cross-training opportunity for us as the person she worked with also learned how to do her job as well. Right now she's not making more money and has the same title but her responsibilities are much more varied and this has put her in a position to look at different opportunities in our organization.

    We've always moved away from "money as a motivator" since it creates the exact de-motivating situation you are talking about. We try really hard to address the other motivating factors at work and so far it's worked quite well. Not perfectly obviously since some people are very much motivated by money and not much else. Those people don't find a good fit with us and so they tend to leave on their accord. I guess that points to the importance of explaining the culture and salary/promotional expectations upfront in the recruiting process. If you don't over-promise then people know what to expect and that helps everyone in the long run.

  • Over a month ago colinscowen wrote
    Those are all very nice ways of keeping the dpt happy, people engaged. But, what happens when those who are outperforming the role start to reach the top of the band they are in? How often would a company reassess their band structure? What mechanisms would you use to try to offer additional space to perform well?

    In a flat organisation, with a capped salary structure, your out-performers are going to reach a point where, no matter how they perform, they will only get the agreed band increase, that is set by the company, based on the business as a whole, not their dept, or themselves in particular. I personally would see this as a big de-motivator. (BTW, this is situational, based on my current situation (2 young kids, settled family life etc), and I am sure that others in different situations may or may not be more or less demotivated. Increased travel may seem like a bonus to some, but it doesn't work for me at the moment.)

    So, HR folks, what do you do when folks in your various organisational areas reach teh top of the band?