Career Progression in a Flat Organization
Furthering Careers Without Promotions
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 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?
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.
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.
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.