What if business teams just removed hierarchy?

I had the option of embedding a Steve Jobs video at the top of this post. But — little bit about me now here — I absolutely hate people who quote Steve Jobs in meetings. I’ve probably done it, and I’ve heard lots of other people do it, and most of the time, it’s actually fine. Hate is probably a very strong word. I really only hate Nazis and bigots. But it’s just that oftentimes, when people quote Jobs or Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates or even Henry Ford in a meeting, they’re quoting them completely out of context, because they don’t make software / phones / websites / cars. Steve Jobs was great at what he did — as Obama said when he died, most people found out about his passing on a device he helped to create — but what he did isn’t necessarily a model that can be applied to every single industry or marketing decision. It’s just not.

OK, that rant is over.

I embedded this other video because there’s about 90 million different ideas on how to make teams more functional — teams are the backbone of everything we do with work, even though we don’t really do the work as a team — so really, I could have put anything. I think about teams all the time. Here are a few things I always find funny:


  • No matter what manager you talk to, almost all will say that X-or-Y person on their team is so great: And yet, people do get fired, deadlines do get missed, and teams often have no idea what their priorities are. Not everyone is good at their job. That’s just a fact of life. There’s a Bell Curve at work. If everyone was so good, we wouldn’t have the problems we do with work. It’s really that simple. So, a lot of managers are lying, or seeing things through rose-colored glasses.
  • For the amount of work we do in teams, no one really seems to have a good handle on how to make a team effective. You see this with setting goals and communicating — and hell, even with work itself — so it’s not that surprising that no one is thinking broadly about the topic. But for how many meetings and team events there are — and for the pride you’re supposed to have in your team — you think there would be a stronger consensus on what makes a team effective. Obviously people are different and orgs are different, so maybe consensus isn’t the goal — but still, it does seem like everyone has different ideas, and the ideas often don’t reflect what their team would actually need to succeed. That could just be me, though.

So here’s an interesting quote/research/set-up on teams and effectiveness:

  • In the weakest teams, there is no accountability

  • In mediocre teams, bosses are the source of accountability

  • In high performance teams, peers manage the vast majority of performance problems with one another


So think about that for a second — I know transparency is a huge buzzword, but what if you told a team “This is a group of total transparency. The guy making 35K can call out the woman making 120K, and vice versa. Hierarchy doesn’t exist here.”

I’d say most teams use the boss — highest-ranked — as the source of accountability, right? Well, according to this data, those teams are subsequently mediocre. But if you let people manage each other — which, of course, can get dicey with politics and whatnot — that team becomes high-performing.

Point being: you should probably eliminate hierarchy in your org as a whole, especially with the millennials coming up. That’s a different, broader topic. But in the meantime, enable your teams to work without hierarchy. Let people call out their superiors on issues, agendas, and focus. That’s not the most awful thing in the world, and it might actually make the team achieve more than you thought possible.

Ted Bauer


  1. Interesting points made here – I really like what you’re saying about the importance of accountability being distributed through out the team. When everyone feels empowered to voice their concerns and issues with how a project is being managed, it changes the dynamics, so that everyone actually cares about the end product. If managers and team leads take away authority, then no one cares about the final product. But, I would suggest that a loose hierarchy, when well considered to the organization, can be very valuable. My main reason behind thinking that is because at some point, someone needs to take over-arching responsibility to functional performance (schedule, quality and profitability), and someone also needs to be responsible to ensure employees are developed and treated with respect. These types of roles often are support roles that are earned from proven experience with these area of interest, so that those on the team who have a concern have someone outside of the project to speak with to understand how they can take ownership- I’m realizing that my wording feels a bit vague, but I see it as the difference between a manager holding tightly to their responsibility, and holding loosely – if they hold loosely, others have the ability to hold on too, but if they grasp tightly they are going to be unwilling to share that responsibility. This is typically a result of fear of bad performance reviews (of the manager) and a lack of trust with the team. I wonder how our work world could change if those two things were acknowledge and addressed in a meaningful way – how to build real trust with everyone on your team, and then how to have managers be responsible without having the fear of failure being heaped onto them.

Comments are closed.