When did the big boss in the big office with the big cigar at the top of the corporate organisational pyramid start to go out of style?
One answer is: probably since the rise of the internet and the early 2000s.
The online world made easy access to information a new source of empowerment for the global workforce and… given that this was also the time that the Millennials (also called ‘Gen Y’ – born roughly between 1981-95) were hitting the job market… it signalled a slow erosion of the traditional, top-down vertical, command and control organisational structures.
Of course, in large-scale, legacy businesses, pyramidal structures are still in use and will take time to evolve into a more decentralised form.
But with the numbers of Millennials now having surpassed those of the Boomers (1946-64) and Gen X (1965-80), it’s clear that this younger generation’s preference for horizontal structures should be taken seriously.
What are the reasons for such a preference? Several, as it turns out.
Gen Y is by now famous for:
- their collaborative, teamwork-loving ways,
- their lack of familiarity (and reluctance to accept) traditional rank and age-based authority (their parents and teachers were their friends and mentors),
- their desire to have personal impact in implementing a company’s mission and
- their need for individual self-development and feedback throughout their time with an organisation
These characteristics make them feel far more at home working for organisations that have flatter organisational structures. Which is why start-ups have been so appealing to the entrepreneurial, innovation-driven Millennials. And, given their limited size, the flat organisational structure, with everyone taking multiple roles, is a natural fit for a start-up.
For larger, established companies, with more traditional work cultures that are based on a silo approach, horizontal structures can be seen as disruptive and unappealing, raising the threat of a lack of clarity, loss of control and role confusion across their personnel.
Yet one of the reasons organisations have such a problem retaining Millennials is their vertical organisational structures leave little room for Gen Y’s need for:
- collaborations that are unlimited by seniority and rank divides,
- opportunities for personal growth and development, and
- to have a wider impact and say on the company’s performance
In contrast to older generations in the workforce, accustomed to ‘paying their dues’ and ‘working their way up the ladder’… Millennials are much more comfortable thinking of work as a ‘lattice’ of opportunities in every direction to contribute and perform.
To them, it only makes sense – after all, flatter structures allow for quick and more democratic decision-making, as well as greater employee ‘ownership’ of the company’s mission. And as the traditional workplace continues to be disrupted, trends point to such decentralised and more mobile organisational structures becoming the norm.
This may be uncomfortable and threatening to consider for more traditionally-organised organisations and their leaderships.
But with Millennials’ prime work years still ahead of them, it can only be a good thing that their native preferences will help evolve companies to flatter, more adaptable structures, able to survive and thrive in the fast-moving era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
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