Culture in a flat organization

Organisational culture is a well-researched topic in the field of organisational behaviour and it has been an increasingly growing emphasis on attracting and retaining talents – especially when the company relies heavily on fresh talents to sustain. Typically, there are a number of factors that contribute to company culture and the list usually includes company vision, values, norms, systems, symbols, languages, assumptions beliefs, habits and so on.

Admittedly, not every business is blessed to be able to define a culture right at the start. Many times, the company’s culture ended up being crafted by people at the middle management and make predominant by the people at the executive level. This resulted in a culture that may be toxic with varying experiences across departments set out by the middle management. Over time, the situation is made worse when the self-defined culture become the de facto culture without senior management’s intervention.

However, in a flat organization with no properly laid out structure or hierarchy, it is even more important to enforce the desired culture before it all goes haywire. For example, in a semi hierarchical company, the responsibility almost lies on the middle management if culture is not defined, heavily enforced or influenced by the top management. But for a flat organization with employees working in an open desk with plenty of freedom, it is more likely to see a clash in culture. Naturally the struggle for cultural dominance in a certain business function or department will cause uneasiness amongst the employees.

To set the record straight and to highlight the importance of workplace culture, I strong believe that the following must be written and exhibited by everyone in the company:

Understanding the purpose
Although this can be deceptively simple, it is not enough to simply know the purpose of the company but also understand and prescribe into the purpose of the company. On top of this, it must also be displayed by everyone within the company and align from time to time. Employees should also be empowered to question management’s decision if it does not conform to the purpose of the company – giving them authority to point out any misalignment.

An environment of trust
This can be contradicting when it comes to hiring. For example, management can hire people who are trustworthy but later micro-manage them and roll their eyes whenever they step out to take personal calls. Similarly, I once heard someone defined culture as the amount of scolding you get when you do something wrong. In my opinion, there’s some form of truth to this especially when your direct supervisor do not trust that you are making the right decision even when it means trying out new ideas or experimenting when innovative methods. Similarly, I have also observed that trust is the single most important element in a flat organization since employees usually enjoy more freedom than in a hierarchical structure and would have to account for their own output and contribution as shown in the Netflix culture report. The report highlighted the term “highly aligned, loosely coupled” and emphasised that trust between groups on tactics without previewing or approving each one is the element for groups to move fast and constantly innovate.

Model the behaviour you seek
Nothing says more than showing and doing it in action. If a corporation seeks to shape a culture they sought for, it is best to have the top management demonstrate what is acceptable and at the same time point out the limits and boundaries. For example, if an organization wants to cultivate work-life balance, top management must be able to knock off on time and have policies in place to encourage that behaviour. I personally have seen companies that would turn off their air-conditioning after 7pm to discourage employees from staying in the office. This kind of policy is a good example of soft nudges that can serve as a reminder to comply with the culture code.

Other than the top down approach mentioned above, a way to sustain the culture is to hire the correct people. For example, Zappos, a ecommerce company selling shoes, pride themselves as the happiest company to work for and embrace a flat organization structure where the founder sits at an open desk with the other workers. To ensure that the company attracts the right kind of people, the founder (Tony Hsieh) inserted a question to ask candidates to rank themselves on how weird they are and only hire those who rate themselves more than 7 on a scale of 1 to 10. Other than strategically asking questions to determine if the candidates would fit well, Tony also set out a policy to pay employees to quit if they didn’t think they suit the company. All these initiatives are in place to sieve out those who attempt to join the company for the wrong reason and only retain those who truly embrace and manifest the company’s culture.

Lastly, not all cultures are created equally. Although there is definitely no one-size-fit-all template to follow, the above pointers should serve as a guideline for everyone to ponder upon the next time they feel uneasy in a certain situation. That said, I think the best culture should never be forced upon but inspired in every individual within the organisation.

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