I was sitting in the reclining leather chair in my therapist’s office receiving support with some struggles I’ve been having at work. I told her that even though we tell the story that the company is a flat organization, and even though we have no official org charts, there is definitely a hierarchy and an invisible org chart.
She laughed, “You’re the third person today who has told me that their employer is supposed to have a flat hierarchy but that it’s actually hierarchical. Why do you think it’s like that in Silicon Valley?”
I’m sure that many Silicon Valley companies truly are both hierarchical in some ways and flat in others. On the one hand, anyone can usually raise an issue or drive an important initiative, which is important to be able to thrive in a rapidly evolving environment. On the other hand, the old-world idea that there needs to be a command and control structure persists. There’s an embedded belief that someone must ultimately be in control, and ultimately that’s the stakeholders (which often actually includes a lot of “low-level” employees).
Since I speak with a lot of people across Silicon Valley, I’m aware of many different perspectives. Here are some hypotheses for this apparent paradox arising in Silicon Valley companies:
- The organization embodies a combative/conflict-avoidant polarization, so the loudest voices can be heard no matter what organizational level they’re coming from.
- The CEO (or other leader) wants to feel in control. Having no official hierarchy enables her to either empower or disempower anyone rapidly. Unfortunately, as a traditionally-structured company becomes very large, it’s not possible for one person to effectively operate it without thoroughly effective, and fully empowering, delegation into a clearly defined org structure.
- Younger generations seem to be seeing through the self-deluding idea that you get control by trying to be in control. As we see with movements like Holocracy, leadership wisdom has been moving up an octave: true control comes from nurturing autonomy (i.e. letting go). To attract top talent, companies have to at least appear to be playing the game.
- Even though people are officially managers, they’re often not really managing; they’re more like…