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  • Writer's pictureAnya

Unlearning hierarchy

At CIA, we are asking the question, ‘what happens when you remove organisational hierarchy?’ How do things work and how does it look? What we're finding that this sort of change brings huge benefits but is definitely not simple. We are constantly surprised by the ways in which all our unconscious experiences of hierarchy continue to reassert themselves. This blog is an attempt to start sharing some of our ideas with the world outside of CIA because it is important to do things because they are good, not because that is how it has always been done.

I’m not going to go into too much detail about the problems of hierarchy here. Most of us have experienced, when starting a new job, being given a diagram of hierarchy within the organisation: who reports to who, who's top dog, and whose opinion doesn't really matter. Organisational hierarchy is so ingrained that most people I speak to can't imagine anything else. Why mess with it if it works? Yet, these embedded structures can be problematic, pointless and sometimes even damaging.

A pyramid stack of brightly coloured plastic cups. At the top sits one cup.

So, how can it be different?

One of the first questions I am asked when I say that we don't have a hierarchy at CIA is, 'So, you don't have a line manager?' Quite simply, no. The closest description I have for what we do is peer management. But that’s still inadequate, because we don't manage each other. We support each other in our work, we reflect together, and when we can, we work directly together on different bits and bobs. Each person takes on the responsibilities they feel able to, be that company finances and fundraising, or relationship building. Of course, it's not always plain sailing. We've noticed that it is still too easy to go to the person who's been here the longest when there is an issue. But we're acknowledging that and working hard to build confidence in ourselves and each other to tackle these issues.

The next question I usually hear when people discover we have a flat structure is, 'doesn't that make it hard to make decisions and get things done?'. Whilst some decisions inevitably take longer, because there are more viewpoints to hear and ideas to explore, generally decision-making is made more straightforward. We are each fairly autonomous, so decisions about our individual workloads are made by the individual. A lot of company decisions are also simpler and faster-made because we don't have a lengthy process of justifying ideas or proposals to a CEO or board that is far removed from the work. With each of us being so close to it all, it means we can rapidly build a shared understanding (if it isn't there already) to inform our decision-making. The decisions that do take longer, and that are more difficult and complex, are those around the things that affect each staff member differently, like pay increases. These are naturally more complex because we have more voices at that table with conflicting needs and wants. It would be dishonest for us to pretend things had never gotten messy, or people had never gotten hurt. But in my experience, collective decision-making allows us to craft policies and practices that we all believe in and are passionate about. And the hurt that people have experienced from time to time is visible because those people are part of the conversation. It's not a hurt that is done to a person by a line manager or executive board, which they cannot argue against. This means we are able to resolve issues more easily.

A note on pay is important here because salaries are so tied up in our experience of hierarchy. There was a time when CIA believed it could separate the two merely by stating that they were different and relying on the collective decision-making structure in place. But every microcosm exists within the macro. And each individual has a lifetime of experience of pay structures and salaries being a measure of your worth. We are currently re-evaluating how and why we remunerate people within the company, and this has definitely been one of those long and messy decision-making processes. But that is a whole other blog post!

Some of you may have noticed that we have different job titles within the company. To this I hear your chorus, 'if there is no hierarchy then why have directors and associates?' This, my friends, is an excellent question and one which we are currently asking ourselves the validity of. The title of director is offered to staff after a year in post, to ensure everyone can make sure working at CIA is a good fit. But it is a non-executive title, where a person assumes legal responsibility for the company (as per Companies House requirements for CICs to have directors). In theory, when a person moves from associate to director, nothing changes except that they can sign off accounts at the end of the year. Recently, however, as people have been moving from one job title to the other, we have had to acknowledge that it does mean something - once again the micro cannot be independent from the macro. So, we're exploring other options and other titles to see if we can remove that discomfort and unintended distinction.

We’re clearly in favour of removing unnecessary hierarchies and experimenting with change. But we also know that it couldn’t look the same everywhere. So, here are a few thoughts and observations from this process that will help anyone looking to give it a go:

1. Figuring this out is messy and hard. Expecting that, rather than hoping for quick wins, is more likely to help people engage in the process. You need to prepare for difficult conversations to make this work.

2. Don't make assumptions - you need to make the implicit explicit. This is something we've been caught out with a few times at CIA. Being explicit about why you are doing or intend to do something exposes hidden hierarchies and means everyone is aware of what is going on. This is especially important when trying to challenge the impact of privilege (particularly that of the white male) on decision-making. Also, make sure hefty terms you might be discussing like ‘hierarchy’ or ‘equality’ are defined together so you're all on the same page.

3. Empathy and perspective are key. It’s so important that people are respected, heard and treated as human beings through these decision-making purposes. Empathy is essential for seeing things from the perspectives of others and aiding the process. It doesn’t automatically lead to shared decisions, but it definitely helps to maintain strong connections between each other during difficult conversations.

4. Take the time and commit to each other. Messy takes time. Don't rush things, because not everyone processes information in the same way as another. Also, be prepared to have some of the conversations again if a new member of staff joins the team.

Does any of this resonate with your experience of reimagining working structures? We'd love to hear from people who are already or are considering experimenting with removing hierarchies. Get in touch via

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