The workplace is usually built on a sense of authority – a defined hierarchy in which authority runs downhill. Each executive was king or queen of their own little fiefdom, but owed fealty to the person above, culminating with the CEO. While that might have been business as usual, 20 years of research has shown that it might just be one of the biggest things holding teams and entire companies back from establishing real success.

Rather than a top-down hierarchy, today’s decision-makers should consider leading without authority, and attempt to establish what’s sometimes called a “flat organization”. Not sure how to lead without authority, or even why it might be necessary? In this post, we’ll discuss co-elevation, flat organizations, and more.

How to Lead without Authority: The Science of Co-Elevation

Why Is the Top-Down Model Dying Out?

The top-down management method has been with us for a long time. It’s easy to understand why, too. In some instances, it is the best way to do things.

However, when it comes to organizations with numerous teams and departments, the rigid structure and lack of empowerment holds back innovation, deprives team members of a sense of ownership, and forces people to follow arbitrary decisions from higher-ups who probably don’t know any better. The result is that the traditional business management model is slowly dying out. It’s being replaced by what many call “co-elevation”.

What’s Co-Elevation All About?

If you’ve heard of “flat” organizations, then you’ve heard co-elevation being discussed. It’s a sort of “rising tide that lifts all boats” approach to thinking but applied on a wide scale. Here’s a quick example:

Betty is the head of marketing, but she thinks she has some pretty important insights that could help make the company’s product better in the eyes of its customers and generate more revenue and build better customer satisfaction. However, because Betty is head of marketing in a top-down management system, she has no authority over the product itself, nor does she have the ability to confront the head of product development over his decisions.

The result? The product stays the same, and competitors can out-innovate Betty’s company, causing it to lose market share, profit, and traction in the industry. This results from top-down, hierarchical thinking where every chief owns their sector but lacks the permission to challenge others.

Now, let’s look at how that same situation might play out in a business where co-elevation is the rule.

Betty is still the head of marketing. She has excellent ideas for the company’s product and sees how they could make it better and more efficient while cutting costs and boosting profitability. Roger is the head of product development, and he doesn’t have Betty’s insights. In fact, he thinks things are going just fine right now because nothing’s going wrong.

Because of the co-elevation principle at play, Betty is able to challenge Roger’s thinking, even though they’re in completely different departments. She brings her ideas and information to the table. The company’s executives discuss the merits because each department head and exec are committed to crossing the finish line together, rather than just owning their small piece of the pie.

The result here? Innovation. Experimentation. Growth. Success. Because Betty was able to challenge Roger and the C-suite was dedicated to mutual growth and success, needed changes occurred, the product evolved to better suit consumer needs, and Betty’s company was the one that was able to outcompete others.

Breaking the Hierarchical Mindset

One of the single most challenging parts of establishing a co-elevation-focused business is breaking the hierarchical mindset. One reason that can be so hard is that those in authority are loath to give it up.

“How will I make people do what I want?” they ask. “How will I get people to listen to me or follow my leadership?”

Without the whip of authority, how does a leader lead?

Sadly, this model is nothing more than “do what I say because if you don’t, you’ll be fired.” It’s an authoritarian goad used to browbeat employees into unquestioning obedience. They have to do what leaders say because doing otherwise is professional suicide.

To break that mindset, the executives must realize that leading peer-to-peer is the best way forward, particularly as the workforce mix continues to change. Baby Boomers were fine with hierarchical leadership – it’s what they knew. However, they’re increasingly leaving the workforce. Gen X can take the hierarchy or leave it, but Millennials and Gen Z (the two fastest-growing parts of today’s workforce) actively hate it.

So, how do you achieve a change of this scale within your organization? Is it all about buy-in? That’s the wrong thinking.

Buy-in is convincing someone to come to play on your team. It’s about getting them aboard with your idea. It still ties into hierarchical ownership models.

Instead, you must level the playing field and invite everyone to become a part of their team. The team belongs to everyone – think of it like an employee-owned business. Everyone has a stake (and a say), and together everyone succeeds.

Is it challenging? Yes, it is. It will require changing minds, which is one of the most difficult things to do.

It may also require a change of leadership if people cannot adapt to the new normal. However, the rewards are simply too great. In fact, that change might be what enables the business to innovate, grow, and move forward into the future, while competitors crumble due to internal challenges.

Change Begins Small

Creating a flat organization and leading without authority aren’t things that can happen overnight in most businesses. Change must start small. Begin with your teams, and transform them so that everyone has an equal voice, and you’re able to surface ideas, insights, and innovation.

Everything will follow from that point. When you focus on the power of inclusion, amazing things can happen.

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