We're constantly being told that hierarchies are bad and we must flatten companies to make them more effective. But don't companies need some layers in order to organize for success?
—David Gionet, Toronto
Don’t take another step—you’re right at the edge of the old “Come on, one more layer won’t hurt us!” slippery slope that has tripped up more managers, and companies than perhaps any other natural disaster. OK, maybe “natural disaster” is an awfully strong term to use here, but the organizational compulsion to insert layers is just about as inexorable as, say, hurricane season every year, and can be just as damaging too.
The only difference is that layers can be prevented. And, they must be.
The reasons, as you suggest, should not be new to anyone.
First of all, in a world where faster is not just better, it's necessary, layers slow down everything.
Take decision-making. The more the layers, the more the people who have to thump their rubber stamp. The more PowerPoint presentations to be made to bosses and bosses' bosses before the rubber stamp.
Or, take communicating change. Layers make that process—hard enough as it already is—like that children’s whispering game, Telephone. Every time a piece of information passes through a person, it morphs a little. Layers do that too, adding spin, interpretation and buzz with every telling.
Or, take getting a business going. Layers bury start-ups, particularly within large companies, under piles of bureaucrats and their processes, depriving any entrepreneurial venture of the oxygen and sunlight it needs to thrive. But perhaps the worst outcome of layers is meddling. When there are a lot of layers, it usually means managers have too few people reporting to them. Tom in Kansas City can have, basically, three sales reps he’s responsible for, or Maria in Toronto can be boss to two financial analysts and an administrative assistant.
So what do Tom and Mary do with their massive underutilization?
They end up babysitting their direct reports, or worse, doing their jobs for them. Talk about killing morale and initiative!
But let's not harp on the all-too-familiar consequences of layers. Your job is to fight them, even if it is against your organization’s gravitational pull.
After all, layers pop up because they seem necessary, especially with growth.
“Uh-oh, we’ve got more sales,” people say, “We better add more district managers in the field.”
Ironically, even when there isn’t growth, companies feel compelled to add layers. Often, this form of layering masquerades as promotions, as in, “Look, people are still moving up around here!”
To be sure, such promotions don’t have raises attached—but they’re better than nothing. Right?
So what is right when it comes to layers? You’ll know you’re there if you’re, well, uncomfortable. That is, you’ve probably gotten to the right level of layers if your company is 50% flatter than you'd like.
Managers should have eight direct reports at the minimum and up to a dozen if they’re experienced. CEOs should have more. Indeed, the higher you are in an organization, the more direct reports you should have.
After all, senior people should be good enough to operate without their boss’s constant glare. That’s why they’re senior.
Look, we’re not saying this is the end of the world. We’re just saying you should think of every layer as a bad layer. And like a hurricane, if you see one coming your way, batten down your hatches. Better yet, escape to higher ground and let the danger pass you by.
More and more, I see people hiding behind email. If you don't have the guts to say it in person, don't send it in an email. What do you think?
—John Martin, Overland Park, Kansas
In general, we’d rank email right up there with one of the great, transformative innovations of all time. It’s one of those things about which you can say, “It changed everything.”
Email has made business faster, more competitive and more global. It has opened up whole new ways of working and conducting commerce.
Indeed, just recall that day recently when BlackBerry devices went offline due to a technological snafu.
For 24 hours, the business world was forced to remember life before instant information and communication. No one felt nostalgic; they felt helpless.
That said, you’re definitely right that email allows people to deliver hard messages from a distance, like throwing a punch from another room.
We don't know the antidote for that dynamic, except for each person to fight it personally by asking, “Should I say this face-to-face?” before pushing the send button. If you feel squeamish, the answer is, “Yes.” Hard as it is, stop typing—and start talking instead.
Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning Campaign readers can email them questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name, occupation and city.
Only select questions will be answered.