Supporting the flat organization with competencies

March 4, 2016 Kelly

While many flat organizations began life that way, others start out as more traditional hierarchies that shift at some point to a more horizontal structure. When this happens, HR has an essential role to play, and a competency-based approach can ease the transition for everyone in the organization.

In last week’s blog post, we looked at some of the issues facing organizations that choose to go flat. This week, we’ll dive a little deeper into some of the more common transitional issues and explore the role competencies can play in smoothing the way.

Companies choose to go flat for many different reasons. Some are focused on staying lean and profitable by reducing excess managerial costs. Some want to cut down on bureaucratic processes that can dampen speed and innovation. Others flatten out as a way to attract and retain talented workers who are turned off by the rigidity and lack of autonomy in traditional workplaces. The popularity of flatter organizational structures is surging as companies vie with one another to attract workers who are younger or who come from technology backgrounds where close team dynamics and high levels of personal autonomy are the norm.

Regardless of the motivation, embracing flat structures is a tall order, requiring big changes on both functional and cultural levels, and competencies can be used to lay a foundation for success in a number of ways.

Re-envisioning career progression

What does career progression look like when there are no promotions, impressive titles, or corner offices? Keeping employees engaged and motivated is a very different proposition when the career ladder is replaced with a collection of variously interconnected roles.

A competency-based development program can help to establish a rich lattice of career pathways that align with and support a flatter organizational structure. In a competency-driven organization, employees can choose to hone their existing competencies and become better at their current job, or they can work towards making a lateral move by acquiring new competencies associated with that job. Because every job is comprised of the same building blocks—competencies—the relationships between different jobs is easier for employees to navigate. When each of those building blocks is connected to a range of development opportunities, employees have a clear path to follow when planning their next challenge within the organization.

Amplifying organizational culture

While organizational culture is often seen as something that evolves organically across the organization, the executive level usually exerts a strong influence on its development and dissemination. Without a strong hierarchical conduit, that culture needs to be preserved and nurtured in different ways.

Implementing core competencies can help to maintain a strong organizational culture in a less hierarchical, more autonomous setting. Core competencies are shared by everyone in the organization, and they define the key values and strengths that help an organization differentiate itself. Core competencies become an integral part of the job profile for every employee, translating these key elements of the organizational culture into on-the-job behaviors. This approach ensures that organizational culture remains a tangible and relevant presence independent of specific executive efforts.

Integrating ‘flat-friendly’ competencies

Flatter organizations require a different set of soft skills from employees, and those who are used to working in a more structured setting may need to develop new strengths and capabilities.

Helping an employee contribute successfully as a self-directed entity or a member of a non-hierarchical team requires a sustained re-orientation effort to train them to think differently and see their role in a new way. Selecting competencies that support this type of working style can help HR professionals support permanent behavioral change by making those behaviors an integral part of job requirements.

Competencies such as ‘initiative,’ ‘risk taking,’ and ‘decision making,’ for example, can help employees develop the necessary confidence and independence to thrive in a more independent role. ‘Managing conflicts,’ ‘teamwork,’ and ‘fostering communication’ can enhance team dynamics and minimize friction as employees shift from a rigid reporting structure to a looser, more collaborative approach.

Prepare leaders for new roles

Few organizations dismantle the entire hierarchy when they choose to go flat: most remove a few key management layers while retaining a strong executive presence. For those who occupy those executive roles in a flat organization, working life can change as dramatically it does for everyone else.

Without extra layers of management layers to insulate them from the rest of the organization, members of the C-Suite often find themselves taking direct responsibility for business areas that have never been on their radar before. While flattening the organization is intended to put more power in the hands of employees, a Harvard Business School study by Julie Wulf revealed that it also shifts power to the CEO in unexpected ways.

Developing the organization’s leadership capacity using transformational leadership competencies can help members of the C-Suite to prepare for this new challenge. Transformational leadership competencies focus on specific skills that help leaders inspire the organization, nurture potential, empower employees, and strengthen organizational values. When one or more of these competencies is integrated into executive job profiles, it can help executive-level employees to align their leadership styles with the requirements of a flat workplace.

Learn more about transformational leadership competencies.

Use Competencies to Get More from Your Organization

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