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How can we support less hierarchical ways of working?

CAG Oxfordshire supports grassroots community groups to set up and work collectively, and it also supports groups at times when organising becomes difficult. As a staff team we use consensus decision making and some other methods from Sociocracy which help us to work horizontally. This means we have minimised how much we ‘manage’ each other – we mostly work autonomously and sit alongside each other rather than above or below. Even though we do have a line management system, when it comes to decision making we are all equally involved.

Invited by the Old Fire Station to set a conversation starter for Marmalade 2021, we put our heads together in a team meeting to articulate why working less hierarchically is important to us, what works and what challenges we face.

Figuring out and putting into action less hierarchical ways of working as a group can make everyone feel more included and empowered; group members feel more ‘buy in’ as they have been a part of the decision-making and have been able to contribute ideas, bring creativity, develop their skills and confidence. This also leads to better outcomes as people take responsibility for those decisions, so it’s good for the organisation too.

We came up with a flexible framework of five ‘ingredients’ to help other groups make changes. We are a small team of four. What kind of organisation you are part of, and your role in it, will alter how you structure roles, responsibilities and decision-making. We tried to leave the suggestions general for that reason and included some things to take notice of in the process.

We suggest that when transitioning to less hierarchical ways of working, it can be a helpful learning experience to try these transitions out in more familiar settings or on particular projects before taking on whole organisational change.

1. Communicate honestly and clearly

It’s important in any organisation to communicate with each other, but in an organisation trying to build less hierarchical ways of working, it’s especially important to talk explicitly about power and decide how to share it e.g. rotating roles and designing roles with careful thought as to how this will affect power dynamics. This includes being reflective and honest about where implicit hierarchies exist or have emerged.

Explicit (or formal) hierarchies exist where there is a clear line of management or authority e.g. manager – junior staff, board member – staff member. Implicit (informal) hierarchies are less obvious and can be connected to structural inequalities (gender, class, age or ethnicity) as well as confidence, adaptability to the organisational culture and personal connections in the organisation. As they are harder to spot, implicit hierarchies are also more likely to cause resentment and conflict later down the line if they aren’t aired.

A good starting point is clarity: define clearly who is involved in which decision, who is responsible for what and who is reporting to whom. Share knowledge in an equitable way so that access to information does not become a source of power imbalance.

2. Define collective processes for making decisions

First of all, be clear on the aims and purpose of the group or project so you all have a shared reference point when making decisions. Next, think about barriers to participating in meetings – these could include unequal privilege or confidence levels, people having different learning and communicating styles or practical barriers e.g. the location or accessibility of venues.

Much of the work to enable participation comes from acknowledging and then redressing power imbalances. People who hold either implicit or explicit power are not always ready to give it up or share it though! Equally, people don’t always feel confident to have or ‘take’ more power. This is why it’s important that naming and addressing problems caused by power imbalances is designated as a collective responsibility.

Your organisation can enable participation by offering or being open to different channels or methods to contribute to the decision making process e.g. using collective writing.

Leadership can also be delegated for particular areas of responsibility or projects whilst being mindful that responsibility is also shared between people and teams fairly. Not every decision needs to be made by everyone, working groups or collective delegation can make this simpler, as long as your team culture makes people feel supported and empowered in their work.

3. Create safe and welcoming ‘space’

It’s up to existing members, especially those with leadership skills or in leadership roles, to create spaces where people feel comfortable enough to take part and offer opinions. This includes active listening, and giving confirmation and reassurance that opinions are important and valid. Speaking in large groups doesn’t endow everyone with confidence, so breaking into smaller working groups for some discussions and decisions can encourage more equal participation.

Having ‘check ins’ at the beginning of meetings, not only means that participants are aware of how each other are doing, but also that everyone’s voice is heard in the space from the very beginning of the meeting (see this resource from Seeds for Change, page 9). That said, people have varying responses to talking about feelings in professional or any decision-making sessions. It can be quite a leap to go from proving to your boss you have everything under control to revealing vulnerabilities to everyone!

4. Good facilitation

Good facilitators in meetings keep everyone on topic, make sure no-one’s points get lost, and suggest techniques for creative problem-solving. A facilitator will be able to draw contributions out from participants, bearing in mind individuals’ different strengths or levels of experience. They invite people who haven’t spoken yet to speak, but try not to call on specific individuals.

Good facilitators make it less likely that conflict will arise by allowing everyone to be heard, and also help to resolve tension. Resolving conflict constructively takes practice though and some people are more equipped to deal with it than others. It’s part of being a good facilitator but requires extra skills.

Rotating facilitators each time there is a meeting means that the responsibility is shared and people become used to taking on this important role. It also means that the facilitator can concentrate on just being a facilitator and not contributing so much to the discussion when it’s their turn, but not have to withhold from contributing each time. It’s therefore a good idea, when possible, not to take on the facilitation of a meeting when you have a lot to say on the topic.

5. Make time for a healthy organisation

Creating a healthy organisation means taking time to function well as a team alongside getting on with tasks, including dedicating enough time to meet and discuss before making any decision. Bear in mind that ‘rounds’ can take a while as they keep going until all points have been made. Equally, leave enough time for settling in and doing check ins/check outs too – this is how you know how your colleagues are, meaning you can adapt to support each other as a team.

Contributing to creating a healthy organisation is simultaneously an individual and collective learning process. This can be through an informal support system where leaders or more experienced members spend time encouraging or mentoring others, or implementing a formal peer review system for getting feedback and advising each other.

It’s really useful to take time to participate in training and group learning that help to work in a more equal way e.g. facilitation, non-violent communication (NVC) and group reflection. These skills can be practised and passed on through an organisation if one person goes to the training.

Taking time for reflection and learning on how to do things, rather than actually doing the things, can generally feel difficult, especially in a resource-starved sector. However, it may save you time in the longer run though as disengaged people don’t get much done!

What do you think of this ‘recipe’ for creating less hierarchical groups and organisations?

Pick up a conversation with someone else who wants to explore this topic more at Marmalade 2021, the annual conference on social change hosted by Arts at the Old Fire Station (AOFS) in collaboration with Oxford Hub. This year Marmalade will take place from 12 – 16 April 2021 and will offer something a bit different. The Marmalade team are working with social change organisations (including us) to pair people up to talk about the big social change questions of the moment. No big conference rooms, no 100-people webinars. Just you, a new acquaintance, and an enriching, meaningful discussion. In person (outdoors, adhering to restrictions) or over Zoom. Whatever works for you.

Suggested resources:

Sociocracy for All WebsiteGoing Horizontal – book by Samantha Slade – Article on 11 practical steps towards healthy power dynamics – Article on creating a bossless organisation – Reflections on a journey towards self-management – from Shared Assets – Reflections on ‘going flat’ – from PIRC – Facilitation and Meeting guide – from Seeds for Change – Consensus decision-making – from Seeds for Change – When not to use consensus – from Rhizome Network

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