Kill the Hierarchy! - De-Label

Transitioning People Through Constant Change

This post in the series “Kill the Hierarchy” I explore how flattening the organisational structure and de-labelling from titles and roles brings benefits.

For an organisation to survive and thrive in a world of constant and uncertain change, the organisation has to be one in which leadership is important, but MORE important is a collaborative workplace in which transparency and creative freedom reign over hierarchical boundaries. This enables innovation, creativity, experimentation, rapid decision-making, agility and employee ownership, engagement and influence. There is widespread autonomy and everyone leads.

No one ever did anything awesome or great just because they were told to!

The ‘Kill the Hierarchy’ model shown the diagram below, illustrates the changes needed to move to a flatter structure, and it is these changes that we shall be exploring in this series of posts.



In traditional hierarchical organisations, titles are very important. They are a sign of past performance, power and prestige.

Some organisations that are genuinely flat have done away with roles and titles altogether!

At Morning Star everyone is known as a “Colleague”.

At W.L. Gore everyone is known as an “Associate”.

At Zappos everyone is known as a “Partner”.

But there are various degrees of de-labelling.

Temporary flat hierarchy

When Nate Garvis, author of Naked Civics, was VP of Government Affairs at Target, he asked everyone to de-label themselves before beginning a meeting.

He would remind everyone to de-label from their roles and titles so that everyone in the meeting no longer had to observe hierarchical rules, and that everyone’s opinions were of equal value.
What Garvis did was to flatten the hierarchy for a short period of time.

CO2 Partners describe Garvis’ 4-step process to flatten the hierarchy and the benefits to be gained.

Step 1: De-label

When you begin your meeting, according to Garvis, ask everyone to de-label from their roles. I remember this practice from psychodrama. You actually state, “I am not the VP of manufacturing (or whatever your title is at the time).” With a crew the size Garvis led, this would be too cumbersome so he would simply remind all participants to de-label from their titles and roles. To him, this meant everyone at the meeting no longer had to observe hierarchical rules, and that everyone’s opinions carried equal weight. He said it takes a while for a team to get accustomed to interacting without their titles mattering.

Step 2: Give a piece of yourself

Before diving headlong into the meeting, Garvis would ask people to share something personal about themselves so that the team would see beyond the hierarchy. They would begin to see each other as people.

Step 3: Critical Feedback

Garvis is extremely right-brained and probably generated an infinite number of great ideas for his team, but he knows that great ideas aren’t enough. They must be challenged and fully accepted. In a hierarchical structure like Target, it is very difficult to challenge your boss’s ideas. Flattening a hierarchy allows critical feedback to happen. When everyone has de-labelled, they can say what they really think. Ideas get fire-tested, and acceptance is earned.

At first Strategic Inefficiency did not go well, so Garvis amped up the message with incentives to teammates who did the best job of challenging his ideas. The one with the best critique got a prize. As soon as they could see he was serious about this feedback, they saw it was safe to provide the same feedback to one another. This dramatically changed the culture of his department.

crtical feedback.jpg

Step 4: Re-label

Once critical feedback has been given and rewarded, it’s time to re-label. With hierarchical titles and roles re-established, work can be done efficiently through familiar and prescribed channels.

Neither entitled or titled

“Neither entitled or titled” is the title of an article about Gusto – an organisation that has no titles.

The LinkedIn article by Jessica Yuen describes how the Gusto leadership team decided to get rid of titles altogether and despite being prepared for an employee backlash, they found the move welcomed with open arms.

Yuen acknowledges that whilst the decision to have no titles makes sense today, the option is open to revisit it in the future as the organisation evolves.

The benefits of removing titles included incredible people applying for jobs at Gusto. They were getting people who would never have applied before because all the titles were preventing them from taking the leap.

“During the research phase, many companies had mentioned that they felt like they were attracting the wrong kinds of candidates when they had titles. By not having them in the first place, you can filter those people out. That was a really fascinating premise for us to explore. If we’re truly a “no-egos” culture, we can zero in on the people who are more likely to thrive here. Fewer candidates are coming through, but we’re talking to more people who are better aligned”.

Gusto have found that no titles supports their goal of #OneTeamOneDream.

one team on dream.jpg


It would be remiss of me in a post about no titles and de-labelling not to mention holacracy. Holacracy was famously adopted by Zappos and Medium and has received as mass of mixed press about the success of adoption.

Holacracy has been misrepresented as the system that has no managers, no hierarchy, no titles etc.

Holacracy, the brainchild of Brian J. Robertson, maintains hierarchies but moves power from individuals in a hierarchical pyramid down into circles. Each employee has a role instead of a job title and within the circles the roles are regularly reviewed and transferred.

Decision-making is placed where is should be – entirely with each circle. Rather than managers and direct reports, there are “lead-links” who oversee the circles or projects that need “roles” to be filled.

Tony Hsieh, CEO, announced in late 2013 that his online shoe retailer Zappos would be getting rid of traditional manager roles and adopting holacracy.


The media went into a frenzy of criticism. This got worse when Hsieh believed that things were moving too slowly and asked staff to get on board or take a severance pay.

The media chose to focus on the 18% that took the payout, and not the 82% that remained.

Despite adverse press, Hsieh is continuing with the adoption of holacracy at Zappos. At Zappos employees act more like entrepreneurs and seek multiple roles. Employees lower down in the organisation can have a great impact.

Amazon acquired Zappos in 2009 in a deal valued at $1.2 billion. Hsieh has remained at the helm. It has continued to be acclaimed in the press for its exceptionally high levels of customer service, and is praised ad infinitum as one of the best places to work for employees.

Zappos has great employee engagement and retention across its 1,500 employees and 2016 was Zappos’ lowest turnover rate since it’s founding more than 18 years ago.

I think Tony, as all of his “partners” (employees) call him, is doing something right! Zappos is a leading 21st century organisation to which we can all aspire.

In short

As Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric said:

“Boundaryless behaviour is our number one value. You must be open to an idea from anywhere, inside, outside, up, down. The only thing that counts is the quality of the idea, not the rank of the person originating it”.

We have to move away from decision-making based on position in the hierarchy. Whether we get rid of job titles altogether and aspire to be a Gusto, Morning Star or W.L. Gore or take a more tempered approach like that of Garvis, de-labelling has value to enable decentralised decision-making, increased collaboration and contribution and self-management.

We have to flatten the hierarchy and move away from an organisation in which direction is determined by position to one in which authority is pushed down to where is makes most sense to reside. Management exists to support employees and not the other way around.

If the organisation is going to survive in a world of constant and complex change, power has to to be distributed and not retained by a designated few.


Coming up!

Upcoming posts in this series entitled ‘Kill the Hierarchy’ will continue to explore how we flatten the hierarchy in order to achieve rapid and decentralised decision-making, employee engagement, high levels of collaboration, widespread autonomy, trust and respect, and an environment in which everyone leads.


More posts on their way over the coming weeks and months, exploring how we need to take a fresh and radical look at organisational change management, and the changes we need to make if we are to thrive.

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Also remember that older posts from me are available via the Resources section.


Karen FerrisComment