Kill the Hierarchy! - High Trust

Transitioning People Through Constant Change

This post in the series “Kill the Hierarchy” I explore how a flatter organisational structure requires an environment of high trust and mutual respect. 

Without trust, things just wont get done as fast as they are needed. If we are removing unnecessary managerial layers we have to trust employees to do the right thing. Employees have to trust their leadership to do the right thing. Establishing trust is also a prerequisite to flattening the hierarchy in the first place. 

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.


High trust – everyone’s business

As mentioned in the introduction, the only way a flatter hierarchy with less managerial presence will be successful is if there is an environment of trust and mutual respect.

Everyone in the organisations has to trust everyone else in the organisation to do the right thing for their colleagues as well as the organisation as a whole.

Sahil Lavingia, co-founder and CEO at Gumroad, the successful platform that enables creators to sell products directly to consumers, was quoted in First Round Review:

“Keeping a company flat is all about finding creative ways to achieve trust and clarity without the bureaucracy.

A flat company is founded on the idea that trust shouldn't only exist between a manager and their reports. Everyone within the company should trust everyone else they work with too. That's how you end up moving really fast”.

Establishing trust

Sense of purpose

Organisations have to truly recognise the purpose of the organisation – what is it trying to achieve and why. What are the core values that will inspire everyone in the organisations so that everyone is working towards a common goal?

In my last post, I referenced Google and its one mission and one goal.

Mission: Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful

Goal: Develop services that improve the lives of as many people as possible. Not just for some. For everyone.

Everyone at Google has a shared purpose – to support the mission and achieve the goal. They are unified and this unity and the sense of purpose, inspires trust in everyone in the organisation.

Trust Hands.jpg

When we share a common goal, and have a collective sense of purpose, high levels of trust are an outcome.

If we believe others have different agendas that don't support the common goal, then mistrust and suspicion permeates the organisation and everyone spends time watching their own back.

Walk the talk

We always say that we expect leaders to walk the talk and lead by example, but I think it goes beyond just those in senior positions in the organisation.

I think we should expect everyone to walk the talk and lead by example and when they don't we should call them on it. In an organisation where we want everyone to ‘lead’ then we should hold everyone accountable to serve the purpose of the organisation.

Leaders trust employees and vice versa. To receive trust we have to give it.

Whilst everyone should lead by example, the charge has to be led by the CEO or the ‘owner’ of the organisation. Everything he or she commits to doing must be done if trust is to be established. If that commitment has to be changed, then transparency and honesty are crucial if trust is to be maintained.


John Mackey, co-founder and CEO of Whole Food Market Inc. writing for Management Innovation eXchange, said research indicates that our ability to maintain close trusting relationships with family, friends and work colleagues is constrained to probably around 150 people. 

“At Whole Foods we recognize the importance of smaller tribal groupings to maximize familiarity and trust. We organize our stores and company into a variety of interlocking teams. Most teams have between 6 and 100 team members and the larger teams are subdivided further into a variety of sub-teams”.

Of course we can know more than 150 people at any one time, but it is hard to develop close bonds of trust based on actual experiences with each of them.

W. L. Gore has the same approach. Gore is a highly successful American multinational manufacturing company specializing in products derived from fluoro polymers.

Gore has around 9,500 employees distributed across 30 countries.

Management Innovation eXchange describes Bill Gore’s vision of self-managed teams and why they are kept small.

“Gore’s commitment to keeping its operations small and informal is one key. It generally doesn’t allow a facility to grow to more than 200 people. That reflects another of Bill’s beliefs: that once a unit reaches a certain size, “we decided” becomes “they decided.”

point the finger.jpg

When teams become too big, “they decided” dissolves trust.


Trust is demonstrated when you enable employees to get on with their job. 

Many would call this empowerment, but empowerment infers that power is passed down from on high. In a flatter organisational structure, employees always have that power. 

Empowerment sounds like power being bestowed by a manager saying, “I can grant you some power because I am the one who holds all the power”.

Enablement, empowerment, permission – whatever you want to call it - is critical. Hierarchies with a command and control managerial approach kill trust. It is driven by rules and structures to enforce those rules.

The title of a Bill Taylor article for Harvard Business Review sums it up:

Trust Your Employees, Not Your Rule Book


If we are not transparent and hide things from others, there will no trust. Transparency also enables empowerment.

Sure there may be some things at some times that cannot be widely shared, but this should be the exception.

When people perceive that they are not being told the truth, trust will rapidly disappear. Remember that once trust is broken, it will be considerably harder to get it back again than it was to establish it in the first place.

Communication needs to be transparent and honest too. People will see ‘spin’ when it happens, and once again trust is lost. Telling the truth, albeit sometimes hard’ fosters trust and mutual respect.

Everyone Equal.jpg

Everyone is equal

Trust is soon lost when there is the perception that some people are treated more favourably than others. The perception that some are more equal than others will cause trust to quickly diminish.

The good thing about transparency is that it exposes unfairness and corrective action can be taken quickly.

This equality is reflected by the removal of titles in organisations such as Morning Star where everyone is a Colleague; at W.L. Gore where everyone is an ‘Associate’; and in organisations adopting Holacracy, everyone is a ‘Partner’. All of these organisations have a flat structure.

In short

Trust is key to providing employees with autonomy, allowing them to be self-managing and distributing decision-making.

Treating everyone as equal, being honest and transparent, providing a shared sense of purpose, walking the talk, and creating smaller teams to avoid “we decided” becoming“they decided”, will foster a sustainable eco-system of trust.

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.

In the meantime, please subscribe to my newsletter so you have no fear of missing out!

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


Karen FerrisComment