Waving Goodbye To Toxic Hierarchy and Parent-Child Dynamics in the Workplace

Brent Lowe
4 min readSep 2, 2021

Every organization need a proverbial ‘pecking order’ right? That’s how it’s always been and always will be.

Take a moment to go back and read those two sentences again. How do they sit with you? They don’t leave you feeling warm and fuzzy, do they? Seemingly being ‘less than’ someone else doesn’t inspire giving your best, doing your best or being your best.

Traditional hierarchies most often resemble that of parent-child relationships. There’s a ‘responsible adult’ issuing instructions to wide-eyed children who silently obey. When needed stern discipline gets issued; independence, innovation and curiosity stifled. People start deferring to the highest-paid person’s opinion. This kind of vertical structure just doesn’t work anymore in innovation-based organizations filled with grown-ass people — smart individuals with their own ideas, talents and voices who want to be heard. If we believe our colleagues want to add value we also need to believe they want a say in shaping what work looks like.

Progressive founders who want to scale their businesses are discovering that not only do traditional hierarchies not feel great, the structure lacks humanity and effectiveness in today’s world. If not hierarchy then what? Do we shun structure in all shapes and forms, embrace the chaos in hopes work will magically get done?

Embrace the journey and cultivate curiosity

Sustainable change seldom happens overnight. It starts with a question and insatiable curiosity. Samantha Slade, co-founder of international co-creation and co-design firm Percolab started her journey with a diverse team of social scientists and business people. Their big question? How could they explore future ways of working, and put some scaffolding around it?

Their goal was to experiment radically, to find new ways of being and working together by creating a lab — which they did in 2007. Now Percolab has expanded internationally, helping guide a global movement to change the way businesses organize.

Slade’s book Going Horizontal — Creating a Non-Hierarchical Organization, One Practice at a Time boldly makes the case that “hierarchy in organizations is obsolete”. Instead of leaving a vacuum, she suggests 7 key focus areas for progressive leaders who want to flatten their structures: Purpose, Meetings, Decision Making, Transparency, Autonomy, Learning & Development, Conflict and Relationship. While addressing each of these areas in one go may seem a little daunting, here are 3 bite-sized practices you can start with.

Unlearning behaviours and reconnecting with healthy habits

When we engage with friends we have equal, adult-to-adult partnerships. There is mutual respect and appreciation. If a friend constantly tells you what to do, it puts strain on the relationship. “In our personal lives we know how to show up in egalitarian ways,” says Slade. “For some reason in the work realm, we pick up hierarchical structures left over from the industrial era.”

Particularly in a post-pandemic context, where paradigms are shifting and what work should look like is up for debate, adults want to be treated like… well… adults. In a vertical/ hierarchical setup, it becomes difficult for team members to work to their full potential. Instead, people find themselves feeling trapped. Making an effort to put the parent-child dynamic behind and making collaboration a habit opens up the way for conscious humans to show up fully.

Setting the tone and creating space for people to speak and be heard by using meeting check-ins

What do meetings look like in your organization? Do you dive straight into the agenda without knowing where your team is at, how they feel or what they think? Next time, try checking in with each person and asking how they feel about the task at hand, without commenting or analyzing. “This surfaces the team’s emotions and brings rich information into the group,” says Slade. “The meeting will be more on task, more relevant and more in flow.” When your meetings become a safe space to share you’ll generate insights that may have stayed buried. Give people the opportunity to show up and engage. Your organization will be richer for it.

Engage colleagues by prioritizing collaboration and community

On average, 85% of people are disengaged from their work. There is a groundswell of freelance workers who don’t want to work in the traditional setting. College graduates won’t commit to traditional organizations. This is a systemic issue that is not going away. To make matters worse, there are not many models out there. As one of Slade’s emerging and rapidly growing clients expressed: “If we don’t go intentionally and with care, we will end up with a hierarchical modality by default.”

As humans, we yearn for community. It is in our nature. We want to be respected as equal humans. When one person acts as the boss of the community, we’re working against human nature. Waving goodbye to toxic hierarchy and building a company culture that values collaboration and community takes intention and work. It means switching off parent mode and seeing every colleague as an equal human with different skills, life experiences and gifts to offer.

I help Founder CEOs of companies between 5 & 40 people who are experiencing early stage success and ready to scale — especially those wanting to build shared responsibility and accountability within their team. Click here to get your free copy of the 5 principles and 6 leadership roles for scaling a sustainable, prosperous company.

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Brent Lowe

The Scale Coach for Founder CEOs and co-author of Lead Together: The bold, brave, intentional path to scaling your business