This is why a popular notion has been to flatten hierarchies--i.e. to eliminate layers of management and broaden managers' span of responsibility (i.e. more staff reporting to each manager). The prediction is that this would save money, shift decision making downwards, increase empowerment, and enhance motivation.
Multiple studies run counter to expectations:
- In a study of over 300 large U.S. organizations over 15 years, on the whole flattening led to more involvement of high level executives in decision making. (1)
- In multiple industries where cuts of leadership and management have occurred, lower morale, more turnover, and lower productivity have been reported.(2)
- A study in the airline industry found that team empowerment and coordination were enhanced by greater supervisory involvement, not cutting the number of supervisors. The critical factor appeared to be redefinition of the supervisory role to include assuring an environment of psychological safety with common understanding, facilitating learning via coaching, and identifying and helping to resolve conflict. Similar findings have emerged in healthcare. (3, 4)
- Some studies of the development of self-managed work teams have shown that teams with a closer relationship to supervising managers performed better. (5)
- A very large study by The Gallup Organization indicates the most important driver of employee engagement is the quality of relationship with managers.(6)
Conclusion: Flattening hierarchy may seem like an obvious solution to the ills of hierarchy. But, there are no easy recipes for success in business. The inter-relationships between number of layers of managers, ratio of managers to staff, and degree of empowerment are quite complicated.
Alternate theory: Changes in structure should come secondary to and only after an examination of the nature of relationships. A key question is whether all those with positional authority in the hierarchy are held responsible not just for whether work is done but also for quality of work environment. Changes primarily in structure are very unlikely to fix problems in this area and actually risk making things worse.
(1) Wulf, Julie The Flattened Firm-Not As Advertised Harvard Business School Working Paper, 12-087, April 9, 2012
(2) Lorenz, Mary Employers Plan to Bring Back Middle Management Positions November 2011,
(3) Gittell, Jody Hoffer Paradox of Coordination and Control California Management Review, Spring 2000, Vol. 42, No. 3,
(4) Gitell, Jody Hoffer Transforming Relationships for High Performance Stanford Business Books 2014
(5) Yeatts, Dale E. and Hyten, Cloyd High-Performing Self-Managed Work Teams Sage Publications 1998
(6) Buckingham, Marcus and Coffman, Curt First Break All the Rules The Gallup Organization, 1999