Many companies pare themselves down to be less top-heavy, either by choice, to build a less hierarchy management structure, or through pruning out to reduce overheads. The benefit is yes, a lower wage bill, but also shorter lines of communication. As you know from the old Chinese whispers game – the more people involved, the more misinterpretation and twisted meaning to suit the needs of the person sending it out.

The idea of this leaner structure is to provide a more responsive form of management where day-to-day issues can be discussed and actioned quickly. Open door policies are the norm where everyone shares the same workspace and meetings are all about inclusion. When this works in practise it’s very good for mobilising the workforce to look for new ideas and making fast decisions, because you do away with layers of middle managers who often sit on information.

Communication is the crucial element here

Not only does a leaner hierarchy give people the opportunity to engage with other departments in the business, but it becomes the expectation that ‘this is how we work’ (otherwise known as culture). Feedback is readily available on issues and discussion doesn’t take years so it’s possible to evaluate an idea without feeling like it holds things up.

For it to work, staff must take personal responsibility for their contributions and work in a semi-autonomous environment. When done properly people feel valued for their contribution as they see the difference it makes and how that fits in with wider business goals.

Pyramid of people standing on each other's shoulders

These companies value their staff and see that everyone has a valuable contribution to make. To this end they develop people who step into the next promotion or look for the next marketplace. They don’t just push them out and leave them to flounder, and the personnel side of business is taken very seriously to ensure people are the right fit.

Leaders in this type of organisation have to be visionaries: able to influence and manage staff without stifling their creativity. That’s very different from managers of old who dictated the way things are ‘or else’.

What this all means for safety

When we create culture change for safety it’s this type of structure we aspire to because it gets people more closely aligned with the values of the organisation. To feel safe discussing failure and incidents people need to feel safe, in a trusted environment where they feel listened to.

When people contribute and feel appreciated they also learn to take constructive criticism and grow from it. This is the essence of shared learning that’s impossible to achieve if people dread the repercussions of contributing.

All too often a workforce is sceptical of attempts to engage with them because in the past what they’ve said has been used against them. Perhaps their suggestions have fallen into the black hole with no trace of feedback, demotivating the person who offered it.

If you’ve built an engaged workforce who believe that their contributions are valued, well done! Keep up your dialogue and momentum or they’ll soon lose interest if you stop. If you’re still trying, look for opportunities to open dialogue, not for more top-down information overload that no one ever reads. Real two-way engagement leaves all parties feeling equally involved.