How to Break Through Hierarchy When You Don’t Work for Zappos

Christina Chaplin Beyond Borders


Many of you have probably already seen in the news that Zappos, much in line with its going-against-the-grain culture, is getting rid of managers. But it’s not corporate anarchy that they’re adopting but rather an organizational system called: holacracy. That means no titles, no managers – no corporate hierarchy.

organizational structure - holacracyAimee Groth provides a great explanation of Holacracy in her article about Zappos. “The term Holacracy is derived from the Greek word holon, which means a whole that’s part of a greater whole. Instead of a top-down hierarchy, there’s a flatter “holacracy” that distributes power more evenly. The company will be made up of different circles—there will be around 400 circles at Zappos once the rollout is complete in December 2014—and employees can have any number of roles within those circles. This way, there’s no hiding under titles; radical transparency is the goal.”

Zappos is not alone.

Twitter Co-Founder Ev Williams adopted the system at Medium, his publishing platform founded in 2012, which now has around 50 employees. But most of us don’t work for such forward thinking companies as Zappos or Medium and do indeed have a title and a boss. So unless we’re the CEO, or head of HR at a company that might be open to the idea of doing away with hierarchy, why should we even care?

Startups often work like this in their early days, mainly because they are made up of small teams where many decisions are made with “all hands” present. That’s relatively easy when you’re 3-4 people and all more or less coming to the project as equals. So why when founders start to hire their first employees do they start assigning titles and building hierarchies? They may be flatter that some other traditional companies, but most fall in line with the standard top-down organization and start deciding who reports to whom.

Or maybe you don’t work at a startup either, but rather at a mid-sized or large corporation and manage a team of direct reports. While you won’t be able to do anything about the titles officially (again, unless you’re an exec in HR or the CEO), there are still some interesting concepts in Holacracy that you can use as a manager that are worth your attention.

The SCARF Approach

SCARF stands for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. The premise put forth in the book “Your Brain at Work” is that people are usually motivated primarily by one of these qualities. If you can determine which quality motivates each member of your team, you’ll be able to effectively lead them.

SCARF Qualities Table

As part of performance reviews ask your direct reports to prioritize this list from most to least important. You’ll know what really makes them tick and what resonates best with them. We all know that better motivated and engaged employees are more productive, so I won’t go into detail on how this translates to better results and good business.

And maybe your peers and superiors will notice the benefits this creates in your team and take notice. You never know, you might even become a catalyst for change. There is obviously more to holacracy than just SCARF and I invite you to research further if your situation allows you to directly impact organization structure at your company. However, regardless of what kind of company you work at, big or small, if you manage others, being mindful of these 5 basic motivators will help you to better relate to each of your team members.