Distrust in Hierarchies: A Barrier to Trust in Networks

In the future of work, we are going to talk a lot about trust.

We will need to consider trust deeply because it is a critical underpinning to success in our new ways of working. We need to recognise the trust that we choose to grant is a design choice. We are likely to need a new precision in our understanding of trust.

Most of all we need to ensure that the distrust that pervades our hierarchies is not a barrier to building new trust in networks.

Our hierarchical organisations often hide an assumption of deep distrust. Organisational structure, role design, silos assume people must be separated to generate clear performance measures. Performance management and reward schemes assumes people will not perform without extrinsic motivations. Management, monitoring and compliance are often set to treat 100% of employees poorly against a tiny risk of failure. People are assumed incompetent unless proven otherwise. If your processes allow no variations, discretion or exception handling, then there is likely little trust in your organisation. If messages are consistently spun and the real news is on the grapevine, not the intranet, then there is no trust in communication.

Trust will emerge in effective networks. However, trust is reciprocal. If your hierarchy is telling people that they can’t be trusted, then it is getting in the way of the emergence of trust in the networks in and around the organisation.

Remember how you treat your people plays a large part in how they will treat each other and their networks, including your customers and communities.

Don’t expect your people to give and build trust over your distrust in them.

Many Chiefs. Still a Network


These days everybody wants a spot at the top of the hierarchy. In the vain hope that sitting around the big table will fix the issues of our large organisations we are seeing a parade of CXO roles debated.  

Life began simply with a Chief Executive Officer and maybe a Chief Finance Officer.  Then we started to gather Chief Operating Officers, Chief Technology Officers or Chief Information Officers.  The next wave brought us Chief Strategy Officers, Chief Privacy Officers, Chief Product Officers and Chief Marketing Officers.  Next came the campaign for Chief Customer Officers and Chief Innovation Officers.  I saw recently suggestions that organisations needs a Chief Design Officer, Chief Digital Officer and a Chief Data Officer. Chief Culture Officers, Chief Environmental Officers, Chief Ethics Officers and Chief Community Officers cannot be too far away.

Say chief that many times and it starts to be clear that we think there is magic in a big boss.

Too Many Chiefs. Not Enough Network.

Organisations are systems of lots of people. Great performance on customer, digital, data or in any other arena is rarely the result of one heroic individual at the top of a specialist hierarchy. Great performance comes when elements across the system collaborate to deliver better outcomes. Finance, technology, operations, product and many more teams all support the delivery of consistently great customer experiences. The challenges of collaboration in execution happens a long way away from the CEO’s leadership team.

Adding chiefs around the main table can be an effective symbolic move in a system. A CXO can elevate the importance of a domain that lacks profile. However it is rarely more than the first symbol.  The real change must happen out at the edges of the silos and the edges of the system where the organisation’s networks engage with its environment. Without the support of their peers and a broader network, a new CXO is unlikely to change much away from the CEO’s table.

Great CXOs are masters of collaboration, uniting people from across the system, especially middle and frontline managers in change. They are Change Agents on an enterprise wide scale. The hierarchy is not the source of their power and the success of their agenda. Success flows from their networks and their influence as agents of change.

Don’t Hail the Chief.

Maybe it is time to move beyond titles and heroes to fix collaboration.

Any leader can start new forms of collaboration in their organisation and have a positive influence on performance the system, whether at the CEOs table or not. The higher up the hierarchy the more tools, networks and influence you have when you begin. Good CXOs and great collaborative middle managers focus on coordinating the crossover points in silos. Don’t wait for a Chief to be appointed. Make yourself a leader in your domain, network and the silo boundaries near you. Find something to change for the better and engage others to change it today.

The organisation will thank you for your initiative.

Choose Your Politics

Embrace politics. It is human behaviour. Change the way politics operates to reinforce purpose.

CEOs are often tempted to announce that they want a ‘politics free’ organisation. The only consequence of this announcement is that politics becomes undiscussable in the organisation.  It never goes away.

Politics is the way that 3 or more people coordinate themselves to make decisions.  Politics is a critical part of human group behaviour.  Politics is not bad.  It is essential, efficient and effective.  In fact the right political behaviours, like understanding, influence, compromise and coalition building are essential to get anything done.

The CEO who wants to ban politics usually wants to address the type of politics that is played in the organisation.  We all can play a role ensuring that the politics that is played is the most beneficial to everyone in the organisation and its goals.

Which Politics Would You Choose?

The Politics of Power:  In extremely hierarchical organisations, the politics is often feudal with people jockeying to be closest to the powerful players at the top of the hierarchy. A CEO who wants to ban something human usually is under the belief that they have this kind of power. Absolute power reigns and politics is played to swing its impact. The critical element in this politics is loyalty and in reward scraps fall from the table to those most loyal.  Fights between coalitions are brutal.  These organisations are very conservative – ultimately driven by inside considerations, maintaining power and loyalty.

The Politics of Faith: At times you will meet an organisation with a strong set of core beliefs. The faith might be a set of values, practices or even a view of the world.  What matters is that belief in these things is a required part of organisational interactions and unbelievers are excluded from influence. Like most religions, these organisations are quite hierarchical with power lying with those who better understand, define or interpret the beliefs.  What matters in the politics of these organisations is doctrine and demonstrations of faith to the organisation’s view.  Whether the faith is justified or delivering outcomes is a secondary consideration.  Again the orientation of the organisation is internal and they can be quite disconnected from reality and their community.

The Politics of Interest:  With less hierarchy, the politics in an organisation might swing to that of self-interest or interest of a group. Like our modern democracies, interest groups lobby to further their agendas. The critical element of politics is self-interest and canny manipulation of overlaps of interest. Decisions are shaped by the shifting movement of these coalitions. This is the usual kind of politics that the CEO is trying to ban.  It is assumed that self-interest is inherently evil and will manipulate outcomes. Self-interest may not always be bad. Coalitions build cases for their own interests that may involve external stakeholders but the politics is very much about their own benefits and future.

The Politics of Purpose: Great political movements form around a purpose.  Great organisations are no different. Great leaders use political behaviours to connect coalitions more strongly to a common purpose.  That purpose must have an external orientation.  Great and inspiring purpose is about the impact organisations have on the world.

Don’t ban politics from your organisation.  You will only push it underground where it will continue but be less manageable.  Instead understand and discuss the politics at play, challenge the approach and use politics to strengthen purpose.

What Interests My Community Fascinates Me

Living and working in a hierarchy can shape your attention to the world. We all need to be fascinated less by power inside our organisations. We need to be fascinated more by customers and the community outside the organisation.

A common piece of advice in large organisations is expressed this way:

‘What interests my boss, fascinates me.’

The advice highlights that your boss often has a major role in perceptions of your performance and career opportunities. The suggestion is that the path of success is to be ever more conscientious on what matters to your boss. Managing their interests will deliver rewards from their greater hierarchical power.

Except that is terrible advice in almost all circumstances:

  • your boss does not determine real value: value is determined by the network of customers and the community
  • your boss does not determine change: change is driven by collaboration across silos internally and decisions of customers and community externally
  • unless you are great at working aloud, your boss rarely has your better context of what is going on in your role and lacks your networks 
  • many bosses are reactive worrying about the last big issue or the last thing their boss mentioned
  • many bosses are fickle changing their mind on what matters -some even in your performance appraisal
  • the most enduring factor in your performance and careers is the outcomes you deliver not to what or to whom you paid attention. 
  • ‘But you told us to…’ never saves anyone

Being fascinated by every whim of your boss might build a great relationship between you two. (Warning: It might be counterproductive too) However, it will not drive real business performance.

So next time someone asks you to worry about what your boss thinks, don’t. Look outside the organisation in your networks to find what matters. Make your mantra:

‘What interests my customers and community, fascinates me’

Your boss is just one voice in your network and probably the least valuable one.

Circles of Control and Influence Revisited

The only knowledge we can manage is our own – Harold Jarche

If you are a middle manager in a large corporate, the concept of circles of control and circles of influence is sold as the concept that keeps you sane.  There are only some things you can change yourself.  There are some things you can play a role in shaping.  Everything else is beyond you.  

If you follow this model, you will keep calm and stay in your box.


However, even this narrowing of accountability doesn’t seem to work in practice.  

Why does this view of circles of control and influence break down? Discussion of these circles is usually framed in terms of the organisational hierarchy.  

Control is defined your role, your resources and your people.  Influence is those parts of the organisation you relate to directly up the hierarchy or as partners in the work.  Every other person or silo is a mystery and will remain so. Relationships outside the organisation are excluded.

Rethink your Circles for a Networked World

However, a networked world enables us to see control and influence differently:

  • Control: yourself and the physical resources you can allocate without the participation of others. YOU
  • Influence: everyone else with whom you are connected by some form of interaction. YOUR NETWORK


Our networked circle of control is much smaller than hierarchy suggests.

Other people are not under our control as much as we might like to pretend or the systems of our organisations might suggest. When networks enable us to listen, to engage and to learn together, this becomes very clear. Employees, suppliers and other partners don’t act the way we want from orders. They are motivated by an alignment of interests.  We need to influence their actions to get results and to win engagement.

If our resources or decisions require interactions with others then those interactions come with influence.

We control our personal states, our learning and the things we personally can move around, little else.

Our networked circle of influence is much larger than hierarchy suggests.  

This circle runs wherever our communication reaches. The more you network and the more you act the more influential you are.

In an organisation with an enterprise social network, your influence is potentially everyone. Influence doesn’t stop at the boundaries of the organisation.  There will be times to achieve a goal you might need to work outside the organisation to influence back in.  This much wider influence removes our ability to absolve ourselves from bad things in our organisations, our customers or our community.  We have the ability to influence their change.  For example:

  • if there is a bad customer experience in your organisation, find someone to help you change it. You can do it even it is outside your job, because it is an important role.
  • if your business is having an adverse or could have a more positive social impact, go find others to discuss and act on improving it.

Circles of influence are just as powerful as circles of control. They require different actions but the impacts can be as great.  

Keep Calm. Use influence to have impact. Just don’t define yourself and your circles in terms of a hierarchy

Susan Scrupski, Harold Jarche and I will be discussing the role of networks in organisations in the first Change Agents Worldwide webinar, in partnership with Socialcast VMware

Middle Managers need to use their Networks and Authority

Middle managers like to complain about being squeezed by pressures from above and below. Their organisations love to blame them for all the ills in the place.

Middle managers have two great advantages that they can use to drive change:

  • They can place themselves in the heart of the network of their organisations.
  • They have authority to make things happen.

Without use, these opportunities whither. Middle managers need to take advantage of them when they can.

Networking in the middle

Frontline employees have very full lives juggling customer expectations. In my experience, they have limited opportunities to engage in networking across the organisation. Enterprise social networks do assist to connect frontline people with the rest of the organisation but the pressures of direct customer engagement often means time is limited and is often focused on better meeting customer needs.

Senior management are often removed from the day-to-day interactions in the organisation because of the scale of their jobs and the greater exposure to external stakeholders. Nobody wants a hierarchy where messages need to go to the top to spread because it is a terribly inefficient way to share information.

If middle management is to have any meaningful role, middle managers needs to play a role networking the organisation across the middle.  Middle manager jobs should give them enough perspective and exposure to their peers to seek and share information widely across the silos and beyond. As nodes in the network of the organisation, managers can dramatically increase their influence sharing information, connecting people, reducing duplication and guiding action. Build a reputation as a generous middle manager who is happy to collaborate, share information and advise and you will find people beating a path to your door.  Your authority increases when you want to act.

Authority to act

When everyone around you assumes authority depends on hierarchical position, having any hierarchical power is an advantage to action. You don’t need to be at the top, you just need the respect of others. Yet many middle managers wait assuming further endorsement is required.

What middle managemers needs to do is leverage their network position and their hierarchical opportunity. Organisations often give way to people who have hierarchical power who are prepared to act, especially where the activity is beneficial and well aligned to strategy and purpose.

When I was a mid-level manager in NAB, a group of graduates came to me wanting to know whose authority they needed to set up a TEDX style speaking program in NAB.  I told them they needed no authority.  It was a great idea, there was a demand and there was no obvious sponsor in the organisational hierarchy.  Finding one would be more work than organising the first event.

I suggested that they could do it themselves and start straight away.  For safety’s sake, I told them that if they were challenged on their authority they should say I approved it.  When they did get a challenge, that answer was more than enough because the people who worry about permission rarely have the courage to check its source. A TEDX style event sat well with the culture that NAB was building and the strategy of being more open and aligned to customers and the community. The first TEDX event had over 200 internal attendees and the events which were run by volunteer graduates for 2 more years were huge successes.

Network and Use Authority

If you are a middle manager and want that role to continue in your organisation, don’t fall for the blame game.  Network yourself to increase your authority and use whatever authority you have to add value in line with the organisation’s purpose and strategy.

Susan Scrupski, Harold Jarche and I will be discussing the role of networks in organisations in the first Change Agents Worldwide webinar, in partnership with Socialcast VMware

Assigned. Chosen. Earned.

  • Job = what you need to do. May come with rank in a hierarchy. Assigned
  • Role = how you manage yourself in response to a constantly changing environment. Chosen
  • Authority = your leadership influence. Earned

Your job does not define how you behave in a situation or determine your leadership influence. Job, role and authority each come from a different source and respond to different circumstances. They will never perfectly align.

Your job may provide authority over some of your network. The impact you have in one interaction may give you authority in another part of your network. Frustratingly, it is equally likely that they both will not.  

When we see hierarchies, we confuse these three distinct concepts.  We think the hierarchy determines, and more commonly limits, our actions and our influence. 

The role you play is your choice. The influence you have can only be earned from others.

Hierarchies might give you a job. Hierarchies rarely help you do it. Let the poor hierarchy be. Stripped of roles and authority, a hierarchy is harmless enough.

You determine your actions in each context. Your network gives you the power.

Choose to have influence.

PS: For a richer discussion of these concepts and tools to help, read The Australian Leadership Paradox by Liz Skelton and Geoff Aigner

Your value is your network

Most of us will never get to manage a large hierarchy. Many of those who do complain about their lack of power.

We assume our power and value comes from position in hierarchies. We are trained by our social structures to see these pyramids as sources of power and value. Our hierarchical status influences our health and happiness.  Hierarchical instincts may well run back to our ape brain. There is a very good chance that hierarchy is solving for problems that don’t reflect our current challenges.

I was reflecting on the new maps feature of Linkedin and what struck me was that the hierarchies of my past life were hard to see in the network diagram. In fact, what I saw prompted this:

Hierarchy is the smallest and least valuable part of my network. The relationships formed in hierarchy have disappeared into a much more valuable & diverse mesh of relationships.

If my relationships were created by hierarchies, what created value was direct connection and a net of common relationships that lasted long after the hierarchies changed. Little value came from connections mediated through the hierarchies.

In addition, when I look beyond the hierarchies, I saw a much richer and more valuable network of relationships.  

There were the networks of support. So many people gave me the skills and experiences that helped make me who I am. So many people sustained me and were my sources of advice and counsel. Then there were the hundreds of collaborators

There were networks of value too. Customers and community determine the value that I create in the world. Creating change and making things happen has always been more about ability to influence and collaborate in this wider network than the power to order anything.

In a networked world, it might be time to think differently about influence and value. Stop looking at the hierarchy and look to the network that surrounds it. We may all be more effective, healthier and happier as a result.