The flatter the better? A look at the emerging shift towards flatter organisations
More and more companies nowadays are morphing into flatter organisations. This new layout in the business world is not just a physical ongoing re-organisation but instead represents a paradgimatic shift within society. The social media usage of young people – contacting celebrities, ‘sharing’ information readily and instant messaging people across the globe – has had implications for the workplace.
The age of the flatter organisations is slowly being ushered in. One company at the forefront of this is Google, which has a more communicative and open work environment, whereby everyone can talk to everyone. There is a distinct lack of the bureaucracy seen in more hierarchical organisations. Its work culture was developed initially with the intention of making their company more appealing to younger generations, but it is debatable whether this underlies the company’s success – there are probably a plethora of reasons for this. It is very likely, however, that this is why Google has topped Fortune 500‘s list of the ‘Best Companies to Work For’ for the past few years.
Hiring and holding onto younger people is obviously of interest to companies who prioritise insight, innovation and creativity over experience, and for whom young people constitute a large portion of their demographic. Several years ago, the policy expert David Eaves conducted a report evaluating how the Canadian public could improve the hiring and retention of young employees, and he concluded that they were more drawn to environments where they had the freedom to express their ideas and where there was immediate feedback from managers – i.e. flatter organisations.
The issue with hierarchical companies is that an idea has to pass through a chain of command, and its survival to get to the top depends on the opinions of the managers responsible for passing it on. If, in contrast, a young entry-level employee can propose an idea to a top-level, senior manager and there are no barriers to this, physical or figurative, then this should create a workplace which fosters ingenuity and adaptability. Flatter organisations also allow managers to monitor progress more easily and fully inform and include every employee in the implementation of new management strategies.
Jason Fried, co-founder of US software firm 37signals and author of the book ‘Rework’, states that flatter organisations free workers “from the often toxic labour-versus-management dynamic, in which neither party truly understands what it’s like to be on the other side”. More hierarchical, less flatter organisations are designed in such a way as to foment competition between colleagues, a kind of ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ mentality to produce progress – referred to as tournament theory. However, many theorists on the topic believe that this competition actually ends up hindering progress, as it reduces productivity as co-workers do not receive the benefits of co-operation and collaboration.
However, there are some downsides to flatter organisations. Herd mentality might be a problem if there is no one to give direction or to have the final say when making decisions. Barriers created by differing experience and status are all present in every aspect of the job-seeking process – from the acceptance of a CV to the interview and then the initial training and developing phase. Perhaps it is how life is supposed to be; humans have naturally been settling into social hierarchies for thousands of years.
Maybe the answer is to have flatter organisations but with some hierarchical features still intact. A workplace which combines everything in the ‘pro’ column for each; the components of hierarchy that could be kept are that someone has the final say and is responsible for overseeing others’ work. However, the flatness of the organisation will lend itself to allowing this ‘final say’ to be communicated readily and effectively. Employees of different levels would work in close proximity and there would be collaboration, allowing for creativity and the sharing of experience and expertise.
There are advantages and disadvantages to the old vertical chain of command, and also for this new one, so a combination of the two would appear to be the best solution.
The evolution of brand communication strategies: a visual approach
by Sasha Seddon
Social media has undergone an evolution, changing from lengthier, text-based communication to a more visual approach. William J Ward, Social Media Professor at Syracuse University has described a gradual movement towards visual strategies, from the early blog changing to the status update of Facebook, to the current state where “we are skipping words altogether and moving towards more visual communication with social-sharing sites like Pinterest”.
It could be argued that those brands implementing visual social media strategies will attain the social currency of likes, shares and follows necessary to survive and flourish in the online Darwinian struggle. Detavio Samuals, Director of Client Services at the successful advertising agency GlobalHue, postures that using pictures has “become a short form way of communicating lots of information quickly and succinctly…for publishers, it was evolve or risk losing their audience”.
A study by ROI Research in 2012 discovered that almost half of respondents were more likely to engage with a brand if they posted images as opposed to other forms of media. The market research company World Wide Worx has reported a ‘visual revolution’ in social media usage in South Africa. The MD, Arthur Goldstuck, summarizes the future of brand communication as such: “once the cost of mobile data comes down for the emerging smartphone market, video will become a dominant medium, strongly supported by other visual media.”
In an analysis by the lead generation marketing experts Wishpond, the predictions for 2014 were that visual content would predominate in brand communication strategies. Their reasons for this were based on research finding that: videos on landing pages increase average page conversion rates by 86%, social media posts with visuals receive 94% more page visits and engagement than those without, and 67% of consumers value detailed images over customer ratings or product information, amongst other findings.
Furthermore, a 2013 report by Shareaholic found that, from 2012-13 there was a 66.52% growth in traffic referrals from Pinterest. This increase was the greatest for all the networks examined. YouTube also displayed a high increase, of 52.86%. This shows that social media platforms predominantly focusing on visual material (photos/video posts) have recently shown the greatest improvement when it comes to converting viewers into potential customers. It suggests that the demographic swayed or enticed by visual brand communication material has increased in recent years.
But why has this trend become prominent in brand communication?
Images will always be more appealing and informative for humans. With images, there isn’t the same ambiguity as in text, which deals with the issues of rhetoric and semantics, language barriers and the literacy level of the reader. Pictures may not always say a thousand words, but they can compensate for these pitfalls in the written word, conveying a simple idea to a universal audience. From a psychological perspective, our brains are incredibly receptive to visual stimuli; many of our letters and symbols are based on shapes and morphologies found in nature. We also process visual stimuli 60,000 times faster than text, as all the information an image possesses is absorbed simultaneously – there is no linear narrative as with text – and they are assimilated into long-term memory much more readily.
We are now living in an era of constant multi-tasking and in which our brains are flooded by continual advertisements. We trawl through social media networks while watching TV. Adverts appear on the periphery of websites and on search engines; even when we’re reading news, researching for an essay, trying to find nightlife in our local area, nowhere online is safe from the threat of advertising and brand communication. Internet users and avid social media users in particular have therefore in a way been inoculated against this – we don’t pay attention to ads lurking on the fringes of pages, we install software to block pop-ups, we often only ‘like’ brands when they offer us something in return.
What determines whether the information seeping in will have any impact is the question perpetually asked by advertisers and marketers. It is not that the answer is elusive, it is that it is by nature continually changing. Companies have to carry on adapting their brand communication strategies in response to changes in technology and the inevitable trickle-down effect this has on social media. The evolution of technology and social media marketing go hand-in-hand, somewhat similar to the predator-prey co-evolution of the social media marketer and the online user.
What is important to acknowledge is that, nowadays, there is a shift occurring towards more visual forms of brand communication on social media channels. This may change in the future; a preference for text may resurge or a form of media not yet invented may pop up and revolutionize the world of social media.
Living in the here and now
This visual-centric paradigm is present now as it is the most adapted or ‘fit’ for our current environment. Using imagery means that brands can attempt to blast through the bombardment of brand communication we receive. In a world where social interaction can mean scrolling through news feeds and picking out items of interest, those items which immediately grab your attention (rather than slowly creeping up on you) will win. Images should do better than long pieces of text which you have to stop and concentrate in order to take in.
What should be considered for a visual brand communication strategy
Incorporating visual communication into social media strategies gives a company a way of showing, instead of telling, their story and showcasing their products. Also, a consistent brand message can be channelled if the company’s logo and pictures all bear similar connotations or themes – whether this be a playful/authoritative, ethical, luxurious/economical, innocent/fiendishly tempting voice.
It is also important for brand communication to account for the impact and connotations of different colours – colour psychology. Coca-Cola’s distinctive red denotes vibrancy, excitement and flavour, Facebook’s dark blue makes it seem trustworthy and secure, which is obviously important for a company involved in handling online security issues and the creation and maintenance of the users’ virtual social lives.
With regards to logos, symbolism is also a crucial factor in brand communication – the logo should not be confusing or complex, but should be unique. Bearing in mind the target audience is also of importance when choosing a colour palette or a design for the logo and brand images.
The importance of emotional intelligence in the workplace
by Sasha Seddon
“Emotional self-control – delaying gratification and stifling impulsiveness – underlies accomplishment of every sort”
Daniel Goleman (author of ‘Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ’)
There are different schools of thought concerning the value of emotional intelligence in the workplace. Some people passionately advocate hiring based on this quality, while others believe emotional intelligence pales in comparison to cognitive intelligence and is a concept as light and fluffy as soufflé. Then there are others, who don’t really know what it comprises. So, before questioning whether it really has value, we have to first ask the question: what constitutes emotional intelligence?
Cooper and Sawaf, the authors of ‘Executive EQ’ describe emotional intelligence as “the ability to sense, understand and effectively apply the power and acumen of emotions as a source for connection, collaboration, influence and inspiration”.
Louise Altman, a Partner at Intentional Communication Consultants, a consultancy group which aims to improve the relationships, culture and communication inherent in the workplace, has outlined several clusters which emotional intelligence encompasses:
intrapersonal skills – self-awareness (our awareness of ourselves and our influence on our environment), self-management (our ability to identify our emotional state and make a decision about how to deal with this)
relationship abilities – social intelligence (the ability to empathise and to foster trust), relationship management (the ability to relate to others to optimise your objectives in both your work and personal life)
Within this second cluster, the aptitudes of listening, maintaining the right level of assertiveness and politeness, and effectively managing conflicts are emphasized as key competencies.
But has emotional intelligence contributed to real success within the workplace? And is this even quantifiable?
L’Oreal incorporated emotional intelligence competency tests into their hiring process, and the salespeople favoured by this selection criteria sold an average of over $90,000 more than candidates hired by the traditional methods. The former group were also 63% less likely to leave in their first year than the latter (Spencer & Spencer, 1993; Spencer, McClelland, & Kelner, 1997).
The firm Egon Zehnder International analysed over 500 senior executives, from Latin America, Germany and Japan, and found that those who were predominantly strong in emotional intelligence were more likely to be successful than those with high IQs or previous work experience relevant to the sector – and this result was the same for all these cultures.
Ways to improve emotional intelligence
The psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal has described several ways an individual can improve their emotional intelligence:
Allow time to process feelings and try not to repress or edit them.
Try to find associations between your emotional state and similar situations from the past.
Listen to the feedback given by your body, e.g. why is your stomach knotted or heart racing in a certain context? This concept has some resonance with the James-Lange theory of emotion, which postures that a physiological change occurs first and then the brain’s interpretation of this bodily response gives rise to an emotional condition.
Try asking others what your emotional state is – other people can be very perceptive.
Another way to improve would be to practice controlling how you react, so that you can respond with empathy or diplomacy, and not end up snapping or erupting at someone.
It is important to remember that, akin to honing cognitive development, developing these skills is something that takes a long time, and everyone has room for improvement. The former involves encouraging the growth or strengthening of new neural connections, with neuroplasticity being the property of the brain which allows this to occur. The latter – emotional development – involves altering the psyche or mind, which is not necessarily more malleable than the physical brain itself. A lack of control and understanding of emotion can manifest itself in an individual’s body as a physiological sign, or in their life as a barrier to success in their relationships, and it is important to harness the power of emotional intelligence in order to be healthy in the workplace and out of it.
How neurofeedback can make you a more ethical leader
by Sasha Seddon
The idea of being able to modify brain activity using neuroscientific techniques may sound like a frightening prospect. It invokes images of the bleak dystopian futures imagined by science fiction writers, in which scientific advances have been used to oppress humanity, in an attempt to prevent crime, violence or war. There is no ethical leadership in these futures – the concept is an oxymoron. However, this is the stuff of fiction. The reality is much less scary but nevertheless exciting. Progress in neuroscience is allowing us to enhance certain aspects of our personalities, with a technique called neurofeedback. It is not mind control – it is simply a way in which people can self-regulate the activity of their brain – and it has potential for improving leadership.
Do we need new ways to encourage ethics in leadership?
Linda Klebe Treviňo and Michael Brown, scholars of organisational behaviour and ethics in management, have declared that “a more descriptive and predictive social scientific approach to ethics and leadership has remained underdeveloped and fragmented” (Brown & Trevino, 2006).
There have been a number of cases throughout the past decade where ethics have been severely compromised in the corporate world, with one salient example being the 2001 Enron scandal. This revealed that the CEOs of the US energy company Enron had been exploiting their employees by covering up the company’s true financial health. They created subsidiary companies which could show losses whilst allowing the parent company to falsely appear financially sound, thus raising the price of Enron stock. Eventually this led to the company’s collapse, with 20,000 employees losing their jobs. It resulted from the dishonesty of the CEOs and their disregard for the future of both their employees and shareholders, the inattentiveness of the Board of Directors to the nature of the subsidiary companies, and the complicity of the investment banking world. One way to safeguard against similar crises would be to enforce ethics more vigorously via governmental reforms. Another way would be to take an internal approach, integrating ethics into leadership training practices.
Luckily, neuroscience and philosophy have recently been brought together to work out what underlies the subjective concept of ethical leadership. A marriage between the sciences and humanities may raise a few cynical eyebrows but it usually gives birth to some interesting new ideas. But first things first, how do we define the concept of ethical leadership?
What it means to be an ethical leader
The fundamental objective of leaders should be to ensure the long-term stability of their company and the well-being of their employees, avoiding the myopic self-interest displayed by the executives involved in the Enron scandal.
For John Buchan, the nineteenth century Scottish novelist and politician, a leader’s task was “not to put greatness into humanity, but to elicit it, for the greatness is already there”. And according to Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, who won the 2013 Stanley C. Pace Award for Leadership in Ethics, it means appreciating the significance of everyone involved in every stage of the process, from the farmers to the store employees. Perhaps then, acknowledging the contributions of every employee and striving to bring out their good attributes, is the key to successful business ethics. An ethical leader is a grateful and empathetic one, able to connect with employees on an individual basis and value their efforts in the bigger picture of the corporate world.
This view is held by the business administration and ethics researchers, Voegtlin and Kaufmann (2012), who highlight empathy as a crucial facet of effective leadership. While it is difficult to map a precise signature of brain activity to certain emotions or capabilities, the areas believed to be implicated in these processes are the rostral anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insula (Singer et al, 2004). A person uses these for subjectivity and for self-perception – ‘I feel’, ‘I think’. These areas are also important in understanding our own emotional states and those of others.
It is not just a matter of which regions are active, but also which coordinate with each other – known technically as coherence. This is a measurement of synchronous activity, and thereby the degree of interconnectedness, of different brain areas. David A. Waldman has studied leaders who are considered inspirational by their employees, and has found that these subjects exhibit high levels of coherence in the right frontal lobe, an area associated with personality, sociality and decision-making. So what can we take from this? It may be overly reductionist to say that there is a universal neural signature for good leadership. However, by identifying traits which are prominent amongst successful leaders, we can try to implement neurofeedback strategies to develop these in people being trained for leadership roles.
So how do these neurofeedback strategies work?
Neurofeedback is a technique which uses fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) or QEEG (quantitative electroencephalography) technology to measure neural activity in real-time. It then displays the data and allows the user to modify, to some extent, their brain function. Neurofeedback treatment can be carried out in different ways, but a common method employed is where the patient mentally plays a specially designed video game while electrodes attached to their scalp transmit information to a computer.
Positive brain activity in the user is reflected in their being successful in the video game, for example having better control over speed and direction. The brain self-corrects based on the feedback supplied and this is a subconscious process. The user does not have to consciously try to alter their neural activity, as their brain is doing the work for them – absorbing the information and automatically adjusting. Positive reinforcement is a term usually applied to the discipline of psychology, but now it is stretching into the realm of neuroscience. Neurofeedback is essentially behavioural modification at an electrophysiological level.
So what exactly is changing in the brain during neurofeedback?
The concept of altering brain function is quite vague. To be more specific, it is the patterns of neural discharge emitted from the brain which are being altered. The number of each type of wave varies in each pattern, and different patterns correspond to different mental states. For instance, when we say we have a high amount of beta activity, this means that brainwaves at a frequency in the range of 12-27Hz (Hertz, or cycles per second) predominate. This occurs when an individual is awake and alert.
The ideal brainwave frequency of a person engaging in neurofeedback will depend on the type of disorder being treated; perhaps the person wants to reduce their anxiety or improve their concentration. The latter is the main goal in combating ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and this is usually achieved by decreasing the number of theta waves and increasing the number of beta waves, resulting in the patient being more alert and able to concentrate better.
How effective is neurofeedback?
A quick search on neurofeedback on the internet yields many scientific papers extolling the virtues of the therapy for increasing cognitive performance. It has shown promise in the medical world, for the treatment of conditions such as depression, addiction, insomnia and even epilepsy. Neurofeedback is also now being incorporated into training to help musicians, athletes and businesspeople exert more control over their brain activity. For the latter group, the technique increases concentration and the ability to keep calm in stressful situations, highly useful attributes for all leaders in business.
Furthermore, it has been implemented in couples therapy in order to strengthen communication and empathy between partners. With this in mind, neurofeedback seems like an ideal training exercise for promoting better leadership. The Leipzig Graduate School of Management seems to think so, having incorporated neurocoaching sessions into their Global Executive MBA programme. Steven Poelmans, one of the lecturers, believes that neurofeedback really can give us a good insight into our professional strengths and weaknesses, as “the most constructive feedback is the feedback we give ourselves…(and) the more developed our inner observer is, the better managers we make”.
But can the brain really be changed?
Well, it is important to note that our genetics do not have a monopoly over this powerful organ; it is highly susceptible to environmental feedback and even the adult brain retains a surprising degree of plasticity. Neuroplasticity is important for memory storage, recovery after brain injury, and learning new skills, amongst many other processes. Evidence for this can be seen in the application of neurofeedback practices for people with neurological and psychological deficits. It has been shown to increase emotional connection in children who have been subjected to neglect during critical developmental periods and also in autistic individuals. These improvements in empathy, as well as focus and creativity, pave the way to greater emotional and innovative intelligence, respectively. It is certainly exciting that we are living in a time where it is possible to visually depict the electrical activity correlating with certain mental processes, and use this to change the way we relate to and connect with other minds.
What does the future hold for neurofeedback?
While neurofeedback can help us to exert some degree of emotional self-regulation, it cannot be used to dictate our thoughts or give us a specific personality – which is of course a good thing. Simply put, it can be used to enhance desirable characteristics in individuals – drive, empathy, level-headedness – thereby allowing them to become better leaders. As Buchan would say, the good qualities are already there, they just need to be coaxed out.
The word ‘viral’ has connotations of aggression and invasiveness. Drop it into the context of marketing, however, and it is instead a potent means of spreading a company’s message and engaging customers. Wilson (2000) has described viral marketing as “any strategy that encourages individuals to pass on a marketing message to others, creating the potential for exponential growth in the message’s exposure and influence”. Knight (1999) has made the far less poetic analogy of a “digitalised sneeze”.
Cultural evolution theories provide an interesting perspective. Social media posts can be viewed as memes, a term coined by the evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins to refer to “a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation”. A successful meme is an element of culture which self-replicates; it propagates itself from one mind to another, out-competing other ideas and remaining intact (not subject to distortion by Chinese whispers!) Once seeded online, the message can propagate itself via re-tweets, post-sharing and email-forwarding. It can replicate itself exponentially, creating a kind of social contagion. The message is the virus and the mind is its host. However, while planting a seed can lead to the growth of something great, it can just as easily be fruitless; the message can falter and fail – a social media non-starter.
Social media platforms such as Twitter are ideal environments for this; a single tweet can be re-tweeted quickly, can reach a huge number of people simultaneously and, as it is basically copy-and-pasted, the original message stays the same.
Certain memes are more effective than others. What kind of content thrives in the world of online marketing? There are many different factors to consider.
Milkman and Berger (2012) examined all the articles published by the New York Times over a three month period, and identified the emotional content of successful posts (ie. the articles most likely to be shared via email). They found that the most popular content does at least one of the following:
elicits a strong emotional reaction
is practically useful
is positive in nature
High-energy emotions such as anger, happiness and awe are more likely to be shared than low-energy ones, such as sadness.
For The Flash Pack, a company specialising in organising small group and bespoke travel, a rather interesting image was the cornerstone of their success – with relevance, humour and positive emotions all playing their part. Their ‘First ever selfie with Jesus’ viral campaign featured travel blogger and photographer Lee Thompson climbing inside Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue and then taking a picture at the top. The photos were posted on Instagram three weeks later, to coincide with the beginning of the FIFA World Cup in Brazil. The post went viral during the World Cup and 1.4 million hits were received by the company’s website in just four days. Thompson describes this as a “priceless marketing campaign”, as it cost nothing to do but resulted in a huge success. There were about one million hits on their website in six days, the photo has been shared around 50 million times on Facebook and Twitter, and the video received 900,000 hits on Youtube.
Burger King struck gold when they launched their ‘Subservient Chicken’ campaign, which included a website appearing as an interactive webcam. The site enabled people to ‘control’ a man in a chicken costume, using pre-recorded footage of him carrying out actions such as push-ups, moonwalking and laying eggs. It embodied the idea that customers of Burger King can have their chicken any way they like it – “Have it your way” – and to promote the new TenderCrisp sandwich. Within a week, the site received 20 million hits and a month after the debut of their new product, the fast food franchise reported that sales had steadily increased by around 9% each week. Although a causal link between the marketing and sales cannot be established, it is likely that the campaign improved the brand’s identity, associating them with humour and fun, and increased awareness for the new product.
Another, more common example of brand-consumer interactivity is the use of quizzes. These are popular when it comes to shared posts. Many brands use these to engage customers and update them about new products; for example, Food52 regularly posts quizzes such as ‘Which cake are you?’ and ‘Find out your spirit sandwich’. Just three days after posting their cake quiz on Twitter, it had been viewed over 20,000 times, leading to a great deal of brand exposure and customer engagement.
People like posts which identify themselves and let others know what they are like. If it makes them look good, then it appeals to the narcissistic side of sharers, as does the sharing of content which makes a person seem intelligent, thoughtful or successful.
Posting images is another way to appeal to customers and increase the number of shares. BuzzSumo’s analysis of 100 million articles identified many factors associated with more success – that is, the more times the articles were shared online. They found that having at least one image in a post results in more shares for both Twitter and Facebook content.
The power of numbers, words and days
BuzzSumo also found that lists are commonly shared posts, with those containing the number 10 to be the most popular, and those containing the number 23 to be the second most popular.
Articles including the word ‘actually’ in their titles are shared more than similar articles without this word – for example, ‘Which career should you actually have?’ is more successful than ‘Which career should you have?’ Quotes are also commonly re-tweeted, more so than questions; this is also thought to appeal to the egocentricism of sharers – posting quotes can make people seem knowledgeable, profound and thoughtful. Visuals may be important but, on Twitter, text is re-tweeted more often than images or videos; for Twitter users, at least, it seems that a picture is not worth a thousand words.
The best day to publish social media content appears to be a Tuesday. Facebook and Twitter show the most activity during the daytime, while Pinterest is more popular in the evening.
An excellent case study of how incentives can lead to increased sharing is the Bird’s Eye pay-by-picture restaurant. The company launched a pop-up restaurant in which diners could try their new chicken and fish products and then settle the bill by uploading a picture of their meal to Instagram. It was highly successful for exposing people to the products on offer, directly through the incentives and sharing, and indirectly through the media attention given to the campaign.
Blendtec’s ‘Will it blend?’ videos are a perfect example of how to draw attention to a product and showcase its benefits, while also adding in some humour. The series showed scientists testing how different household items can be blended, exhibiting the effectiveness, strength and durability of the product.
Berger and Milkman also found that ‘practical utility’ was a more pertinent factor than ‘interest’ concerning sharing articles.
These are just a few things to consider. The German writer and politician Johann Wolfgang von Goethe observed, ideas are “like chessmen moved forward; they may be beaten, but they may start a winning game”.
Let’s hope these tips can help you start a winning game.