Motivating people in a flat organisation

In a structure that includes few real promotion opportunities, focus on other factors to keep staff engaged.
Motivating people in a flat organisation

One of the greatest assets an organisation can have is a motivated staff. Motivated employees are more engaged, more productive, and more likely to stay in their jobs longer. But how do you motivate people — especially in today's nonhierarchical companies where real promotions are few and far between?

What role does money play?

Money is what is known as a "hygiene factor", a basic requirement. If you don't pay people enough, it can be a significant demotivator. But once you pay them enough, paying them any extra has little effect. It's a good idea to pay people slightly above the market rate — this tells your staff you value them enough to pay more than your competitors do and will help make you an employer of choice.

But it's not that simple

Pay is not just benchmarked externally. People compare themselves to their colleagues. Having unfair salary disparities internally can be hugely demotivational — and can lead to charges of discrimination. This often happens, particularly with longer serving staff, because some people are better at negotiating than others. There often is an element of gender or other biases, including unconscious ones, too. So you need to ensure that people who work at the same level get the same pay — and this needs to be done in a holistic and structured way. One of the best ways of doing this is having transparency around pay and pay bands. Bonuses are generally not a good way to motivate people. They produce short-term upticks in satisfaction but do little in the long term and can be divisive.

Be fair with appraisals

Fairness is not just about pay. Both managers and organisations should ensure that staff appraisals are conducted in a way that is both fair and seen as fair. Employees should feel that a balanced view has been taken of their performance and that everyone is held to the same standards. They should be asked to contribute and should agree with the conclusions of the appraisal. If there are problems, a way forward that both parties buy into should be found.

Give people a sense of purpose

A feeling of belonging and the idea that there is a greater goal also helps to keep staff engaged. People should feel that they are contributing to something bigger than just their immediate role. A famous illustration of this is the (probably apocryphal) story of US President John F. Kennedy asking a janitor at NASA what he did. The janitor replied, "I'm helping put a man on the moon." Interestingly, this is something the public sector and not-for-profit organisations often do much better than the private sector.

Be an attractive organisation

People want to work for a business they can be proud of. Some might seek to work for a widely admired household name, like Google or Nike. But people increasingly choose employers based on criteria such as environmental responsibility, diversity and gender balance, corporate social responsibility, and so on. This is particularly true of younger employees and graduates. Attractiveness is closely related to purpose — people want to work for a business that reflects their own values and that they can feel good about.

Career development is the new career progression

In old-fashioned, hierarchical organisations, people got a promotion every few years, which gave them a feeling that they were moving forward. In flat organisations, this is much tougher. But it is not impossible. You can still offer people career development. This might involve moving them sideways to gain experience, temporarily assigning them to other business units or special projects, or giving them training. You still provide the sense of building careers and skillsets, just in a different way.

Make their lives easier

This is closely related to being an attractive organisation. Be thoughtful and show your employees you care. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is that parents of young children are likely to find working for an employer that tries to be flexible much easier. As we return to offices after COVID-19, there is going to be a great deal of flux and change in this area. It is an opportunity for companies to rethink how people work — and help their staff better manage work/life balance.

Be a good boss

It's not just a saying that people join companies but leave managers. In survey after survey, a dislike of a boss is cited as the number one reason for leaving. So, be a good boss. Take an interest in your staff and their careers. Be available to talk — or take them out for coffee when it makes sense to do so. Give them feedback regularly. Bosses tend to assume that if things are going OK, they don't need to say anything. This is not the case. Tell staff they're doing a good job. Or pick up the phone and thank them. Better still, acknowledge them publicly.

Empower people

As a boss, you should give staff the tools they need to do their jobs and then let them get on with it. Be there if they need you, but give them space to work, and resist the urge to ask for constant updates or constantly look over their shoulders. Do not do their jobs for them or tell them how you would do things better. Be a manager, not a micromanager.

Motivate yourself

If you are working in a flat organisation, much of this advice works for individuals. You can ask for training and to be moved around the organisation if you feel you are becoming stale and stuck in a rut. You can take the initiative and make suggestions to your boss. You can ask for feedback and flexible working. You can join company-wide groups that concern themselves with social responsibility or charitable work. All of these will give you new experience and bring you into contact with new people. You can, to a very large extent, empower yourself and take charge of your career and motivation.

Visit the Global Career Hub from AICPA & CIMA for help with finding a job or recruiting. Visit

Rhymer Rigby is an FM magazine contributor and author of The Careerist: Over 100 Ways to Get Ahead at Work. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Neil Amato, an FM magazine senior editor, at