The Invisible Ladder

posted by Scott McKenzie

A picture of Laura House standing on an invisible ladder

My Dad was 70 the other day, and because me and my siblings are generous and thoughtful types, we paid for him and my Mum to have a lovely weekend in London, with lots of treats, including dinner at the Savoy Grill. In his emailed thank you, whilst fully appreciative of the wonderful time they’d had, my Dad indulged in a mini-rant about how only he, two other customers of a similar age, and the waiting staff, were wearing ties.

 “I hate to sound old fashioned, but twenty years ago none of them would even have been admitted, and thirty years ago everyone would have been wearing dinner jackets.”

 He then went on to blame Margaret Thatcher in a leap of logic that I’m unable to fully explain for you now. To be honest, my Dad enjoys a good moan, and being scandalised about the lack of formality displayed by his fellow-diners actually contributed to his good time. But it got me thinking about informality in the workplace and what it might mean for communication.

 OK, we’re not all Google – I don’t generally travel to meetings via scooter and shoot a couple of hoops with the CEO whilst agreeing the latest comms plan. But in many workplaces, office-wear and the executive corner office are obsolete. We don’t address anyone by their title anymore – no more “Take a letter Miss Jones!” and most encounters with our colleagues, suppliers and clients are more of the ‘chat over coffee’ type than anything more buttoned-up.

 This might give the casual bystander the impression that hierarchies are a thing of the past. That addressing board members by their first names confers equality, even friendship, and that the corporate ladder is now more of a gently rolling landscape. But, in most of the organisations I’ve worked in, the absence of formality can often have the opposite effect. Stripped of the visible attributes of status, people have a tendency to continually emphasise and advertise their importance, and too much time is taken up by chest-beating and general jockeying for position.

So what’s the answer? An informal corporate culture seems to work best in organisations where there’s a real commitment to collaboration, and employees have the expectation that everyone is there to concentrate on the task in hand and they have the skills to make that happen. Tied to that is the insight that good ideas can come from anywhere, from anyone, and the right channels to allow those ideas to find their place in the sun.

This is a guest-blog post by Laura House, Senior Consultant in Hill & Knowlton’s Change and Internal Communications team.

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