In low-hierarchy organisations, even key policy issues are discussed in Slack

Researchers investigated the functioning of collective authority in three software companies. Managers actively participated in the discussions, and employees were not shy about challenging them.
Photo: Tima Miroschnichenko, Pexels.
Photo: Tima Miroschnichenko, Pexels.

In a recent study, Aalto University alumn Lauri Pietinalho, a visiting scholar at New York University's Stern School of Business, and Frank Martela, an assistant professor at Aalto University, investigated how low-hierarchy organisations deal with shared policies in confrontational situations and how authority functions within them. The study included three medium-sized software companies, and the situations involved ranged from a new pay model to allowing some employees to go on a trip to the Mediterranean, and to buying a fancy statue.

Pietinalho started working on the study, based on interviews and Slack data, while he was still at Aalto. The researchers found that conversations mainly took place in Slack - even when the participants were working in the same room.

‘The world is moving in a direction where more and more of the key conversations in an organisation are taking place on different channels rather than face-to-face. And in the organisations we studied, the boss was a participant among others in the conversation, says Martela.

‘This approach does not deny the formal responsibility of the CEO, but at the same time managers’ decisions are open to challenge’, says Pietinalho.

Fair rewarding or rocking of the shared boat?

Pietinalho says that one of the most controversial situations was a week's trip to the Mediterranean, with which the business unit rewarded its employees for good performance. The idea was to work remotely from the destination for a week.

‘The problem was that people were moving between these partly arbitrary business units, and some did not belong directly to any one unit. There was a debate about whether the travel of one unit was fair to the others who had also worked for the whole’, says Pietinalho.

The head of the unit had discussed the award trip with the company's CEO. After initial doubts, the CEO had decided to support the trip because he wanted to support the autonomy of the units. He sent a joint email to everyone about it, after which things started happening on the company's Slack channel. The discussions were initially polarised.

‘People reacted to the conflict on the channel in different ways, some recalling that they are in the situation together, most trying to figure out what was going on and all that was involved. Many went around dropping their views, others also took time to speculate on the wider implications for common principles’, says Pietinalho.

The Slack discussions often ended up with a reflection on how to deal with the situation in the future while respecting the different principles that are in conflict. The unit's trip took place, but no further trips in that form were made afterwards.

‘What is exceptional here is that even big issues were discussed in Slack, whereas in more traditional organisations decisions are usually taken behind closed doors by a limited group of people, such as the management team. In Slack, a picture was formed of the general opinion, rather than necessarily following the view of the leader’, says Martela.

‘The study showed how the work community becomes an active and polyphonic force in dealing with the conflict and the common principles it brings to the surface’, says Pietinalho.

Article: Keeping The Iron Cage from Closing: How Clashes Over Shared Principles Elicit Collective Authoring


Further information:

Lauri Pietinalho
Visiting scholar
New York University's Stern School of Business
[email protected]
Tel. +358 50 487 6013

Frank Martela
Assistant professor
[email protected]
Tel. +358 50 570 7916

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