Happy without hierarchies: Who cares for employee happiness if there are no hierarchies?


Working with different clients has the benefit of discovering many contexts and with that, different perspectives, observations, and questions.

Occasionally, there are questions so good, that I need to write articles about them.

I was recently working with the CTO of a startup who is currently scaling their team. While they love the idea of not introducing hierarchies, they still have plenty of questions around how to structure the teams, how to make decisions and how to make sure that everybody thrives within the company.

One of the questions that came up in one of our calls was: “Who cares for the happiness of engineers, if there is no dedicated person for that?” — This a great question.

And one that, I believe, is quite common and interesting for a broader audience. In this blog post, In will share my thoughts on this.

My happiness is my own responsibility.

Who is responsible for your happiness outside of work? I hope, it is you. Why to make a difference in the work context? You know best how you feel, what your needs are, and whether those needs are met or not.

It is your responsibility to tell the people around you, when there is something bothering you or if you have a wish or desire. Only then, people can support you in getting it.

Therefore, companies who try to keep hierarchies flat should coach their people to care for their needs and happiness. Distributing leadership and with that, self-leadership is one of the most important aspects when trying to avoid hierarchies.

Of course, I am not suggesting to just throw people into a new company and let them figure out whom to talk and connect to. Some guidances surely does not hurt, and I will get to that later on.

People should care without being paid for it.

What world would that be where the only people who care for my happiness are the ones that are paid to do so and are just put into place for caring? Would their care actually mean as much to me as the care of peers?

Caring and being able to care means having a close and trustful relationship with a person. Only then, people will be able to fully open and reveal what really bothers them. They need to know that they can reveal themselves without risking their job or their perceived position in the company.

This kind of relationship is more common between peers than between managers and their direct reports. This is especially true when you are working closely with your peers and connect daily, not only on a bi-weekly basis or during performance reviews.

By putting the human connection first, peers can establish a connection that not only enables them to work together extremely well, but also to be there for each other and help each other to get their needs met.

This can mean as little as just listening, providing another opinion, or suggesting somebody else in the company whom to talk to.

Seeing the person and caring for the person are not a managers/ leaders’ job, but everyone’s job. Only if you treat each other as humans in a team and try to go beyond only solving tasks, you will become a team that can tackle all kinds of challenges together.

Therefore, introducing people leads might even have an opposing effect.

There can be dedicated caretakers without hierarchy.

Becoming aware of your needs and expressing them takes work and courage, and not everybody is equally good at it. Many people might need or want support in doing so.

Furthermore, they need to know which ways exist to express tensions (coming from unmet needs) and who might be a good person or group to discuss this with.

Especially when people are new to a company, they might need some time to build trustful relationships.

In the past, I have seen two roles work extremely well to support new joiners but also unsure people in how to deal with their needs: Happiness buddies and coaches.

Happiness Buddies

At BRYTER, we used to have Happiness Buddies who often were part of the people team and would be assigned to new joiners. Their purpose was solely to be there for the new joiner and make sure that they feel happy and connected within the company from day one. This means helping them with all kinds of questions, connecting them to the right people, and building a human relationship in the first place.

Typically, the connection with the happiness buddy will stay throughout the years, even though it might become less important for the individual as other connections form in the company with people who are closer to the daily work. Nonetheless, the happiness buddy is a valuable person when needing some more outside perspective.

It is crucial that happiness buddies are people who genuinely care for people without having the official role as a “people lead”. Hierarchies can make it more difficult to connect with each other, depending on the experiences and expectations of the new joiner. Thus, in theory, every person on the team or in the company can be a happiness buddy, if they are interested in this kind of (temporary) role.


Furthermore, coaches can be extremely helpful once a trustful relationship between coach and coachee is established. Coaches can help individuals to understand their needs better and find ways to own and express them. The coach’s job is not to meet the needs and find solutions, but to make sure that the individual finds ways of addressing the needs in a healthy way.

A simple question like “Have you spoken with X about it?” can remember a person who the right person to talk to might be, and also that they need to own their needs. It is easy to forget that you cannot expect anybody else to take the responsibility for your needs, when you are used to traditional companies.

Regularly checking-in with coaches ensures that people are aware of this kind of support-structure, have a trustful relationship with a coach, and don’t keep unmet needs for themselves for too long. Thus, coaches can be a great addition to your team when you want to have support-structures without adding hierarchies.


There are many ways to make sure everybody is happy and can strive in a company. Even in bigger companies, this doesn’t need to mean that you require hierarchies, people leads, managers or however you call them. Especially when you embrace a flat hierarchy, it is easier for people to meet their needs by talking to peers and coaches about them.

Happiness buddies can be a great mechanism to make sure that new joiners have somebody who checks on them from day one, without making this a formal job title or position.

Finally, in companies that are built on distributed- and self-leadership, the happiness of the individual should first be their responsibility. Training people to take responsibility for their needs while also giving them ways to express them and get them met and supporting them in building trusting relationships is the way to go. It requires constant effort and care for each other, but this makes the whole organisation a better place and creates a reliable and scalable structure that does not rely on hierarchies.

  • What are your thoughts on this? Please let me know in the comments!
  • Would you like to talk more about this and how to make this happen in your company? Drop me a message!

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