A Top Down Structure vs. A Peer-to-Peer Culture — Part 1

Anna Margolis
10 min readMay 28, 2020


**𝐈𝐟 𝐲𝐨𝐮’𝐫𝐞 𝐚 𝐦𝐞𝐦𝐛𝐞𝐫 𝐨𝐟 𝐚 𝐫𝐞𝐠𝐞𝐧𝐞𝐫𝐚𝐭𝐢𝐯𝐞 𝐨𝐫 𝐧𝐞𝐰 𝐩𝐚𝐫𝐚𝐝𝐢𝐠𝐦 𝐬𝐦𝐚𝐥𝐥 𝐭𝐞𝐚𝐦, 𝐬𝐭𝐚𝐫𝐭𝐮𝐩, 𝐛𝐮𝐬𝐢𝐧𝐞𝐬𝐬, 𝐜𝐨𝐦𝐦𝐮𝐧𝐢𝐭𝐲, 𝐧𝐨𝐧-𝐩𝐫𝐨𝐟𝐢𝐭 𝐨𝐫 𝐩𝐫𝐨𝐣𝐞𝐜𝐭


Y𝐨𝐮’𝐫𝐞 𝐚𝐧 𝐢𝐧𝐯𝐞𝐬𝐭𝐨𝐫 𝐰𝐡𝐨 𝐢𝐬 𝐚𝐜𝐭𝐢𝐯𝐞𝐥𝐲 𝐥𝐨𝐨𝐤𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐭𝐨 𝐢𝐧𝐯𝐞𝐬𝐭 𝐢𝐧 𝐭𝐡𝐞𝐬𝐞 𝐤𝐢𝐧𝐝𝐬 𝐨𝐟 𝐞𝐧𝐝𝐞𝐚𝐯𝐨𝐮𝐫𝐬, 𝐭𝐡𝐢𝐬 𝐭𝐰𝐨-𝐩𝐚𝐫𝐭 𝐬𝐞𝐫𝐢𝐞𝐬 𝐢𝐬 𝐟𝐨𝐫 𝐲𝐨𝐮.

In my last post I introduced the concept of peer-to-peer contribution ratings over time as a way to provide real-time data around contribution and participation and a means for resource (in terms of equity, compensation or both) to dynamically calibrate its flow to mirror contribution accordingly.

This allows, among other things, the organism to flow resources to the people who are energetically providing the most nourishment, rather than people who may have put a large sum of money in at the front end, or have an impressive title, but who maybe aren’t actually participating or contributing very much in real time.

And there are also a whole host of other benefits to introducing peer-to-peer ratings, not least of which is how it can support us to train ourselves out of our hierarchical conditioning into becoming the kind of people who can consistently and reliably operate within a peer-to-peer culture.

Now before you switch off thinking you’ve got this piece dialled, because you’re already in a small group with your good friends, in devotion to a Shared Vision, and you’re confident that you already know you want to be relating as friends and/or equals and no one be the boss…….

….it’s worth noting that if you’ve ever had to follow the lead or take instructions from:

A parent;

An older sibling;

A teacher;

A boss;

A manager; or

A commanding officer,

then whether you realise it or not, you have been subjected to some level of hierarchical conditioning.

If you’ve been educated in a traditional school, worked in the corporate world, served in the military, operated under a management structure in your prior place(s) of employment or even experienced a positional hierarchy within your family of origin then you’ve had significant exposure to hierarchical conditioning.

As such, if you’re wanting to operate in an environment that’s comparatively free of top down control, it may be helpful for us to unpack some of the differences between the hierarchical environments we’ve become used to and the culture we’re wanting to move toward, why any of this even matters in a startup context and what it takes to become someone who can consistently and reliably thrive inside of a peer-to-peer culture.

Tʜᴇ Dɪғғᴇʀᴇɴᴄᴇs Bᴇᴛᴡᴇᴇɴ ᴀ Tᴏᴘ Dᴏᴡɴ Sᴛʀᴜᴄᴛᴜʀᴇ ᴠs A Pᴇᴇʀ-ᴛᴏ-Pᴇᴇʀ Cᴜʟᴛᴜʀᴇ

Ok, let’s back up a moment and look at what these systems are intended to achieve.

The primary purpose of a top down structure is the dissemination of clear information or instruction from the people who hold power or make decisions at the top, down the ranks to the people at the bottom, and the equivalent consolidation of information from the bottom up the ranks to the decision-maker(s) at the top of the pyramid.

Just think of a military hierarchy or the tiered management structure of a corporate bureaucracy.

Up until recently when decentralisation and the distribution of power and decision-making became so 𝑒𝑛 𝑣𝑜𝑔𝑢𝑒, this was widely accepted to be the most efficient method for managing groups of people and large scale production (and in some situations, it still is).

However, in recent years, a handful of top experts in the field of leadership and management have debunked this theory, including Frederik Laloux, author of Reinventing Organisations and Gary Hamel, a 30+ year professor at London Business School, one of the most prolific writers in Harvard Business Review and author of What Matters Now and Humanocracy (all 3 books are ones that I highly recommend, incidentally).

In a top down hierarchy we are entrained to put our attention on or respond to the person higher up the chain of command than we are; like the teacher, or our manager, or our commanding officer.

They are elevated to a position of authority in our perception and experience, even oftentimes being called our “𝒔𝒖𝒑𝒆𝒓𝒊𝒐𝒓𝒔”; they can tell us what to do, they may have power over the resources we receive, they are paid more than us, their word carries more weight than ours and they usually have more experience than we do.

As a result of this dynamic we often submit to heavy controls on our freedom and limits on our power to make decisions — particularly in terms of:

- our hours;

- our vacation times;

- being confined to our cubicles and offices;

- not expressing ourselves openly (unless called upon);

- needing sign-off for our ideas; and

- complying with upward reporting lines;


All in order to maintain the industrial priorities of order, productivity and efficiency within the hierarchy.

And as such change, creativity and innovation in a hierarchy are painstakingly slow and limited.

Now consider the contrast of a startup environment.

This is typically a smaller team endeavour, that necessitates rapid innovation, adaptability, consistent access to creativity and, I’d propose, higher than average EQ, in order to navigate the trials and tribulations of the startup journey, particularly in today’s rapidly changing business environment and given the oft reported 90–95% failure rate of startups.

A good startup team therefore needs to be able to communicate clearly and effectively, interpret the market feedback accurately, as well as change and pivot rapidly.

Everyone in the team needs to be empowered to make decisions that are relevant to their particular area of expertise (and oftentimes beyond) and if there’s an issue either externally or internally, they need to be able to raise it and deal with it quickly.

As such, while there’s nothing wrong with top down hierarchy 𝑝𝑒𝑟 𝑠𝑒 (and it’s still the most effective approach in certain scenarios) it’s not necessarily the most well-suited organism structure for a small startup team or project.

And yet, more often than not, it’s all we know.

Sᴏ Wʜʏ Dᴏᴇs Aɴʏ ᴏғ Tʜɪs Mᴀᴛᴛᴇʀ ɪɴ ᴀ Sᴛᴀʀᴛᴜᴘ Cᴏɴᴛᴇxᴛ?

Because when we come into small groups and start working together toward a Shared Vision (particularly if we’re committed to being the kind of startup that’s not simply defaulting to the old paradigm ways of being, but instead are) devoted to creating the kind of sovereign and regenerative culture that aligns with Nature’s intelligence, then whether we like it or not, the historical conditioning that’s ingrained in us at the subconscious level will not only affect us, but will likely come up to be worked out of our system so that we can embody a new way of being that aligns with our Vision.

So what do I mean when I say, “𝑒𝑚𝑏𝑜𝑑𝑦 𝑎 𝑛𝑒𝑤 𝑤𝑎𝑦 𝑜𝑓 𝑏𝑒𝑖𝑛𝑔” in this context?

Well, take a look at the attached video.

You’ll see how in it the pieces move from the square boxes of a top down hierarchical structure, to reorganising into triangular lenses located around a geometric shape (a metatron’s cube).

That metatron’s cube is metaphorically radiating Light — as you can see depicted in the video by the flash.

And when we take a look inside it, we find another geometric shape, the octahedron, representing the core team, organised equally around the central point of Light or the Shared Vision.

In essence, by virtue of how the lenses are related to each other and to the Shared Vision, each member of the core team shares the same “horizontal” position of power and authority, each playing a theoretically equal role.

Which, incidentally, is a characteristic of a Heterarchy (as contrasted to a Hierarchy).

A Heterarchy is defined as:

“𝘢 𝘴𝘺𝘴𝘵𝘦𝘮 𝘰𝘧 𝘰𝘳𝘨𝘢𝘯𝘪𝘻𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯 𝘸𝘩𝘦𝘳𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘦𝘭𝘦𝘮𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘴 𝘰𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘰𝘳𝘨𝘢𝘯𝘪𝘻𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯 𝘢𝘳𝘦 𝘶𝘯𝘳𝘢𝘯𝘬𝘦𝘥 (𝘯𝘰𝘯-𝘩𝘪𝘦𝘳𝘢𝘳𝘤𝘩𝘪𝘤𝘢𝘭) 𝘰𝘳 𝘸𝘩𝘦𝘳𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘺 𝘱𝘰𝘴𝘴𝘦𝘴𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘱𝘰𝘵𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘪𝘢𝘭 𝘵𝘰 𝘣𝘦 𝘳𝘢𝘯𝘬𝘦𝘥 𝘢 𝘯𝘶𝘮𝘣𝘦𝘳 𝘰𝘧 𝘥𝘪𝘧𝘧𝘦𝘳𝘦𝘯𝘵 𝘸𝘢𝘺𝘴,”

which is a much more suitable structure for a small group or startup that needs to be able to be continuously adaptable (and also just so happens to be how the human brain is organised).

As such, unless we’re aware of how our hierarchical conditioning can affect us, and actively addressing it if or when it does, it can all too easily get in the way of our ability to fully show up as an equal or usefully contributing member of our team once we start wanting to play in a heterarchy.

Ok, so how does this play out in practice…..?

Well, let’s take a typical scenario.

You come together with a group of people you want to collaborate or co-create with around a Shared Vision.

More often than not there is usually one person in the group who is the primary source of the Vision (let’s call them the “Sᴏᴜʀᴄᴇ” for ease of reference) at least initially.

You know the person I’m talking about….

The charismatic leader.

The one everyone else looks to for guidance and direction.

The one who usually speaks first when someone asks about the Vision because it’s so native to them because it’s been germinating inside them for so long.

Maybe they’re even the one that’s bringing most of the resource to the table in the initial stages.

And while it’s completely normal and natural for there to be a Sᴏᴜʀᴄᴇ, what can often happen outside of our conscious awareness, due to our conditioning, is that the rest of the group start relating to that person like the “boss” of a hierarchy.

We elevate them to a higher position and pedestal them.

We give our power away to them or are constantly asking questions of them and looking for direction.

Or, alternatively, at some level we may rebel against them and then block out their direction and feedback.

We may inadvertently try to please them to gain their approval.

Perhaps we doubt ourselves in comparison to them.

We regularly hold back from giving feedback to them (or to anyone else for that matter) or saying what we’re seeing.

Because at some level, we are afraid to get in trouble, or for our resources to be cut off.

And yet, in a heterarchy the Sᴏᴜʀᴄᴇ 𝒏𝒆𝒆𝒅𝒔 the unfettered diverse perspectives of the other members of the group for the business to thrive.

They 𝒏𝒆𝒆𝒅 their teammates to openly express what they’re seeing.

In fact, being self-led, having clear feedback loops and each member of the team being openhearted and open in your communication with one other is absolutely essential for you as a startup team.

Without this kind of culture, the Sᴏᴜʀᴄᴇ is stuck at the top of an invisible hierarchy, feeling isolated and having to constantly navigate the people-issues and give all the uncomfortable feedback, rather than pouring their creative energy into the organism.

And on the flipside, unless the Sᴏᴜʀᴄᴇ is genuinely embodying a surrendered approach to leadership, where they are:

Choosing to let go of control;

Willing to face the hard but valuable truths about themselves (even when it’s uncomfortable or challenging);

Open to giving and receiving feedback; and

Supporting others to rise into leadership;

so that the Vision, the power, the responsibility and the decision-making can distribute more evenly across the group, then there is the risk that they will simply take on the power you’re giving to them, that it will serve to inflate their ego and before you know it they’ve become an unapologetically narcissistic control freak.

It goes both ways, you see.

And both parties are fully responsible for that dynamic showing up and for how it plays out.

By shrinking, giving our power away, and relating to them as a “superior” we’re causing the Sᴏᴜʀᴄᴇ to show up as the “controlling boss” archetype in our experience.

And by not surrendering control the Sᴏᴜʀᴄᴇ’s ego is keeping them firmly planted at the top of the pyramid, isolated, disconnected, overworked and often feeling misunderstood.

Now at this point I’ll add that there are some people who really do prefer to lead and be led. Some people thrive in hierarchies and are really good at giving or taking instruction and simply executing on them.

And there’s really nothing wrong with that.

But if you’re the kind of person or team who really wants to be operating as equals, in an environment where no one is imposing any unnecessary control, where everyone has consistent access to their creativity and is ever increasingly embodying their sovereign leadership, then these dynamics aren’t going to sustain for very long;

Sooner or later the mounting tension will likely break or 𝕓𝕝𝕠𝕤𝕤𝕠𝕞 the group.

And I say break or 𝕓𝕝𝕠𝕤𝕤𝕠𝕞, because if they can see their self-responsibility in what’s happening, move through each point of tension in connection to a space where their hearts are back open and receptive to each other, then the trust, love and eventually also coherence between the group inevitably deepens.

But there’s also no shortage of research that shows that these kinds of relational tensions within a highly interacting small group pursuing a Shared Vision usually create the kind of entropic group dynamics that are a major cause of project failure and the group breaking apart.

And this is because if relational tensions persist in an organism, they can cause:

- trust to erode;

- stagnant creative energy;

- apathy/people becoming checked out;

- stress;

- bottled up emotions;

- isolation;

- health issues/burn out

- impact on personal relationships; and

- so much more.

And before you know it someone has bounced out.

Which, of course, might be all good and exactly what’s meant to happen.

Or it might be an indication that our conditioning and/or our egos are winning the inner battle and sabotaging our best efforts to actualize our Shared Visions.

The bottom line is that the relationships within the group are the very foundation of any business or creative endeavour, meaning that what’s happening within the group’s relationships, directly affects how effectively the group is showing up with each other and how able they are to produce and adapt in the outside world.

Which is highly relevant to the team members, investors AND the customer of the business.

We’ll be exploring more on the topic of invisible relational tensions and how peer-to-peer ratings can support us to become the kind of people who can consistently and reliably operate within a peer-to-peer culture in:




Anna Margolis

As a former lawyer, Anna merges material world memories, tales of transformation and embodied experience in articulating the future of collaboration