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The value of organizational hierarchy

More and more I am hearing that hierarchy is awful and unnecessary, and that if you simply empower people and get them rallied around a meaningful purpose, they'll work together without any need for defined leaders or managers - no power structure of any kind. These movements and philosophies generally arise in response to burdensome, ill-conceived structures that concentrate power and freedom in the hands of a few people.

Having a leaderless organization sounds really great but it turns out that it doesn't work very well. In fact, freedom from hierarchy doesn't exist anywhere in nature: animals always have some sort of social structure that dictates each creature's access to resources and role in the survival of the group.

Here are some ideas to work in a hierarchical organisation…

Respect at every level

One of the things most of us dislike about bad hierarchy is that people at top of a power structure often get treated with a lot more respect as individuals than folks at the bottom. It doesn't have to be that way and shouldn't be. There are some practical ways to ensure that respect doesn't evaporate as you move down into the organization. First, communicate clearly and consistently with all employees about big things that are happening in the organization. When you don't let people know about important events that affect them, it feels deeply disrespectful - as though they're simply mindless cogs in the machine, not worth keeping in the loop. Second, invite and consider their concerns, and look for ways to address the concerns that arise most often. Finally, when disagreements happen, continue to speak to people with consideration and patience, explaining decisions in terms of hoped-for outcomes, vs. devolving into order-giving and "because I said so" responses.

Rules focused on clarity vs. control

The worst sort of hierarchy focuses on controlling its members - even the most senior ones. For example, one organization I know of forces every employee to re-apply for their position every six months. In contrast, good hierarchies create simple, easily understandable rules for clear and constructive feedback between managers and employees that help make sure the organization isn't negatively affected, without assuming that people need to be tightly controlled.

Needed roles that make sense

In bad hierarchies, roles tend to be rigidly defined in terms of status (that is, 'higher' roles have more perks and are exempt from following the byzantine rules that hold for everyone else), but not very clearly defined in terms of who actually does what. One company I know had a recent reorganization using an approach called "Holacracy" which has been touted as a removal of hierarchy. This is actually more a focus on simplifying and clarifying needed roles in the organization. Good hierarchies make roles clear and explicit: people know what they're responsible for achieving, and they know to whom they're accountable.

Pushing power down

The essence of hierarchy is the distribution of power. If you define power as "the capacity to produce change", it makes sense that this capacity should be defined and allocated within organizations. If everyone in a big company were to have equal power to change the organization, the likely result would be chaos. In good hierarchies, power is pushed down and out into the organization as far as possible. The CEO makes key organization-wide decisions not unilaterally, but rather collaboratively with their team. Each manager delegates responsibility as much as is feasible, given the skills and understanding of those who report to them. Each employee is accorded as much decision-making power as possible within the framework of their job. When you give as many people in the organization as much autonomy and authority as they're capable of executing, the organization becomes better able to respond to change and employees become more productive and content.


The best hierarchies work to reduce the power differences throughout the organization as much as possible and to keep doing so on an ongoing basis.

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