What Is a Hierarchical Organizational Structure?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

A hierarchical organizational structure is a type of leadership structure common in a number of businesses and other types of organizations. Sometimes referred to as a top down approach, this particular organizational model is sometimes described as resembling a pyramid, with the decision making process starting at the top and each successive layer having authority over the next. This means that with the exception of the individual who is considered at the top of the pyramid, such as a chief executive officer, everyone in the organization is directly accountable to someone else.

There are both benefits and drawbacks to employing a hierarchical organizational structure.
There are both benefits and drawbacks to employing a hierarchical organizational structure.

The usage of a hierarchical organizational structure is common in many societies. One of the most applicable examples of this type of structure is found within branches of the military. A very concise and defined chain of command exists within most military organizations, with elevation to higher levels within that chain often requiring the demonstration of particular talents and abilities. Along with military organizations, businesses of all sizes and even religious organizations may use this type of top-down approach.

There are some advantages to using a hierarchical organizational structure. Typically, each position within the company structure is well defined, leaving little to no guessing on the parts of employees in terms of what is expected of them. Since positions are so clearly defined, it is very easy to determine who should be responsible for specific issues that may arise during the operation of the company or other organization. Employees will have easy access to the requirements for promotion to certain positions and know how to go about rising within the organizational structure. The chance to catch the eye of a mentor and receive support from the company, up to and including financial support for education in areas relevant to the operation, is often present, which in turn helps to motivate qualified employees to remain with the organization rather than seek opportunities elsewhere.

While there are benefits to a hierarchical organizational structure, there are also some potential drawbacks. Since the chain of command is so clearly defined, the effectiveness of the operation will often rest on how well people at each level manage those who report to them. This means that ineffectual or corrupt management can often do a great deal of damage before the issue can be addressed and corrected. In addition, if managers are not open to feedback from employees, this can help to reduce morale in the workplace, limit potential for advancement based on personal whims of the managers, and prompt valuable employees to seek opportunities with other organizations.

While sometimes looked upon as old-fashioned, the hierarchical organizational structure is still a viable approach to structuring an operation, business or otherwise. Assuming that the authority granted at each level of the organization is exercised with prudence, the work culture can be very positive and actually provide advantages to everyone concerned, even those who are at the base of that structure. As with any strategy for running a business, it is important for those who choose to utilize a hierarchical organizational structure to periodically assess how well the model is functioning, identify any areas of concern, and address those concerns before they have the chance to undermine the forward movement of the company.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including wiseGEEK, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

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Discussion Comments

As the article hints, this structure works very well only if the people at higher levels are effective. Far too often, you have people awarded plum positions regardless of whether they deserve them or not -- family ties, friendships and even downright blackmail can get a person promoted to be in charge of things and that doesn't always work out well.

If a company promotes people based on sheer merit, then a hierarchical structure works very well. Otherwise, you get a bunch of slugs in charge who are insulated enough to hang on to their jobs regardless of how poorly they perform them.

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