Hierarchy culture: what are the pros and cons?

What is hierarchy culture and how may it be helping or hindering your business? HR and recruitment consultant Gemma Hart explains hierarchical business cultures and the pros and cons of this organisational structure.

A hierarchical structure is a popular foundation for many organisations. It can help direct a company’s journey and can be beneficial for both employees and employers. However, in some cases an organisation’s hierarchical culture may be too rigid and, as a result, stifle creativity and out-of-the-box ideas, thereby hindering company growth.

If you’re considering a cultural reset in your business, this article will discuss the topic of hierarchy culture and its pros and cons, to help you understand whether a structure of this sort is beneficial or a hindrance for your organisation.

What is hierarchy culture?

Hierarchical structures have become so ingrained in our society that many people no longer notice they’re even there. Hierarchy culture predominantly focuses on creating a relatively fixed organisational structure through the implementation of certain processes and rules, as well as the introduction of multiple levels of power and responsibility within the organisation - for instance with directors, team leaders, managers, and senior staff.

Every organisation will structure their hierarchy slightly differently. These structures typically allow for the progression of individuals to higher levels of responsibility within an organisation. This can help ensure the continued forward motion of an organisation’s success.

Examples of hierarchy culture

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It is very likely you have experienced examples of hierarchy culture throughout your professional life. However, just in case you are unsure, below are four examples of hierarchical structures within organisations:

1. The military

The military is a great example of a hierarchy culture, as it is all about individuals working to perform certain tasks or roles within a particular rank. In the military, each rank reports to the one above it. One of the benefits of this is that each individual has a clearly defined role and path to achieve success. However, hierarchical structures such as those seen in the military can be the cause of slow decision-making processes.

2. Ecommerce businesses

The hierarchical structure can work well for large eCommerce businesses (take Amazon as an example) because it allows for the company to be organised into smaller teams under separate management for a more precise service that ensures attention to detail.

3. Political systems

Political systems are hierarchical cultures as they have the president at the top, then the vice president, and so forth. Just like the military, political systems ensure everyone understands their role and is able to perform well. However, as mentioned above, such detailed hierarchy systems can make the process of decision making overly complicated, often delaying action.

4. Churches

Churches tend to have hierarchical cultures. For example, in the Anglican Church the monarch is at the highest level, followed by the archbishop, then the bishops, deaneries, and finally vicars. Again, each level of the hierarchy holds its own responsibilities and individuals are required to perform their roles within these set boundaries. They may progress to new levels of responsibility when the right experience has been gained and the right training has been completed (as an example).

What are the pros of hierarchy culture?

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So, now that you have an understanding of what hierarchy culture is and you have seen some relatable examples, it’s time to talk about the pros.

A clearly defined chain of command

Perhaps one of the most significant benefits of hierarchy culture is having a clearly defined chain of command. In a hierarchical structure, everyone knows where they stand, who they report to, and who reports to them. This can be important for ensuring job satisfaction, allowing room for professional development, and offering employees a sense of ownership over their roles (unless they are being micromanaged). Having a clearly defined chain of command can also make the working process more productive, which significantly benefits business growth.

Development opportunities and professional advancement

Employees generally want to progress in their careers. They want to develop their skills, learn new things, and achieve success. However, to do this there need to be opportunities for professional advancement provided by the organisation. A hierarchy culture can help meet these needs, allowing passionate and motivated employees to further their skills, gain the relevant training, and accept more responsibility.

According to Forbes, “every employee has some plan for their career, but they may not know how to achieve it. It’s up to the managers to support employee career growth so they’ll build their skills and be motivated on the job [...] Showing employees that they have the support of both the company and the manager in their career advancement can lead to better retention and company growth overall.”

The provision of job security

Employees who feel safe and secure in their role, as a result of being paid on time and having clear responsibilities, tend to stay loyal to the companies they work for. Hierarchy culture can help ensure employees’ needs for security and predictability can be met.

According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, “people want to experience order, predictability and control in their lives. These needs can be fulfilled by the family and society.” A hierarchical structure can be an excellent way to meet the security needs of individuals and earn their loyalty to a company.

What are the cons of hierarchy culture?

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Hopefully, as you have been reading you have been making your own mind up about the effectiveness of hierarchy culture. There can certainly be cons to having a hierarchical organisational structure, some of which we’ll discuss below:

Businesses become inflexible and unadaptable to change

One of the most significant cons of hierarchy culture in the workplace is how rigid the structure can be. While this may be beneficial for organisations such as the military, in today’s modern workplace it can cause businesses to become inflexible and unable to adapt to change.

“The rigidity of the hierarchical structure often creates friction when businesses need to adapt quickly to change or meet marketplace demands in fresh new ways,” says Maxine Bremner, Head of Content and Outreach at Hive19. “With wellbeing and employee empowerment at the forefront, The Competing Values Framework originally coined the term “Clan Culture,” in which organisations work in a more collaborative, flexible way, which has proven an effective way of working for us. It has helped our company scale as a startup and improved internal processes for greater productivity.”

Hierarchical structures can be slow to adapt to change and are typically inflexible when it comes to bending towards the needs of their employees or meeting the demands of their customers. When these needs and demands are out of the boundaries of how a hierarchical organisation normally operates, they cannot adapt easily and this can ultimately cause hierarchy break down. Contrast this to companies who operate within an adhocracy culture, where decisions are made organically and the company can adapt and change quickly, and you can see how hierarchical cultures can become inflexible.

Barriers to effective internal communication

It’s difficult when you have to go through multiple people just to ask your boss a question. This is often what happens within hierarchical structures. Typically, the boss can only be contacted through a particular framework. For example, you may have to speak to your team leader, who will then reach out to the assistant manager, who will then put you in touch with the boss.

Internal communication is something most organisations struggle with at some point or another. However, it can be exacerbated by hierarchical cultures. In some of the worst-case scenarios, departments or individuals may purposefully withhold information. While, in less extreme scenarios, dissatisfaction may stir underneath the surface if communication within an organisation is particularly strained.

Removes the need for collaboration and employee participation

Another example of hierarchy culture not working effectively is when it removes the need for collaboration and employee participation. Hierarchy cultures are typically based on the work efforts of the individual. However, according to one study, in today’s work culture companies tend to achieve more, reach their goals faster, and deliver a better service when working collaboratively.

Hierarchy culture reduces the need for employee participation and this can cause many employees to feel unseen and unheard, this even affecting their sense of psychological safety within the organisation to question existing structures and put forward new ideas. Including all team members within decision-making processes and working collaboratively is one of the best ways to retain employees, increase employee engagement, and boost job satisfaction.

Discrimination risks being unaddressed

In an ideal world, employees within a company that has a hierarchical structure would be chosen for raises and promotions (thereby gaining extra power and responsibility) purely based on their personal merits, but unfortunately this tends not to be the case in reality. For instance, there are marked pay gaps in the UK by both gender and ethnicity, and in 2020 only eight of UK’s top 100 companies were headed by women.

This is if people can even get a foot in the door. Recent studies have shown that AI can be prejudiced, with some recruitment software solutions shown to associate white names with being more qualified and to weed out applicants who went to women’s colleges. In a poll conducted in 2021, only one in three black job candidates felt that recruitment agencies were fair to them.

If an organisation does have a hierarchical culture and structure, it’s important to review this to ensure it doesn’t come at the cost of discriminating against people with protected characteristics, who are historically and statistically disadvantaged. Otherwise, internalised biases could be preventing the organisation from recognising and promoting particular employees, regardless of how talented and dedicated they are, and missing out on great opportunities.

Final words

As you can see, there are many pros and cons to hierarchy culture within the workplace. We hope this article has provided you with a better understanding of hierarchy culture and how it affects both the employee and the wider organisation.

Despite its pros and cons, hierarchy culture and its uptake depends on the individual organisation and their professional goals. When managed correctly and navigated carefully, hierarchy culture can be greatly beneficial, but it can also have its drawbacks, so make sure to examine your own company’s culture and its effectiveness as objectively as possible.

Read more from the myhrtoolkit blog

Is your workplace too authoritarian?

How to manage office politics

Picture of Gemma Hart

Written by Gemma Hart

Gemma Hart is an independent HR professional working remotely from as many coffee shops as she can find. Gemma has gained experience in a number of HR roles but now turns her focus towards connecting with a wider community and sharing her thoughts and advice on workplace wellness and engagement within companies.

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