by Steve Adubato, PhD

There is an ongoing debate as to what type of organizational structure promotes open and healthy communication. Some say a clear hierarchy with a direct chain of command limits confusion by knowing exactly who is in charge. Others say a flat organizational structure with few lines of authority with a CEO having direct communication with virtually all employees promotes a free flow of ideas and information.

Fact is, there is no one organizational structure that works best in every situation. Organization size matters. The task matters. Lots of variables matter. However, if communicating the right information to the right people at the right time is your goal, here are some points to consider:

  • The strict hierarchy with a tight chain of command probably works best in a military-like situation, particularly in wartime. In such an intense environment, it is essential that you know exactly who has the final authority to make a decision. Communicating and debating options when under enemy fire (or in a police situation) has limited value. It can also create organizational paralysis. With a strict hierarchy, even if you disagree with the decision of the person you are reporting to, you have no other option unless you quit.
  • This same structure can be problematic in terms of open communication and information sharing in an organization that thrives on creativity, imagination and risk-taking. Consider advertising, where a campaign must be developed to communicate a compelling message to a target audience in a crowded environment. In this instance, the flatter organization model with very few lines of authority makes more sense. Everyone in the organization is offering his or her ideas without fear of reprisal. If a leader consistently “pulls rank,” it will stifle communication and impede risk taking.
  • Flat organizations promote more open communication, but can also create chaos. Some CEOs are proud of saying they have an “open door” policy with ALL of their employees. That may work in a small to mid-size organization, but the bigger an organization gets, the more the top person needs some form of “gate keeper” to filter information and manage communication. If not, the risk of information overload is great. Further, the CEO has little ability to strategically determine what is most important to focus his or her limited time or attention on. This will result in lost productivity and missed opportunities.
  • Regardless of the organizational structure, who the gatekeeper is matters a great deal. Gatekeepers can become obsessed with their ability to “control” information and communication. In the extreme, these gatekeepers can demoralize team members who feel they have little or no opportunity to communicate with the person at the top. Gatekeepers must know and buy into the leader’s vision for the organization and understand that the “assistant to” is a facilitator, NOT the boss.
  • Organizational charts can be valuable, but they can also be restricting and demoralizing. At best, these charts should represent a loose, but always dynamic, visualization of who reports to whom. But when people start to feel confined by the box they are put in and the layers of boxes and lines above them, organizational charts are a negative force. These charts should help avoid chaos, (except for the confusing “dotted line” relationship) but great leaders understand that charts aren’t set in stone. Many temporary teams and project leaders (that don’t show up on the org chart) are critically important to promoting effective communication, information sharing and timely decision making.

Does your organization’s structure promote open and healthy communication? Write to me.