Surviving & thriving in organizational hierarchies

Surviving & thriving in organizational hierarchies

Complex systems always come with organizational hierarchies, whether they match the official org charts or not. Humans just naturally form into tribes and hierarchies when the group gets large enough. There’s no way for everyone to know everyone else, so there needs to be some kind of structure and communication process. With hierarchies, you can get both (a) the benefits of building tight bonds and getting work done within a single group while (b) leveraging the combined strengths of the whole system.

It may seem easier to just circumvent the hierarchy, and avoid interacting with it at all. While you might be able to move faster, you’ll never realize the full impact you could have once you get all the gears moving in your direction. There’s a reason corporations have so much influence over our lives.

Whether you’re operating within a hierarchy, or working with one from the outside, these tips will help you navigate some of the extra challenges that come with them. So you can operate effectively and scale your impact.


1. Understand the hierarchy

The first step is understanding what the hierarchy is, both formally and informally. The formal organizational structure is just one data point. Details like who has more experience vs. who’s newer, and who the social influencers, leaders, and followers are in the organization can tell you more about the unwritten dynamics. Understand how they interact with the levels above and below them, and how they interact with others at the same level. Check out Build better work relationships via stakeholder analysis for more tips.


2. Observe and ask questions when the levels are together and apart

People tend to behave differently when they’re being observed. This phenomenon is known as the Observer Effect (or the Hawthorne Effect). That’s especially true when they’re in front of their boss (or their direct reports). Try meeting with everyone together, then meet with each individual or level of the hierarchy separately to gather different information. Pay attention to if their behavior changes drastically when the other group is around (like if they act much more reserved or dominant). That’s a sign of the dynamic between the layers of the hierarchy.


3. Pay attention to how they handle strategic vs crisis discussions

Sometimes what can work for strategic conversations will blow up if you try to follow the same process during a crisis. Be especially aware of special communication channels or spokespeople you may need for sensitive information, when the stakes are higher. Where you can skip steps vs. go by the book, invite everyone vs. pulling the boss aside for a briefing and letting her decide how to proceed. Once the stakes and stress are high, the dynamics of the organization may completely change.


4. Determine spheres of influence and decision-making

For everyone in the hierarchy, you’ll save a lot of headaches by talking about what types of things people have influence over and what kinds of decisions they can make and definitely can’t make. Spreading the word and getting other people excited about where you’re trying to go can result in free PR and great progress. However, if you want to be efficient, focus your efforts on the people who are best positioned to make it happen (and their advisors).


5. Engage with each level

The easiest way to deal with hierarchies is to have contacts at each level so that you understand their process, motivations, pain points, and delighters without needing to play telephone. Be aware of playing favorites and spending the most time with the people you personally click with. Sometimes the key to making progress on solving a problem involves clarifying something or removing a barrier at a different level than the one you typically focus on. This includes both looking up and down the hierarchy. Making assumptions about what’s happening on other levels without investigating could cause even bigger problems.

When you’re surrounded by people who share the same set of assumptions as you, you start to think that’s reality.

– Emily Levine, writer


6. Determine who should engage from your team at each level

Sometimes you don’t have the bandwidth to engage with everyone. And sometimes it can be beneficial to divide and conquer to build closer relationships with the players at each level.

This strategy can work especially well if you pair up people with similar backgrounds or complementary personalities. Of course, this works best if your own team has good communication channels and can benefit from the knowledge you’re gathering and the progress you’re making. If your own team is hoarding information and is disrespectful of people at other levels then this strategy will just amplify any communication issues or tension. If you find yourself in that situation, running an Enterprise Design Sprint could be a good tool to identify quick improvements and long-term changes that need to happen.


7. Regularly share information and adapt

If you have people interacting at each level, share information on your side to stay aware of cultural shifts, new hires, potential issues, or anything that could hinder (or help) your progress. Stakeholder analysis isn’t a one-time activity. People, mindsets, and relationships in organizations are constantly shifting. Reflect on what the adjustments mean and if you need to change some people around (see the tip above) or try a new technique.


8. Be aware of the small details

There are certain things that can highlight hierarchical differences within a group. For example, how people are dressed, where they sit, how they’re treated, or even the names of meetings. If you want to mix things up to encourage new ideas or interactions, try giving people the same outfit (like a t-shirt), assigning seats, or doing exercises with assigned roles to avoid people going back to their default behavior.


9. Consider the life span of your documents

In any organization, but especially hierarchical organizations, people will forward your information around. Sometimes people will send representatives. You might be presenting to the boss or the employees of the person you’re really trying to influence. Be aware of both audiences when you create presentations and documents so that they will resonate with both parties. Your audience might end up giving a synopsis of the presentation or just forward the materials. A clear summary, with unequivocal talking points and reference slides tailored to specific expertise, can be effective.


10. Clarify the escalation paths

Hierarchies can be productive if there are clear escalation paths. Be really clear about whom should be informed of what, how, and how quickly after the event occurs. This will help you deal with micromanagers by alleviating their concerns of being out of the loop when it counts the most. Defining escalation paths ahead of time can also help avoid making a bad situation exponentially worse. If people feel like information wasn’t shared the right way, it could add distrust and tension to the original problem.


Hierarchies don’t need to be frustrating or scary if you think about them as just another aspect of the dynamic system you’re working with (and improving). Just like a technical system you can make great progress by understanding the general architecture, the interfaces between components, and the functions of each component.

Do you have experience working with or within hierarchies? What strategies are successful? Which ones aren’t?


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