Con·se·quence – noun
- a result or effect of an action or condition
- importance or relevance
A key component of Leadership Through Integrity is the honest understanding that perception is more important than reality. It’s time to re-envision the Org Chart to better communicate the importance of interconnected relationships across the organization.
Most organizations use an Org Chart for a variety of reasons including organizational structure, restructuring, hierarchical structure, decision making, communications and the list goes on. The traditional model, as far as I can tell, has always been the pyramid. The structure is always the same: a person (or job function) at the top with consecutive layers underneath.
There is a dark side: unintended consequences and confused messaging.
Traditional Pyramid Org Chart
This article is about how leadership can change the perception of their Org Charts by accurately thinking about and communicating the intricate relationships within the organization. The traditional pyramid model reinforces the fact that the CEO is on top of the pyramid and all of the departments underneath.
I find it fascinating that so many workers generally feel unimportant and are reduced to being ‘cogs in a large wheel’. Most workers are focused in their own silo (department) and have little interaction with teams outside of their own layer. I have found this to be true across a wide range of companies in a wide range of industries.
The pyramid reinforces a strict order and hierarchy. I surmise that this feeling is what sparked the phrase ‘climbing the corporate ladder’. Popular American culture has reinforced the necessity to ‘climb to the top’, ‘break obstacles’ and reach the ‘ivory tower’.
I’ve seen many Org Charts in my career and they all seem to reinforce a similar message: the people underneath management are insignificant and expendable – a most unfortunate unintended consequence. Remember, perception is reality.
Fortunately, some companies and leaders are starting to figure this out.
Inverted Pyramid Org Chart
Introducing the inverted pyramid. This latest version depicts the CEO and executives at the very pointed tip at the bottom and the departments stacked above. The goal is to convey a message to empower and engage the workforce. It is an attempt to show the workforce that their opinions matter and that they have decision-making power that can influence the organization. I have even heard managers and directors tell their employees, ‘I work for you’. The problem is, they don’t.
Reality check, whether the pyramid is inverted or not, an individual employee cannot terminate the employment of a director, manager or boss above. There is a power imbalance that is not being addressed in the inverted pyramid and screams of being disingenuous.
For whom is the inverted pyramid created? Is it for the employee to understand that they have power, even though they know they don’t? For the employee to feel that they are more important in their roles and that they are in charge, even though they’re really not? Is it for leadership to feel good that they’re making a thinly veiled attempt to show the workforce that they care about them, even though most don’t?
Whatever the motivation or good intention, something needs to change. Perception is reality – no matter how much leadership tries to show that they exist to support the workforce. The inverted pyramid isn’t fooling anyone.
Before I go on, I want to address the pyramid itself: Why a pyramid? I mean really, why? A pyramid is a simple geometric shape. I suppose any geometric shape could have been used but someone decided to use the pyramid.
My theory is that the pyramid is a metaphor for something that’s rock-solid. A pyramid has proven and stood the test of time. It has a strong base, a strong foundation, layer upon layer upon layer all supporting the weight of the structure above.
The image of a pyramid implies stability, strength, and immortality. While all of those may be true, most organizations are anything but. Pyramids don’t change, other than decay, but organizations are always changing.
There are not that many pyramids in the world. For purposes of this discussion, I am specifically referring to regular, old fashioned, modern civilization. How many new pyramids have been built? The only one that comes to mind is the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas in 1993. Other than that, can you think of any other new pyramids?
I find the choice of the pyramid to be an odd one.
The inverted pyramid is even more strange. If you take something that’s rock-solid turn it upside down on its point doesn’t that make it unstable? Oh sure, you can stick it in the ground a little bit and maybe it’ll hold for a while but sooner than later, it will topple over. So, just from a metaphor perspective, the inverted pyramid unintentionally shows that the organization is unstable and on shaky ground. That visual image doesn’t instill confidence.
Have a look at the image of the inverted pyramid. Would you build your house like that? An inverted pyramid is structurally unsound. It can technically be built however, there are serious engineering constraints. Going back to the metaphor, if your organization is represented by the inverted pyramid then it seems to unintentionally imply that it may be destined for failure.
In my opinion, organizational leadership needs to understand the relationship of the organization to its workforce and the relationship of its workforce to the organization.
Leadership needs to be honest with the workforce and have an Org Chart that visually represents the complex interworking relationships that are required for the organization to exist and thrive. The reality, message and perception must be congruent.
The Living Org Tree
This brings me to my next point (not the one at the tip of the pyramid), an organization is a living breathing entity. I am fortunate enough to spend a lot of time in nature and the thought occurred to me that organizations are not pyramids, they are trees!
An organization begins by taking root in the ground. The founders plant the seeds to hopefully grow into a mighty tree. Soon after planting, with a little bit of water and a little bit of sun, roots begin to form. These roots are the executive leadership level including the CEO and other C-levels. Pushing further into the ground, the roots go deeper and become the board of directors. These layers are all underground. They are holding onto the earth so the tree, the organization, can grow strong above.
As a seedling grows, the trunk of the tree begins to appear above the surface. This trunk is the middle management and director layer. Large limbs soon form which is representative of the different departments. On a side note, I find it really interesting that bank locations are called branches. Back to my analogy… limbs then grow out two smaller branches (the support staff). The leaves are the patients or customers. Since photosynthesis occurs in the leaves, the tree would not survive without the them, nor would any organization survive without their customers and patients.
Trees are resilient, as are most organizations. They bend and twist with the wind, a limb or department may die however the tree can still survive. Trees goes through periods of drought and flood. There are many trees in our world, each one can be looked at as a an individual organization. Doesn’t that make more sense? How many pyramids do you see on a daily basis? There are plenty of trees though.
Organizations are Families
Marriage and Family Therapy is a branch (no pun intended) of psychotherapy that addresses the needs of families, couples, individuals and groups to improve relationships and nurture development and change.
A common therapeutic technique is to have the client(s) complete a family tree for a visual image of their family system. As a practical matter, I have never heard of a therapist asking their client to draw a ‘family pyramid’.
Simply put, an organization is synonymous with a large family. They contain relationships that are strong and stressed, ongoing challenges and opportunities, growth and loss, including plenty of drama. That reminds me, I need to call my mother.
The reality is, most employees spend more time with their coworkers than their own family members. Like a family, relationships are formed, broken and created. Leadership will be well served to understand their organizations from a family systems concept – the workforce is interconnected.
Pyramids survived on their own for thousands of years with little to no maintenance. Trees on the other hand, require care. They interact with their environment. They require nutrition, they require oxygen, they require hydration, every part of the tree is connected to all of its other parts.
The leaves are connected to the roots. The trunk is connected to the branches. Although each part can be labeled separately, it is one giant living organism, so is true for an organization.
Every part of the tree is significant and every member of the workforce is intrinsically connected to everyone else in the organization. Unfortunately, many companies embrace and reinforce the pyramid model which can devalue and diminish individual and departmental roles.
“I’m ‘just‘ a receptionist”…
A real-world example: Last year I had to take my wife’s car in for a recall. Oh joy. I had a few questions so I called the local dealership to speak to a service advisor. I never received the courtesy of a return phone call despite leaving numerous messages. Each time I left a message I would call again and reach the receptionist. She apologized and stated that she couldn’t help me other than put me through to voicemail, her hands were tied.
This went on for a while, multiple weeks in fact. Each time I called, I got the same receptionist. After a while she got to know me. I was always kind to her and she always apologized to me for not being able to help. After a while, I was finally able to get my questions answered and brought the vehicle in for repair.
I took the vehicle down to the appointment and decided to wait, walked around the showroom floor and I noticed the reception desk. I approached and asked if my ‘person’ was working (she was). I introduced myself, she was very friendly, I thanked her for helping me. She told me that she ‘didn’t do anything’ for me and that she was ‘just a receptionist’ and ‘didn’t have any power’.
I told her that I was grateful that she was there for me. She was surprised with my reaction. She told me customers are typically upset and yell at her. I let her know that she wasn’t ‘just’ anything to me. She was the most important person that I spoke to. She’s the reason why I came in and didn’t take my complaints any further. I informed her that she had more power then she realized.
I spoke to her boss and was singing her praises. The supervisor did not seem interested in the slightest to hear anything positive about the receptionist. I even told the supervisor that the receptionist was the only friendly person that I spoke to in advance of my appointment. He seemed disinterested and dismissive. It was obvious to me why she felt she was ‘just’ a receptionist, because in his eyes, that’s all she was.
It was clear that this receptionist saw herself in a diminished role. In reality, she was connected to the service department, which was connected to the parts department, which was connected to the general manager, which was connected to the brand image itself. This receptionist, a very small branch in the tree, did not understand how she was connected all the way down to the roots of the tree. I believe this is a failure of leadership.
Bringing it all together
Leadership is the only way to change employee perceptions. When leaders start believing that their organization is alive, like a tree, they start feeding it and taking care of it. Every part of the tree, every employee, has an important role to play and needs to be acknowledged.
Each part of the tree, each employee, is connected to all others. The organization is reliant upon all parts of the tree for long term success and survival.
This message of individual importance can be reinforced by using a re-envisioned living organizational tree model instead of an outdated, cold, sometimes upside-down, lifeless pyramid.
The Leadership Through Integrity model is focused on open, honest, transparent communication. The Org Tree builds trust, strengthens relationships and reinforces a positive view of the organization. This highlights the importance of interconnectivity and interdependence of individuals, departments, roles and job functions.
I welcome discussion on this topic.