What Is a Hierarchical Organizational Structure?

by Alex Burke; Updated September 26, 2017

Organizational structures are created to support a central idea or goal and support everyone involved in completing their jobs regarding that central idea. Although there are many ideas about the perfect organizational structure, one stands out for its centuries of use. The hierarchical organizational structure is a traditional organizational system. Its top-down structure is recognizable when put into a diagrammatic form.

Shape of Hierarchy

The shape of a hierarchical organizational structure is the pyramid. A hierarchical organization is a group of entities structured to be subordinate to a central idea, person or group of persons. The person or department in charge sits at the top of the pyramid. Each department sits below the top in descending order of subordination. The flat bottom of the pyramid is filled with the bulk of the population of the organization. Organizational charts (diagrams) can be drawn to reflect these structures.

Steep or Flat Pyramids

The hierarchical organization may have an organizational chart that resembles an equilateral triangle. On the surface, this indicates a balanced relationship between management and subordinates. A steeper pyramid shape indicates more management personnel than subordinates. A flatter or wider pyramid shape shows fewer members of management and more subordinates.

Hierarchical Communication

Daily communication typically occurs between an immediate superior and his subordinates. The immediate supervisor is directly responsible for the results delivered by her subordinates. Initiatives, or directives that involve the organization as a whole, are delivered from the top of the organization downward. The directives are sent specifically to the superior of each department listed in the organizational chart. This departmental superior delivers the initiative to his subordinates.

Power of Hierarchy

Hierarchy protects subordinates by clearly outlining chains of command. What a superior can and cannot do and where her authority has power is delineated in hierarchical structures. This allows the subordinate some level of power to stop interference by an unauthorized superior. An advantage for subordinates within the hierarchical structure is knowing clearly who their boss is. This relieves any conflict they may be faced with when another superior attempts to direct them without authority.

Types

A pyramid structure can be based on several different organizational designs. The hierarchy can be based on function, geography or a hybrid of both. Functional hierarchy offers a wide choice of ideas because each business has a different way of looking at function. Some of the functions to construct with are product or service, process or equipment, customer type and specialization. Once grouped into functional areas, the relationships between the groups will dictate where they sit within the hierarchical organizational structure.

Example

A good example of a hierarchical organizational structure is the United States government. At the top of the pyramid is the Constitution; this is the governing concept (idea, goal) on which the government is based. Below it are the three branches of government: the executive branch, the judicial branch and the legislative branch. These three branches are equals and sit in a horizontal line below the Constitution. Directly below the three branches, the departments that answer to that branch (authority) are listed horizontally. Directly below those departments are the personnel, offices or organizations subordinate to those departments.

About the Author

Alex Burke holds a degree in environmental design and a Master of Arts in information management. She's worked as a licensed interior designer, artist, database administrator and nightclub manager. A perpetual student, Burke writes Web content on a variety of topics, including art, interior design, database design, culture, health and business.

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