Leadership at work: Breaking down hierarchies

Successful leadership involves taking risks – and that includes breaking down hierarchical barriers within an organization. So here’s how you can tackle unhelpful hierarchy and succeed as a leader.

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In today’s world of work, Gen Z and younger Millennials don’t feel a close connection to their coworkers, manager or employer, with 54% of them saying they aren’t engaged at work.

This lack of connection and engagement, however, can change when leadership gets it right. To create an environment where employees are happy and the culture is thriving, organizations can start by addressing their structure and removing unnecessary hierarchical barriers.

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Why is breaking down hierarchical barriers important?

Why is breaking down hierarchical barriers important?

It comes as no surprise that AI and automation are transforming many industries. Companies are having to adjust to new ways of working, so agility is more important than ever. Organizations need to be able to respond quickly to challenges and create a culture where employee morale stays high and people work well together. None of this can be achieved where multiple levels of rigid hierarchy exist.

A hierarchical structure is based on a chain of command from top executives to regular employees. While some may argue that hierarchy helps create order, it can also slow processes down and leave employees feeling demotivated at work.

Employees further down the chain might struggle to quickly communicate with more senior staff, stifling collaboration between employees at different levels and drawing out decision-making processes, with multiple approvals required for any action.

So layers of hierarchy can impede processes and innovation – but by breaking down hierarchy and removing the barriers that come with it, you can create an open, collaborative culture for your employees.

Horizontal vs vertical leadership

Horizontal vs vertical leadership

Hierarchy looks different in each organization, but most have either horizontal or vertical structures.

Horizontal structure

A horizontal structure is a flat structure of management. In these organizations, there are few managers with many employees underneath them, and employees are encouraged to make decisions without needing manager approval.


  • Employees are given autonomy to make decisions

  • Team members work well together

  • Encourages collaboration


  • A lack of structure could mean a lack of guidance or internal conflict

  • Paths to progression may be lacking

Vertical structure

A vertical organizational structure, on the other hand, is a pyramid-like, top-down management structure. Everyone has a clearly defined role. The highest level of leadership is at the top, followed by middle management and then regular employees. Decisions are made from the top and cascaded down.


  • There’s a clear chain of command

  • Roles and responsibilities are clear


  • Employees at the bottom end of the chain may feel less valued

  • Slower communication and approval process

  • Little autonomy for employees

So how do organizations get the balance right between maintaining order and accountability, and employee autonomy?

3 tips for breaking down hierarchical barriers at work

3 tips for breaking down hierarchical barriers at work

1. Encourage a sharing culture

Create a culture where employees and managers are all encouraged to share knowledge, work, tips and more.

A sharing culture will help create strong teams with everyone working together for a greater purpose.

2. Create a collaborative workplace

Getting involved in day-to-day projects and hands-on management isn't always easy for modern leaders. They're busy, they're often highly specialized and they work in organizations with teams spread across different geographies.

All of this can make leadership in the workplace seem remote. But when you can't physically be on the spot, collaboration tools can bring leaders closer to their workforce.

A leader might not be able to attend face-to-face meetings, but they can easily join and engage online.

That way, they can follow progress online, post encouraging comments, and provide guidance and feedback. They can be present, supportive and show appreciation wherever they are.

3. Highlight the need for communication

As the leader, you should make sure everyone knows the importance of good communication and what this looks like.

Organize training sessions for the workplace so that they know how to communicate better with all employees and put steps in place so that everyone feels comfortable communicating with each other. This will help remove feelings of awkwardness that some employees have when talking to those in higher positions.

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