Relax Communication Hierarchy

How does hierarchy in communication take effect in organizations? Here's one excerpt from the chapter, "Communications", of my book on agile org design:

Is it considered okay to talk to your boss’s boss without informing the boss first? Is it okay to question company policies on public internal forums? Are all-hands and unit-level meetings a forum for active dialogue, or just one-way broadcasts from the leadership to the teams? Is everything meant to be driven by e-mail or forms and backed by an audit trail, or does work routinely get accomplished on the back of unrecorded verbal communications? Granted, the last item may not be advisable in all situations and may even be constrained by industry regulations, but in general, a culture of open, purposeful, hierarchy-effacing communication energizes everyone toward greater organizational agility.

The chapter goes on to point out that a communications hierarchy is more evident in the protocols of communication than its content:

Protocols of initiating and terminating communications affect people as much as the actual content of the communication. The number of levels of hierarchy does not matter as much as the exercise of hierarchy. Hierarchy manifests itself via protocols of communication—the hierarchy-in-effect may be more or less than the hierarchy on paper. Egalitarian protocols can make a law firm feel like a tech startup. Authority or turf protection-oriented protocols can make an ad agency feel like Victorian England.


The seniors in a team want to be acknowledged and respected for their seniority, their hard-earned titles, and the competence that they imply. In the absence of sufficient signs of deference from the team in the content of communications, they begin to assert their seniority in the protocols of communication...The juniors, on the other hand, want to be in the good books of seniors without having to turn into yes men (or women) in order to get there. They want to have their say in the content of communications. They resent it when disagreements in the content of communications translate into hardening of the protocols.

Why is it worthwhile to attempt relaxing communication hierarchy? Doing so might help break silos and to facilitate a free flow of (non-sensitive) information across the organization. Besides, seamless communication within the organization is necessary (though insufficient) for a customer experience that is seamless across products, channels and regions.

What are some practical way of relaxing communication hierarchy? Sensitize existing and incoming people to the above dynamic. Include it as part of new-hire orientations. Introduce team-level pulse charts that highlight perceived changes in communication hierarchy. Introduce skip-level meetings and guidelines to make them effective. Introduce ask-me-anything sessions along with appropriate coaching for leadership to ensure that they result in meaningful two-way engagement. Get in touch for advice customized to your context.