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The Organizational Structural Web

What are Structures?

The structures within a company are like the blood vessels in a human body. They form a complex configuration that facilitates multiple types of flow. There are different types of blood vessels with specific functions and the same is true of structures and systems within organizations. Organizational structures show up in the form of organizational charts, job descriptions, authorities, systems, procedures and workflows to name a few.

As with the human body when systems and structures are impaired, it puts pressure on the system to respond. Sometimes the system will create a work around on its own and sometimes bottlenecks happen. In some circumstances leaders may intervene with a formal solution and at other times the situation can be left until something goes very wrong.

Connecting Relationships and Structures

When structures are used by teams characterized by unhealthy relationships, employees are more inclined to operate individually and transactionally. This is supported by the fact that in many cases, they are measured individually, rewarded individually, and oftentimes, communicated with individually. In other words, some structures perpetuate individual achievement which can eventually lead to competition and divisive patterns.

When employees don’t understand the end-to-end process that they contribute to and they are individually oriented, they are unaware of how their work pace or completion impacts the end-to-end work flow that ultimately affects both internal and external clients.

For example, in an organization that has performance management, recognition, and reward systems that highlight individual achievement, employees will focus on their own goals. Why should they engage others on their team? There is nothing to motivate them to collaborate. When they operate like this, they can build tensions within the team that impair productivity.

In circumstances like this, trust is usually compromised as coworkers are being forced to work together in the name of teamwork but what is really happening is they don’t see the value in helping each other so they tend to be too busy to support the priorities of their team members. They don’t make the connection between their unwillingness to support team members and the long term sustainability of the organization.

Connecting Relationships, Structures and Communication

Going back to the blood vessel analogy, blood vessels transport oxygen, nutrients, waste and other substances, making sure the body gets what it needs and discharges what it doesn’t need through various systems. Similarly, communication channels circulate formal and informal information, decisions, gossip, and reactions to name a few. This carriage of information is central to the effective operation of various structures and systems so we cannot explore the linkages of relationships with structures without discussing communication. When information is not being transmitted at the right time, in the right way, for the right reasons, it can serve as a barrier to the productive functioning of structures and systems, leading to bottlenecks, work falling through the cracks and errors.

The trouble is, when relationships, communication patterns, and structures are addressed as if they are not connected, the intended solution is not likely to be sustainable. For example, when a company has poorly developed job descriptions that omit essential duties or assign overlapping responsibilities, conflict is inevitable. In situations like these, decision-makers may opt to address the interrelational conflict but underestimate or overlook the content of the job descriptions. When a solution is fixated on behavioural change without addressing impaired structures that hold behaviours in place, it can be difficult to sustain healthy solutions.

Healthy Structures

So far, we have taken a look at a complex web with relationships, systems and structures that overlay and interconnect with each other. We have networks of coworkers, overlaid by relationships. These relationships are overlaid by communication patterns and channels. These three layers are overlaid by power and politics, and organizational systems and structures.

The web of relationships conduct information through the web of formal and informal communication channels. We also have webs of structures and systems designed to facilitate workflows, stakeholder interface, strategic goals etc. Some of these systems are inanimate, others are not.

Healthy, interconnected organizational structures can look just like unhealthy ones on the surface. What makes them different are the core values, beliefs, assumptions, and intentions that are integrated into their design. For example, in one organization, you can have a flat structure that values getting the work done above the needs of the team, profitability and competition. The organization is well structured with adequate policies and procedures. Leaders in this organization can be heavy handed when mistakes are made. The values driving this system are control, results and individual achievement.

Another organization also has a flat organizational chart with well-defined structures like job descriptions, policies and procedures but they are written in a way that provides employees with the power to make some of their own decisions. Employees are trusted because they are trained and developed and have proven their competence over time. The organization has implemented proactive measures so that problem resolution not only addresses the emergent challenges at the symptom level, it also seeks to address them at the root causal level. In this organization, leaders treat errors as learning opportunities, refraining from using blaming language because they value growth.

These two organizations have similar flat structures and carefully developed policies. In both cases, employees are productive and they seem to have the resources they need to get work done. However, the values that affect how leaders lead, how the culture operates, and how policies are developed and implemented are all very different.

On a final note, let’s go back to where we started with the blood vessel analogy. When you take care of your body in terms of nutrition, exercise, sleep your body has a better chance of recovering from illnesses and adapting to changes. The same is true for complex organizational webs of systems and structures. Healthy relationships and communication based on trust have to be in balance with structures and systems designed to hold certain patterns of behaviour in place.

With knowledge gained from over 30 years of Fortune 500 and international consulting experience, Yvette shares her rich experience and proprietary model for changing businesses from the inside out. She is a thought leader in the areas of trust, leadership and organizational ecosystems, an award winning author and cultural consultant.

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