Anyone who wants more employee engagement in their organizations might want to consider how their organizational chart shapes how employees see their role in the organization.

Typical organizational charts resemble a pyramid with boxes clustered within departments and divisions of an organization. Each box contains a person – not by name, but by position title.

organization chart

The implication of the box is that the person performing this function stays within the box. The other message a typical organizational chart communicates is that organizations are hierarchical. The implication is that the bottom of the pyramid supports those higher up, and there is a rank order value placed on people depending on how close to the top of the organizational chart they are. Our compensation models also reinforce this message.

If this is what your organizational chart looks like, and you are trying to engage employees at the bottom or middle of the chart, it may explain why they don’t engage. People at the bottom of the pyramid feel invisible and vulnerable. Sharing what they are thinking in a hierarchy can increase their sense of risk, not safety.

So, people in the trenches become skilled at sharing what they think their managers want to hear.

Organizational communication research has shown that bad news is minimized as it goes up the chain of command. The organizational joke is that a really bad situation found at the entry level of the organization gets minimized as it goes upward from manager to manager until it reached the CEO. By that time, the bad news has been transformed and reframed into a brilliant decision with lots of positive feedback from employees.

Boss Addressing Meeting

This organizational joke also points out the need to create environments where people are willing to engage authentically in their organization. If we don’t figure out how to gain the insights and local expertise from our employees, we will be partially blind because the lack of engagement limits the critical information that would make better decisions.

A Tree as a New Form of an Organizational Chart

A client of mine chose to experiment with a different image of an organizational chart. Their intent was to find a new way to communicate how people were connected to each other and how the organizational chart was connected to the external environment.  

After a rich discussion, they finally settled on using a tree as an organizational chart. This is how they distributed organizational functions using that image:

Tree Roots

  • The front-line staff were the leaves and small branches attached to the tree. Leaves perform an essential purpose for the tree; without leaves, the tree dies. Leaves photosynthesize the energy from the sun into life-giving nutrients for the tree. This helped front-line staff see their role as essential to the organization’s ability to survive and thrive. What a different image than being at the bottom of a pyramid!

  • The senior leadership team were the root system of the tree. Roots are needed to help tree support its growth and stability. Each major function area of the organization was represented as a root. The roots reached out and gained nutrients from the soil and rain to help the tree remain healthy. The roots were not siloed like a typical organizational chart. They worked together and connected with each other and the trunk of the tree.

  • The trunk represented the back-room infrastructure of the organization; the finance, technology, communications, marketing, and human resources, etc. They work together in an integrated way to support the tree and its growth. The trunk spreads multiple nutrients from the roots systems to the tree and the leaves share nutrients from photosynthesis back down through the tree.

  • Branches represented programs and services to the customers or clients. The front-line staff are connected to these branches and they have varying degrees of thickness that represent the length of time the branch has been growing.

  • The inner core of the trunk called the heartwood represented the core purpose, mission, and values of the organization.

  • The tree was placed in its context. It was planted in soil, and the sun, rain, and other external weather events provide nutrients and energy. It reminded the organization that it didn’t stand alone, but was part of a community ecology that helped support and drive their business.

The power this image had on the staff was surprising. The tree was one living entity. The staff saw how all the different functions of the organization supported and worked together to create a tree that could thrive in its environment.

The front-line staff, for the first time, saw themselves as critical and essential. They were the ones taking in the sun’s energy and had information and knowledge that the tree needed to adapt. It changed how they valued themselves and why it mattered to share what they experienced and saw.

An Organizational Chart of the Future

When we objectify our organizations, we draw organizational charts in a hierarchical, functional, and separate way. We only have one entity from each division and department linking teams to the next level of the organization. Depending on where you are in the chart, you rarely see the whole.

If we saw our organizations as a living system, we would have a different criterion for organizational charts. The chart would have a purpose to communicate how everyone was connected and essential to the whole organization. It would remind us how we are connected to the outside environment and have an interdependent relationship with each other. It would also connect us to the higher purpose of the organization.

These kinds of criterion – whether a tree or another image – can help everyone see how they are connected when applied to an organizational chart. In living systems, you are either engaged or dying.

If you want staff engagement, try changing your organizational chart!


Dr. Kathleen E. Allen writes a blog on leadership and organizations that describes a new paradigm of leadership that is based in lessons from nature and living systems. She is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (2018) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. You can sign up for her blog on her website: