Organizational restructuring is often on the table when companies decide they need transformational change. And when organizations take on the major change of trauma-informed implementation, many of them also decide to change their organizational layout.
When we talk about organizational structures through a trauma-informed lens, we often focus on moving away from a hierarchal structure and toward a flat structure—but those are not our only two options.
There are 5 other organizational structures that could serve you and your organization on your trauma-informed journey.
Let’s explore all 7 types of organizational structures through a trauma-informed lens, so you can see all your options as a trauma-informed leader.
1 - Hierarchical
In a hierarchical power structure, an all-powerful entity sits at the top of a pyramid structure, where every employee has a supervisor. This structure is the most common, but it presents several key issues:
Clearly defined power imbalances can create toxic relationships where authority figures create unsafe spaces.
Employees on all levels, but especially lower-level employees, may suffer from disempowerment, a lack of trust, or a feeling that they don’t have a voice or choice.
Increased bureaucracy can slow down innovation and halt change, especially when employees feel as if they don’t have decision-making power.
2 - Functional
A functional organizational structure is similar to a hierarchal structure in the sense that positions with more responsibility and pay exist at the top. However, instead of separating divisions and teams by “level,” an employee’s place in the structure is determined by their specific skillset.
With a functional structure, employees can easily dive into their strengths and find common interests with those they work with. Teams can flourish in their specialization.
While the functional organizational structure is an improvement from the hierarchal model, there are still issues with this type of structuring:
Functional structures can easily create silos within an organization.
Interdepartmental communication often suffers.
Poor communication and silos can halt change, prevent innovation, and create ruptures within organizational cultures and systems.
Heightening specialization and a lack of diversity can create blinders and echo chambers.
3 - Divisional
Divisional structures have many similarities to hierarchal and functional organizational structures. There is one leader at the very top. Underneath them, there are leaders of each division. The divisions can be separated by industry, region, or customer type.
A divisional organizational structure’s key benefit is that each division can operate independently from the others.
By separating one large organization into a group of mini-organizations, each division retains decision-making power about who they will hire and how they will manage the different facets of running their division, regardless of the other division leaders’ preferences.
In a divisional organizational structure, other structures can be tested. For example, one division may pilot trauma-informed organizational change and work toward establishing a flat structure within its division. Upon its success, other divisions can adopt the same model.
With a divisional organization structure, we still face similar potential problems, such as silos or poor communication practices between different regions or departments.
4 - Matrix
So far, most of these examples of organizational structures simply look like different flavors of the hierarchical model. The matrix organizational structure is much different than the rest because it involves a lot of flexibility across the entire organization.
A matrix organizational chart is more like a grid than a pyramid. In a matrix, employees may have multiple supervisors who possess distinct roles with the same level of power within the organization.
Using a matrix system can help prevent communication issues—but communication issues can also be the downfall of a matrix system. Employees with multiple supervisors who fail to communicate may suffer the consequences of confusion, conflict, or a lack of support.
Generally, a matrix organizational system is more collaborative and team-oriented. Employees and leaders tend to be more flexible, and groups within the matrix often possess diverse skill sets.
5 – Team-based
Team-based organizational structures similarly disrupt the traditional hierarchal model. They position team members laterally, meaning there is no clear power structure. By grouping an organization into teams, employees gain more control over their projects in an atmosphere where cooperation, collaboration, and collective learning are the norm.
A team-based organizational structure leaves plenty of room for an organization to implement trauma-informed values, including establishing safety at work, which is paramount to the trauma-informed process.
Team-based organizational structures tend to foster trauma-informed practices and norms naturally. For example:
Experience and skills are more valuable than seniority.
Team mentality reduces silos and increases communication and transparency.
Teams require minimal management, as team members are self-sufficient and interested in contributing to group success.
Team-based structure pushes back against the hierarchal model and helps employees foster healthy professional relationships without unhealthy power dynamics at play.
6 - Network
A network structure is like a team-based structure in the sense that hierarchy is not central to the model. With a network model, the internal structure of the organization is focused on open communication and healthy professional relationships.
Individuals and teams may work together consistently or periodically as needed, and there is no clear route up the chain of command. In the network, there may be onsite and offsite relationships, as well as vendors, freelancers, and staff.
A network organizational structure is a complex structure that sees each individual as an important part of the organization. It poses similar benefits to the team-based structure, such as:
Seniority and unhealthy power dynamics are less likely to be an issue since there is no clear chain of command.
Healthy professional relationships are at the core of a network model, which encourages many trauma-informed values, including communication, safety, transparency, and collaboration.
Staff members are often empowered to make decisions and take initiative.
7 - Flat
A flat organizational structure is decentralized, meaning all employees have equal power throughout the organization. There may be different roles within the organization, but ultimately everyone’s voice is respected and heard equally or equitably.
In some “flatarchies,” executives might have slightly more power, but a flat or horizontal power structure emphasizes that each employee has the power to make decisions and work in their own way to complete project tasks.
In a flat power system, trauma-informed values can thrive. Some of the benefits include:
Employees have greater independence and more personal responsibility.
Communication and professional interactions are often healthier and provide more clarity.
It is faster and easier to implement new practices and ideas in a flat structure versus a hierarchical structure.
Final Thoughts: Choosing an organizational structure that supports the trauma-informed framework
While we often encourage organizations to strive for a flat organizational structure, networks, matrixes, and team-based structures also present opportunities to embed the trauma-informed framework into how your organization is run—and these other options may work better for you.
It is also possible to combine certain aspects from each of these organizational structures to create a structure that is unique to your organization. No matter which structure you choose, it’s important to remember that having a dictator at the top who is all-powerful doesn’t promote trauma-informed practices.
If you want to prioritize autonomy, create safety at work, empower employees to make decisions, encourage healthy communication, and increase employee wellbeing, then shifting to an alternative structure rather than sticking with the traditional hierarchical model can serve you and your organization.
Do you have any thoughts or questions about our trauma-informed perspectives on organizational structures? Feel free to leave a comment below or join us on Mondays for Intentional Conversations!