How Does Hierarchy in a Team Impact Team Effectiveness?

July 18, 2018 Alina Siemsen
team effectiveness

A move towards more effective teams

In almost every organisation, people need to work closely and effectively to create value and deliver the group objectives. Consequently the area of team effectiveness is widely studied and researched. We know that team effectiveness is born from a number of conditions:

  • clear, defined and shared goals;
  • strong communication;
  • a recognition of the part each person plays;
  • understanding what success means;
  • adequate resource.

But what about hierarchy within the team? How does this impact team effectiveness?

Lindred Greer, Bart de Jong, Maarjte Schouten and Jennifer Dannals explored this and their findings published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

They begin by pointing out that hierarchy “has the potential to both benefit and harm team effectiveness.” Hierarchy is defined as being the vertical differences between team members.

The study
The team carried out a meta-analysis drawing on 54 prior studies and nearly 14,000 teams.

Their findings show that on the whole, hierarchy negatively impacts team effectiveness. This is further aggravated by certain aspects of the team structure such as:

  • membership instability (high turnover of team members and are not familiar with each other),
  • skill differentiation (that is, specialised knowledge of the team members)
  • hierarchy mutability – the ability for upward promotion
  • the presence of the hierarchy itself.

The study also shows that hierarchical teams are more prone to conflict.

But it also showed that the often-talked about and expected positive aspects of hierarchy were not borne out – such offering greater co-ordination and the moderation of tasks. That said, task ambiguity was however found to reduce in hierarchical teams. So, there was less uncertainty about what needed to be done, and team members felt that that had the necessary information to carry out their role.

The researchers challenge the established view that a hierarchy is needed for team effectiveness and they point out that further research is needed as to the conditions when the ‘functional’ aspects of hierarchy are of most use.

Whilst the results of the study seem robust, the reported effect sizes were small. Team effectiveness is clearly the result of a number of different aspects and doesn’t rely solely on the presence – or absence – of a hierarchy.


Greer, L. L., de Jong, B. A., Schouten, M. E. & Dannals, J. E. (2018) Why and When Hierarchy Impacts Team Effectiveness: a Meta-Analytic Integration, Journal of Applied Psychology 103, 591-613

About the Author

Alina Siemsen

Alina Siemsen is a product development consultant in the research team at Aon's Assessment Solutions. Alina completed her Master's degree in Business Psychology at the Nordakademie in Hamburg. She is interested in how gaming elements can be applied to assessments. Aon's Assessment Solutions undertake 30 million assessments each year in 90 countries and 40 languages.

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