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Many managers I meet today still yearn for some structural expression for their humanistic ideals, but

not knowing structural alternatives,

they just get along as best they can with the Flatline, pulling the box structure into use during crises that require something more.

The Myth of Equality

in Flatline Organizations
By Carolyn J. Curran

The C EO of a nonprofit organization has to try to please
many different kinds of people in many different ways; creating
a good organization structure is just one way. As the founder or
executive director (ED) or both, she tries to please funders and
her Board of Directors by having a standard organization chart
with those familiar, neat little boxes stacked on top of one
another, and she has to please the staff by being a good guy
who is accessible to everyone. As a result, most nonprofit organizations have traditional organization charts in their proposals
and files which are only followed on a convenience basis, if at
all. Most often, the way the structure actually works is a flat line
with a dot on top of it. The flat line represents the entire staff
and the dot represents the ED. I call it the Flatline model of
organization chart. Most nonprofits I have been involved with
as a consultant around the United States for four decades have
been structured this way, whether they have a few or a hundred staff.

During the 1970s, it was popular among communitybased organizations to experiment with attempts to distribute
power more fairly. Most of the experiments turned into the Flatline model, which created the illusion of equality but masked
the fact that there was one central person who was almost
always more equal than others. Meaning that the dot person
was the de facto dictator, benevolent or not.
The realization that such lack of structure led to a power
vacuum that was filled by the most aggressive voice was
expressed in a term created in the womens movement in the
1970s: the Tyranny of Structurelessness.
Many managers I meet today still yearn for some structural
expression for their humanistic ideals, but not knowing structural alternatives, they just get along as best they can with the
Flatline, pulling the box structure into use during crises that
require something more.
As can be seen in Figure 1, Pros and Cons of Flatline Organi zation Charts most of the advantages of the Flatline model are
benefits to the EDs feelings of control and accomplishment,





ED access to staff

ED feels powerful, in touch

Staff feels vulnerable, exposed to unexpected authority

at any time

ED supervises more
than five people

Organization saves $$ by not hiring

middle managers

Staff lacks key guidance and support to be able to perform and improve their work


Some staff operate well with little or

no supervision, at least for periods of

Most staff become discouraged at various points because

they do not get help when they need it and do not have
a strong link to the big picture


ED feels she is aware of each staffs

performance (true or not)

There are no goals to measure performance against; no

way to improve services, set merit pay

Work assignments

ED feels in control because she ultimately decides who does what

Staff competes for EDs attention to get approval to go

ahead; bottlenecks and negative competition ensue

Decision making

ED can create teams to make decisions; she limits their power

Staff feels their input is under-valued because their decisions are not definitive


Short-term tasks can be accomplished

quickly on a crisis basis

Long-term tasks are difficult to sustain; motivation lags


ED feels she has a direct effect on


Staff waste a lot of emotional energy figuring out what

the ED wants; lots of reinventing the wheel

while most disadvantages are destructive effects on staff motivation and productivity. This discrepancy is in contradiction to
the EDs conviction that the Flatline model is more egalitarian
and humanistic. This contradiction can continue to exist for several reasons:
n The ED who is deriving good feelings from the situation
projects them onto the others and believes others feel
equally empowered;
n Most staff do not wish to burst the EDs bubble, either to
preserve job security or because the ED is a good person
who inspires affection, or both;
n Most nonprofit managers are primarily focused on their
own program mission and are relatively inexperienced in
management, so they do not think of their staffs work in
terms of motivation and productivity unless it hits them
over the head; and
n When lack of motivation and productivity do surface in
one staffs unacceptable behavior, that person is treated as
an anomaly rather than as a symptom of overall management style or organization structure, and is often dealt with
in crisis mode involving punishment such as reprimand or
If the Flatline model is inadequate, what can be done about
it? Three different organization structures or models will be
explored in this article, followed by information on how to
make them work better in creating staff equality.

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The ED who discovers different structural models will see
that she has been limiting herself unnecessarily to a fuzzy version of the traditional box structure, and that there are other
options. The three different structural models we will explore
are: Silo, Matrix and Network. As we explore these alternative
structures, there are a few important things to keep in mind:
n Choice of structure depends on an in-depth understanding
of the needs of the organization.
n The needs of an organization may change over time.
n The interaction between structure and management style
has much more impact on staff than the choice of structural style alone.
Silo Model
Those familiar little boxes, stacked on top of one another,
represent the traditional Silo model, so-called because of their
graphic resemblance to the tall, skinny grain silo. Over 150
years ago, the impetus for inventing an organization chart was
to organize peoples work more efficiently. In the new factory
environment, engineers who designed the machinery decided
how and where to allocate people to work it. This method of
organizing work became entrenched in our consciousness. It
took over 100 years to come up with alternatives and even
then, the Silo model is still the best known and most familiar to
all of us.
The Silo model embodies, and makes possible, the hierarchical approach to management, in which the person at the top

The Myth of Equality in Flatline Organizations

controls those below. Hierarchies have

application of the Silo model. For
acquired a bad name in the nonprofit
example, I met a manager who created
Redesigning nonprofit organiza- four levels of hierarchy out of a departsector for several reasons:
n They exemplify command and
tion structures in a more flexible, ment of six staff people, a ratio that
control management which we
exceeds best practices in modern corhumanistic way can seem daunt- porate management, in which the
associate with anti-humanistic military and corporate management.
number of hierarchical layers for huning for leaders and staff alike.
n Hierarchies represent a deperson- Unstable, experimental situations dreds of staff are not much more. Such
alized view of work in which indiauthoritarian managers can benefit
may make todays people
viduals become interchangeable
from the advice offered here as well as
cogs in a machine. For example,
the Flatline managers.
uncomfortable mainly because
the standard corporate manageIn the corporate world, silo charts
todays organizations promote
ment practice taught in American
have become a lot flatter in the last
stability, consistency and perma- couple of decades, due to two main
Management Association seminars
refers to individual staff members nence. (Hedberg, Nystrom, Star- factors: technology and accelerating
as reports. The nonprofit culture
rates of social change. Communication
buck, 1978) This is as true today paths in a silo organization (going up
leans toward a more personalized
regard for people no matter what as it was 24 years ago. Therefore, one silo and down another to reach a
their work status.
peer in the next department) are just
the manager is encouraged to
n We are not comfortable with the
too slow to respond to the need for
tinker with structure in a
type of overt authority reprequick action. Technology enables mansented by the boss mentality and
thoughtful way, over time, and agement to handle myriad tasks with
fewer staff. Nevertheless, flatter silo
with some guidance from an
n Most of us have some awareness
styles are still the organization chart of
experienced consultant, rather
of our intrinsic motivation to be
choice for most businesses and noninvolved in charitable, humanistic
than quickly and impulsively.
work. Because we feel committed
Todays nonprofits are not factoto do the job and generally work
ries, they are service organizations, and
quite hard at it, we do not want to be micro-managed by require creativity and innovation on the part of most, if not all,
a boss pushing us to do our work. This applies as much to staff. Therefore, we need organic versus mechanistic structures
the ED who does not want to be pushed by her Board of featuring participative work groups that enhance productivity.
Directors as it does to the rest of the staff.
(Harrison, 1987, Pg. 58) Therefore, it is recommended that
Because the Silo model is the oldest and best known, it has nonprofits either find an alternative structure, or learn to use the
become a default position rather than a choice. As a result, the Silo model in a less authoritarian manner, which can be done.
nonprofit manager reluctantly adopts it for formal representations and then interprets it quite loosely, resulting in the Flatline Matrix Model
model described above.
Matrix organization charts solved the problem of lateral
This schizoid approach is prevalent but is not the only way communication by connecting people both vertically, up and
in which the silo chart is used. There is a small minority of non- down the silos, and horizontally, across departments. The
profit managers who do not slide into Flatline at all. Their zeal Matrix model is used in manufacturing to promote more flexito emulate what they perceive as proper procedure, combined ble interaction between people grouped vertically by product
with a personal need for control will sometimes result in over- lines and horizontally by functions such as production, sales and
research/development. (Weisbord, 1978, Pg.26.) In this
instance, each person in the matrix will have two supervisors
one for function and one for product line. The Matrix model
CAR OLYN J. C URR AN, an Organization Developcan be adapted for dual functions in nonprofit organizations,
ment Specialist with nonprofits, works with NYUs
too. For example, one axis could be service departments and
Institute for Education and Social Policy. She is an
the other axis managerial functions such as marketing, fund raisAdjunct teacher at NYUs Robert F. Wagner School of
ing and financial management.
Public Service and has contributed to books and jourNetwork Model
nals such as Wiley and Sons Nonprofit Handbook,
An even more contemporary solution to organization
and The Nonprofit Journal. She can be reached at
structure is the network chart, which can be depicted as a cluscarolyncurran@mindspring.com.
ter of circles with dotted lines connecting them, in turn con42




Do we have an organization chart? If yes, is it known to most staff? Does it represent the way we operate?


Is our chart a living document does it change with new developments in staffing and programming? If so, what is the
time lag between a new development and a chart update? A month? A year? More?


Is our chart implemented in a way that is compatible with our reward and control systems the ways in which staff are
supervised, promoted, paid, recognized for their accomplishments?


Does our chart fit comfortably with our organization culture the degree of formality vs. informality, compatible with
our politics and ideals?


Does our staff feel they are involved in a democracy in which they have input, or are they cynical about being asked for
input that is too often disregarded?


Who feels most comfortable with the current organization structure the ED or the staff or both? (Refer back to the
implications of Figure 1.)


Is the ED comfortable with her authority? Is the rest of the staff comfortable with the ways in which she exercises it?


Is anyone supposed to be responsible for supervising more than four or five people?


Does your organization have written organizational goals and procedures, and do these align with current structure?

10. Does our chart align with staff norms and behavior? How prevalent are conflicts and power struggles?
11. Is the level of competition in the organization productive or counter-productive? In whose opinion?
12. Do our staff and groups have enough power and resources to accomplish their tasks?
13. Do managers who supervise others know how to hold staff accountable without alienating them?
nected to other clusters of circles. (Imagine bunches of balloons.) The fact that the connecting lines are dotted indicates
that the structure is not permanent.
The Network model is used in instances where the entire
organization works in teams. Each circle represents one person
and each cluster of circles represents one team. Teams stay
together only as long as it takes to complete a project or task.
Individuals may be members of more than one team. An individual may lead one team and be a subordinate member of the
next. The Network model requires the organization to come up
with innovative ways to supervise staff and support their performance. Experiments with Network charts can point the way
toward humanizing all three models, as described below.


Redesigning nonprofit organization structures in a more
flexible, humanistic way can seem daunting for leaders and staff
alike. Unstable, experimental situations may make todays people uncomfortable mainly because todays organizations promote stability, consistency and permanence. (Hedberg, Nystrom, Starbuck, 1978) This is as true today as it was 24 years
ago. Therefore, the manager is encouraged to tinker with
structure in a thoughtful way, over time, and with some guidance from an experienced consultant, rather than quickly and
In order to consider whether or not redesigning is called
for, see Figure 2, Questions A Nonprofit Manager Can Ask Herself
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About Her Organizations Structure. The questions are loosely

adapted from Harrison, (1987, Pg. 79.) After considering these
questions, a manager should be able to determine whether
some structural redesign is needed.


What is the goal?
Now that we have opened Pandoras Box by exposing the
limitations of the Flatline model and introducing new choices,
we can move toward creating a more effective structure and
integrating it with more effective management strategies.
Essentially, the goal for creating an optimal workplace is to
provide an environment in which organismic self-regulation can
take place. What we mean by that mouthful is a way in which
the individual staff person can continually adjust her actions for
maximum fulfillment of her basic needs. For purposes of this
discussion, basic needs are defined as:
n A sense of belonging to the group;
n A sense of accomplishment;
n An outlet for creativity; and
n A sense of having some control over the decisions that
affect her. (Glasser, 1965)
The premise is that people who are being fulfilled by their
work are more productive organizationally. This ideal workplace is one where people work productively for psychic
rewards, not just monetary ones.
There is, of course, a fundamental conflict between the

The Myth of Equality in Flatline Organizations







Adherence to
policies, compensation and promotion
Any sanctions will
be applied by this


Goal setting

Coach or

Assistance in
reaching goals
Evaluation of

Silo Model
Who and What

Matrix Model
Who and What

Network Model
Who and What

Staff reports to supervisor at

top of silo chain.

Staff reports to 2 supervisors, one at top of each

matrix row

One or more supervisors

are designated to supervise 4 or 5 staff each on
a continuous basis.

Each supervisor meets with

each supervisee 4 to 6 times
per year (quarterly or bimonthly) to briefly review
records, solve problems and
administer sanctions, if any.
Supervisor is trained in new
coaching and facilitation skills
as a goal planner, support
provider and how to evaluate
for progress and reward
rather than punishment.
Two key meetings one at
outset of each fiscal year, one
at the end of the fiscal year.
In addition, meet 4 to 6 times
per year to review goals and
provide support to achieve

Each supervisor meets

with each supervisee 4
times per year (quarterly)
to briefly review records,
solve problems and administer sanctions, if any.
Both supervisors are
trained in new coaching
and facilitation skills as
goal planners, support
providers and how to
evaluate for progress and
reward rather than

Ditto Matrix model

meetings and functions.

A different individual
than the supervisor
above, is designated to
coach 4 or 5 staff each
on a continuous basis.
Ditto Silo models meetings and functions.

Ditto Silo models meetings and functions.

Support may involve strengthening the staff persons outlook or skills, solving organizational problems that are
hindering individual


Staff is grouped in two pairs,

mentor and mentee. In one
pair, a person will be the
mentor; in the other pair, the
person will be the mentee.

Same as Silo Model.

Same as Silo Model.

They will meet informally

(lunch?) periodically, and
keep in touch by phone and
email, to talk about the
mentees professional
What can the mentor do to
help? What can the organization do to help? What can the
mentee do to further her own



individual and any organization structure. As brilliant as some sion, it is possible to exercise the Authority role in an emotionstaff may be, they cant just come in to work whenever they feel ally neutral manner with compassion. This new type of manager
like it and do whatever they feel inspired to do that day. Some- is defined as one who creates conditions for staff to be responhow, we have to find and support the creative tension between sible, to encourage and support them toward that end, not by
the individual and the organization needs.
trying to make them be responsible. (Oshry, 1986, Pg. 158)
Nonprofits are well positioned to sustain this creative tenSince the 1940s, there has been a growing awareness that
sion, because a significant number of nonprofit staff are very the Authority role, when it is the sole or predominant managecommitted to their cause. A nonprofit managers job is to figure ment mode, actually has a detrimental effect on motivation and
out how to develop a structure that
productivity. Therefore, progressive
will interfere the least with her staffs
organizations are strengthening the
intrinsic motivation and support its
support, guidance and developmental
A good resource for helping aspects
growth and development.
of supervision. There are varinonprofits transition from the ous ways for doing so, depending on
Separate management roles
the structure of the organization, as
detrimental effect of authori- seen
A manager has many roles.
in Figure 3. There is a growing
Among the most important are exertarian or quasi-authoritarian
body of literature advising managers
cising authority, providing support so
on how to develop coaching and menmanagement to the more
that staff can do their work and nurtoring skills.
turing staff growth as an asset to the
effective Coach and Mentor
A good resource for helping nonorganization. Usually, these three roles
profits transition from the detrimental
styles is books by Barry Oshry. effect of authoritarian or quasi-authori authority, support and growth are
performed by one person in a way that
He helps correct the damage tarian management to the more effecmushes the roles together until they
Coach and Mentor styles is books
done in business hierarchies by tive
are indistinguishable. These manageby Barry Oshry. He helps correct the
ment roles are together because nonengaging the whole staff in
damage done in business hierarchies
profits are chronically under-staffed,
by engaging the whole staff in learning
learning to empower themand managers typically perform many
to empower themselves, whether they
other roles in addition to supervision.
selves, whether they are what are what he calls Tops, Middles or BotAlmost all nonprofit managers are
toms. Exploring his work will enlighten
he calls Tops, Middles or
responsible for fund raising, controlling
nonprofit managers even when they
budgets, developing and publicizing
Bottoms. Exploring his work have b een umbilically attached to the
services, and, in many cases providing
illusion of equality in their Flatline
will enlighten nonprofit man- organizations.
the services as well.
His work provides pracThe time to learn and differentiate
agers even when they have
tical methods for changing the culture
management skills that maximize
the organization until the power disbeen umbilically attached to of
everyones effort and impact is very
tribution is truly more egalitarian.
limited. The good news is that differthe illusion of equality in their
My personal bible of supportive
entiating managerial roles means the
management is not even a manageFlatline organizations.
roles can be delegated to others, thus
ment theory, application or book at all,
reducing the managers work load, and
but an approach to strengthening eduultimately saving time. This can be done without losing control, cation. (Gibbs, 2001) In my experience, the most successfully
a major concern for most managers.
managed nonprofits have a strong sense of community as
The differentiation of roles is very strongly linked to orga- defined by Gibbs (Pg. 38): interdependence and individual
nizational structure as shown in Figure 3, Differentiation of Man - accountability; cooperation and collaboration; individual and
agement Roles in Three Organization Structures.
group creativity; pro-social principles: altrusim, empathy, social
support, and respect for diversity. Within this community model
Applications of differentiated management
the following personal characteristics are nurtured: social comroles and resources to develop them
petence, problem-solving skills, autonomy and a sense of purThe Authority role is the oldest and best known of the pose and future (Gibbs, Pg. 45) resulting in resilient people
three management roles depicted in Figure 3. The Authority that is, people who are strong, positive, flexible and adaptive to
role is most closely identified with the Silo model of organiza- change. Gibbs education model is drawn from research of
tion structure. At its worst, it has provided opportunity for abuse highly at-risk children, unearthing ways that they can be
of power over others. In our re-thinking of nonprofit manage- strengthened for healthy growth. Since her model has sucment and strengthening the more positive aspects of supervi- ceeded with at-risk children, it stands to reason that a similar
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The Myth of Equality in Flatline Organizations

Ultimately, the choice of management style and organization structure will determine whether or not the nonprofit organization is a learning organization, a term
we are hearing more and more about in both business and nonprofit sectors.
The learning organization as defined by its main proponents (Senge, Roberts,
Ross, Smith, Kleiner 1994, Pg. 18) is, Groups of people who, over time,
enhance their capacity to create what they truly desire to create.
approach could have strengthening effects on adults, some of
whom may appear to be falling short of the organizations standards of performance and productivity.
Gibbs shows how her supportive educational model is
compatible with the way our brain works (Pg. 67.) Dr. William
Glasser (1994) makes the same link between supportive
management and brain chemistry. In other words, the reason
why the old-style authoritarian management fails to motivate
people is not due to some aberration of stubbornness or inability to follow orders, but it is fundamentally incompatible with
our brains.
Ultimately, the choice of management style and organization structure will determine whether or not the nonprofit
organization is a learning organization, a term we are hearing
more and more about in both business and nonprofit sectors.
The learning organization as defined by its main proponents (Senge, Roberts, Ross, Smith, Kleiner 1994, Pg. 18) is,
Groups of people who, over time, enhance their capacity to
create what they truly desire to create.
When an organizations leaders decide to create an environment in which people can learn and flourish as individuals,
they can work toward acquiring the skills and know-how to
make it possible. This will involve not only developing the most
appropriate structure for the organization, but integrating
enlightened management skills within that structure.



Gibbs, Jeanne, (2001) Tribes: A New Way of Learning and Being
Together, Center Source Systems, Windsor, CA
Glasser, William, M.D. (1965) Reality Therapy: A New Approach
to Psychiatry, Harper and Row, NY and (1994), The Control
Theory Manager: Combining the Control Theory of William
Glasser with the Wisdom of W. Edwards Deming to Explain Both
What Quality Is and What Lead-Managers Do to Achieve It,
Harper-Collins Business, NY
Hedberg, Bo L., Nystrom, Paul C., and Starbuck, William H.,
chapter entitled Designing Organizations to Match Tomorrow in the book Organizational Diagnosis: A Workbook of The ory and Practice edited by Weisbord, Marvin R. Perseus
Books, Cambridge, MA (1978)
Harrison, Michael I. (1987) Diagnosing Organizations: Methods,
Models and Processes, Sage Publications,Newbury Park, CA
Oshry, Barry. (1986) The Possibilities of Organization, Power &
Systems, Inc., Boston, MA
Senge, Peter M., Roberts, Charlotte, Ross, Richard B., Smith,
Bryan J., Kleiner, Art. (1994) The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook:
Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization, Doubleday, NY
Weisbord, Marvin R. (1978) Organizational Diagnosis: A Work book of Theory and Practice. Perseus Books, Cambridge, MA