Hierarchy in a system

Tops, Middles, Bottoms and the Customer

This month I’m writing about organisational systems. A realisation about how they work helps us understand the different perspectives of the hierarchy within a company. This is helpful at any stage of your career. I describe Barry Oshry’s work and recommend his book ‘Seeing Systems – Unlocking the mysteries of organizational life’ (published in 2007). In any organisation you will find ‘tops’, that is the people in charge, the CEO, Heads of Departments etc. Then you’ll get the ‘middles’, in other words those in middle management, then the ‘bottoms’, those that are in the lower ranks of the hierarchy. Then, of course, you’ll get the customer, or client. Sometimes we need reminding, with all the office politics going on, of how important they are!

Oshry talks about ‘system blindness’ and how revealing how the system works in this way can be a revelation.  A realisation of where you are in this system is crucial. I will go through each of these hierarchical categories one by one, briefly, starting literally from the bottom up.


Bottoms are oppressed by what they see as distant and uncaring ‘tops’. They are also trapped in stifling pressures to conform. Their negative feelings about ‘middles’ and ‘tops’ distracts and stifles their creativity, as well as their delivery of products and services. They also can feel vulnerable and at the bottom of the heap.


Middles are torn by the conflicting demands and priorities coming at them from ‘tops’ and ‘bottoms’. The often work alone, apart from their peers, fulfilling their responsibilities and do not get together with people on the same level as themselves. They often isolate themselves, when they could be working together to co-ordinate system processes


Tops are burdened by responsibility, complexity and accountability. Often they are caught up in destructive turf warfare. They are fighting fires, when they should be shaping the system’s future.

The customer

They often feel done-to by nonresponsive delivery systems. They could be active partners in helping the system produce the products and services they need, but their disgruntlement keeps them from doing so.

The system

These roles are formed by the system and it is helpful to see this – it’s like an invisible forcefield. Situations and relationship breakdowns that people often think are personal, due to who they are, are often due to where they are in the system.

What are the answers?

Very briefly as you’d have to read the whole book to fully understand this. The ‘bottoms’ should try to avoid groupthink, where they all come together with their disgruntlement. Instead they should think about individuation and differentiation i.e how to distinguish themselves. The ‘middles’ could try to integrate with other middles, as they often feel isolated. This will mean they can support each other.  The ‘tops’ should also try integration, as well as homogenization. Homogenization can be achieved by ‘walking in each other’s shoes’ and this can help avoid turf warfare. An understanding of the interplay between all these hierarchies within the system is also helpful.

You might also be interested in my blog about interpersonal mush.

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