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Table 1 Two instantiations of organizational hierarchy defined as sequence of accountability levels

From: Climbing up and down the hierarchy of accountability: implications for organization design

Generic definition of hierarchyA sequence (ladder) of accountability levels
Here, accountability level refers to an abstraction level at which one can engage in account-giving and/or be held accountable. A ladder of accountability is thus constructed by separating higher-level categorical concepts from specific instances characterized by more detail and concreteness. This construction process leads to a ladder of (low to high) levels of accountability. Examples: the operational-tactical-strategic levels in companies, the municipal-regional-national policy levels in the public sector, and the internet’s URL levels.
InstantiationLadder of authority levelsLadder of responsibility levels
DefinitionSequence of (people assigned to) roles with formal authority to make decisions, as it arises from the legal structure of the organization. The ladder of authority thus implies that the underlying accountability ladder is infused with people authorized to make decisions about (e.g., strategic, tactical, or operational) issues.Sequence of domains/levels to which people have an intrinsic sense of obligation and commitment. A ladder of responsibility thus implies that, for example, operational workers climb up the (underlying) accountability ladder, to address higher-level (e.g., strategic) issues and challenges.
Core conceptAuthority: the legitimate power to make decisions.Responsibility: the sense of intrinsic obligation to oneself, others, and/or particular challenges.
AssumptionsDecision-making authority is (initially) concentrated at the top, which may delegate authority to lower levels to reduce (consequences of) information overload and bounded rationality at the top. Legitimacy of authority arises primarily from the constitution (or statutes) of the organization. Given the transitive nature of authority, an authority ladder can have a substantial number of layers.Responsibility is self-organized, that is, individual members of the organization take charge of particular challenges at higher accountability levels. Responsibility is something that people “take” rather than “get,” in order to build and sustain a substantial level of intrinsic obligation and commitment. Given the non-transitive nature of responsibility, a responsibility ladder is unlikely to have more than two layers.
MetaphorAuthority climbs down (i.e., is delegated via) the ladder of accountability, from high to low abstraction levels.Responsibility climbs up the ladder of accountability, from any given abstraction level to higher levels.