Chain of Command
The Basic Idea
The chain of the command is a hierarchical structure, typically found in militaries or workforces, in which each person reports directly to a single figure of authority who is higher up in the chain. In these situations, those higher up in the chain have the right to give commands to those only directly below them in the chain. In an ideal scenario, this order is never disrupted.
Span of control: The number of people reporting to a specific manager.
Flat organizational structures: When one manager manages many employees, offering a wide span of control. These organizations result in little to no middle management as managers cannot keep tabs on everyone at all times, and therefore allow plenty of creativity and freedom for employees.
Vertical organizational structures: When one manager manages only a few employees, the employees are under a narrow span of control. These organizations result in several layers of middle management as their manager can supervise them constantly, and employees therefore have little opportunity for creativity or freedom.
Unity of command: The idea that workers should report to only one boss, in order to prevent confusion that may occur when an employee receives differing commands from multiple bosses.
Matrix organizations: Organizations that do not operate by the chain of command, in which employees work under more than one boss.
Scalar chain: The idea of authority and responsibility flowing, one by one, in a vertical line from the top of the chain of command to the bottom.
The idea of the chain of command can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution, when growing workplace environments had less information and communication options available to them, and thus required a more streamlined method of communication. In these days, chain of command thinking gained popularity, particularly in the military, where authority was concentrated in the hands of a few individuals at the top.
In his 1916 book General and Industrial Management, French engineer Henri Fayol introduced fourteen principles of management. These principles illustrated Fayol’s idea that effective organization requires each person in an organization to report only to the figure of authority directly above them. Fayol proclaimed that this was necessary in order to provide the supervisor with a clear position of authority, and to prevent the employee from receiving conflicting orders from multiple higher figures (his principle of the unity of command).
Although Fayol understood that there were some circumstances in which the chain of command may not be in the company’s best interests, he believed it to be erroneous to abandon the chain of command without good reason. Fayol even coined the term “gangplank” to denote a situation in which communications outside the chain of command were allowed, with everyone’s awareness and consent.
German sociologist Max Weber, who was only born toward the end of the Industrial Revolution, also noticed that companies were growing, and studied the problems emanating from this change. Weber admired bureaucracy for its clearly defined hierarchies of authority, consistent with the chain of command, and proposed its infiltration into modern-day workplaces. Weber believed that the chain of command could be an effective solution to the disorganization and chaos that growing organizations were experiencing at the time.
Henri Fayol is widely considered the founder of the modern management method, or how workplaces operate today. Born in 1841, Fayol started out as a mining engineer and executive. During his time as a leader in the mining world, he made efforts to improve the working conditions and division of labor in the mines. Based on his own management work experience, Fayol developed a concept of administration that he wrote about in his 1916 book, General and Industrial Management. This book declared his theory of management, known as Fayolism, inspired by fourteen principles. It also set the foundation that inspired the modern-day chain of command.
Max Weber was a German sociologist, political economist, and historian, whose research and theories have largely influenced modern-day Western society. In 1904, at age 40, Weber published a famous book of essays entitled The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. This book laid the foundation for Weber’s later research on the connection between cultures and the economic systems in which they operate, and is now considered a pioneer text in economic sociology and wider sociological thought. Weber’s study of social fabric, particularly in the workplace, led him to become an advocate for bureaucracy. He vouched for the strictly defined patterns of organization, the merit-based hiring practices, and the efficient division of labor that a reliance on bureaucracy could create.
Nowadays, in an age rich with information and communication options, the chain of command looks different than it did originally. Still, it can have both positive and negative effects in modern workplaces.
For one thing, the chain of command ensures clear reporting relationships, such that when employees have a problem or question, they tend to know who to approach. This streamlines communication in an orderly fashion, preventing a situation in which employees are asking questions to a room full of people who cannot provide answers. In this way, the chain of command also prevents employees from receiving conflicting instructions from different figures of authority. Whereas going to two or three bosses may yield opposing answers, knowing who to go to for feedback means you will get one response you should be able to implement efficiently.
While the chain of command therefore increases the efficiency of communication, it can also occasionally impede the speed of decision making if actions are dependent on only one person’s response. In most instances, it is considered unprofessional to go above your boss’s head, to her boss, for clarity—this action disrupts the chain of command and undermines your boss’s authority. (It is only considered acceptable in a “gangplank” situation in which everyone has been made aware and complied.) However, what happens when your boss is not responding and your actions require her immediate input? Not having the ability to ask the next person up may lose your company important business deals or lead to negligent decision-making.
In other situations, you may know that a question will have to eventually go to the CEO or chair of the board, because it is beyond your department supervisor’s bandwidth. Even if your supervisor answers quickly, she may have to ask her manager, who will have to ask hers, and so on. If the question could go directly to whoever is closest to making an actual decision, things may move more quickly in certain companies.
In this way, the chain of command can stifle employee empowerment and autonomy, by keeping lower-level employees from ever talking to, or forming relationships with, higher-up ones. As a result of everyone being kept in their assigned rank in the chain, lower-level employees may miss professional development or advancement opportunities in companies in which the chain of command is rigid.
While the chain of command has its downsides, it is beneficial for ensuring accountability and responsibility in the workplace. Since each person is made aware of their direct superiors and inferiors, each member of the chain has a vested interest in looking out for those below them in an effort to protect themselves. In other words, superiors tend to have their inferiors’ best interests in mind, since they don’t want to be blamed when inferiors make a mistake.
Despite the rigid and sometimes staunchy nature of the chain of command, it tends to be a positive force for company morale. When the chain is ignored or disrupted, employees most often feel a lack of respect and clarity as they are either not listened to by their inferiors, or not supported by their superiors. The destruction of the chain of command ends up leaving uncertainty and chaos in its wake, with no one clear on what to do or whether they’re on the right track.
Chains of command come under scrutiny when there is little room for movement within them. Because people who work in similar environments often have similar outlooks and are thus susceptible to similar biases and heuristics, workplaces can succumb to conformity if they adhere too closely to the chain of command. Some flexibility within the workplace is encouraged, in order to cultivate positive social relationships and foster creativity and innovation.
In order to reduce the threat of conformity and groupthink, the modern field of management science is currently researching how to reduce reliance on the chain of command without compromising an organization’s structure. In extreme circumstances, like Nazi Germany or the Stanford Prison Experiment, an air-tight allegiance to the chain of command can cause once-regular people to commit unthinkable acts in the name of adhering to their leaders’ requests.
Healthcare and working conditions
Lori Jervis at the University of Oklahoma conducted a study in 2002 about power relations among nursing staff in an old-age home. Although you may imagine the staff in this environment to be gentle, caring, and kind, Jervis found that the chain of command structure among nursing staff and their aides bred tension and conflict. Because nursing staff saw themselves as figures of authority, working above a tier of nursing aides, they frequently refused to do simple tasks they saw as ‘beneath them,’ such as grabbing a glass of water for an elderly patient. Nurses often passed these tasks off to their nursing aides, causing the nursing aides to feel devalued. While nurses may have been used to seeing themselves as subordinates compared to doctors in hospital or clinical settings, the superiority they gained in a nursing home caused them, in some cases, to treat their aides poorly. Nursing aides often expressed resentment at the attitudes of the nurses at the top of the chain of command, demonstrating how power dynamics can create poor working relationships and conditions in a variety of work environments.
Politics and world issues
The President is at the top of the chain of command in America. It makes sense that someone under the President’s leadership may avoid disagreement with them, in an effort to ensure their own job security and promising career ahead. Unfortunately, this fear-based avoidance, influenced by the chain of command, can have major repercussions when the White House fails to address major world issues. In 2019, NBC News reported that American leaders were not seeing climate change as a major issue because concerns were not being communicated down the chain of command. While mayors or senators across America may have individually known climate change to be a concern, they may not have considered it a top priority since it did not come as an order from their superiors. In this way, the chain of command can inhibit autonomy and empowerment in the workplace, leading to negligence of pressing world issues through government communication channels.
Related TDL resources
If you’re interested in reading more about how behavioral science affects workplace morale, this article details how work often misses the mark on fulfillment and engagement in America, and what we can do to bridge the gap.
The chain of command was set out in part to improve equitable hiring processes, but COVID-19 may be taking us backwards. Read this article to find out what we can do to improve our hiring practices during and after this pandemic.
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