The Chain of Command

4 min read

The “chain of command” refers to the progressive vertical relationships in an organization. The higher up we go on the chain, the more we see positions endowed with greater responsibilities to manage others, make decisions, allocate funds and resources, etc. The chain is critical in terms of creating and maintaining clear lines of authority and responsibility. In general, we want to keep management authority as close to the work that is being done as possible because, by definition, those higher up the chain have more responsibility and therefore less time for or contact with the day-to-day work at lower levels.

When the chain is honored, employees know their immediate supervisor holds the authority and is their liaison within the organization. They know whom to turn to when addressing issues, clarifying expectations, getting information, etc. This is the plane of work interactions where ongoing behavior can be observed and managed, where relationships can be built on a regular basis to support performance excellence, and where accountability can occur. Upper management continuously reestablishes this reporting relationship and its benefits by honoring the chain of command.

We jump the chain of command when we take over a responsibility or action given to another typically further down the chain. We intervene, often without permission, usurping authority from the person lower down the chain to address an issue defined as being within his or her domain. Although this type of behavior is justified when a safety issue is occurring and people’s physical safety is at stake, most often we would do well to take the issue back to the person “linked” to the behavior as defined by the reporting relationship.

When we jump the chain we may correct the immediate problem but we undermine the reporting relationship and the on-going management of performance at the local level. Often, jumping is an impulsive reaction motivated by some gap in performance or conduct that we just happen to observe.

Reacting to a spontaneously observed situation and jumping the chain is often symptomatic of “getting hooked.” The behavior is so obviously wrong – to us: “It’s just common sense!” It’s likely, however, that some pet peeve, idiosyncrasy, or blind spot of our own is getting activated and we instantly switch to autopilot. Emotions (often anger) and adrenaline are now driving our behavior, preventing an exploration of the context of the performance, confusing or even shocking the employee whose performance is the target of our intervention, and perhaps denigrating the authority of their immediate boss in their eyes. We can justify the behavior if we want, i.e., it was blatantly wrong and after all, we are ultimately responsible for performance in this area. But there is a price to be paid. Employees’ may feel humiliated, their trust in management may be lost or diminished, their respect for their immediate supervisor may be impacted, etc.

Honoring the chain of command must also be applied to our frontline workers. They are responsible for managing their jobs and meeting quality and productivity requirements. If we jump the chain and do the work for them, give them solutions to problems before giving them a chance to discover their own, or change procedures without their input or at least providing a rationale, we are disempowering them and fostering a task mentality that creates passivity. When we honor the chain by respecting and facilitating workers’ own problem-solving abilities, we build leadership at the local level and stimulate a higher quality of work.

Exercise: Examine your behavior and identify when and where you may jump the chain – including with frontline workers. What are your triggers – directives that you don’t see being implemented, breakdowns in procedure, waste being generated? Now ask yourself, how do you react? Does your anger get triggered? Does it feel personal – some diminishment of your power, lack of respect for you or your position, your directives being ignored? If you removed this story line would you respond differently? Is jumping a reaction to stress that you’re unwittingly passing downward?

In any case, from this place of reflection, identify your ideal response, visualize yourself behaving in this new way and then commit to catching and changing the behavior. Unless you’re willing to permanently take over the responsibility for managing or producing this piece of work, empower the right person to do so. Honoring the chain really amounts to honoring your people, your culture, and yourself.



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