Chain of Command

Colin Powell once defined chain of command as giving the person above you in the chain your suggestions regarding how to approach or resolve an issue, up to the moment that they make a decision. As soon as the decision is made, you must treat it as if it were your own. Whether you personally agree with it or not makes no difference at all.

If you can't do that, you are a weak link, and you can't be a link in that chain any more.

There are some folks who believe that chain of command is an outdated management concept, or at least one that only belongs in military organizations. This is nonsense. While every organization’s goal should be to keep its organizational chart as flat as possible and encourage the flow of ideas from bottom to top and top to bottom, chain of command is as necessary to effectiveness as it has ever been.

In general, an organization’s chain of command consists of three levels, determined by each group’s responsibility. Depending upon its size and complexity, your organization may actually have many more levels, but they will still fall roughly into three groups:
  • Executive (determine direction and vision) 
  • Mid-level management (determine which tasks are necessary to achieve the vision, see to it that these tasks are completed) 
  • Line-level workers (determine the steps necessary to complete the tasks and do most of the actual work)

In general, your organizational chart should look like a pyramid, with the bulk of employees at the base, fewer employees in the middle, and the fewest at the top. If it doesn’t look like a pyramid, it is probably not as efficient as it could be, and you are probably spending more on salaries at the middle and/or top than you should.

In general, to be effective, no manager should have more than seven to ten direct reports. That is about the most that any manager can effectively manage, respond to, and cultivate. If they have fewer than five, you should look at whether it makes sense to consolidate them with another department or group.

There seems to be a trend in some organizations to assign the title ‘manager’ to employees that have no direct reports. This may be an excuse to pay a favored employee more money, or to use a fancier title as a means to avoid paying more. From an organizational perspective, however, an employee that has no one to manage – that is, no direct reports - is not a manager.

To avoid both of the scenarios above, you may wish to consider the title Coordinator. It is both more accurate and less likely to encourage paying more or less than the tasks in question are worth.

Remember: It is never about how much a person is worth (people are priceless). It is always about how much the position – that is, the tasks accomplished – is worth. Keep that in mind when you assess compensation, and you are much less likely to overpay or underpay.

Each level within your organization has a fixed perspective – that is, they each see varying amounts of the ‘big picture’ on a daily basis. In general, the executive level sees the entire big picture, the mid-level managers see just enough to determine what tasks are necessary to accomplish the vision and follow the direction determined by the executives, and the line-level workers see just enough to accomplish the tasks assigned by the mid-level managers.

If the employees at any level see more of the big picture than they can actually act on, it is likely to be a distraction, and may even lead to conflict over decisions made at higher levels. To borrow a military analogy, it is not up to a private to question why he or she is attacking a given hill. That decision is made by a general, who has access to more information, as well as the experience - and responsibility – necessary to make that decision.

Bear in mind, this is only the day-to-day perspective of each level. In general, it is healthiest and most effective if employees at all levels know the organization’s overall vision, direction, and core values, so that everyone moves in the same direction and toward the same goal(s).

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the first and love the second, or he will be devoted to the second and despise the first. (Matthew 6:24)

If any employee of your organization reports to more than one manager, your organization is a club, not a business. There are two reasons why you don’t want this, and both have to do with chaos.

First, let’s look at it from the employee’s point of view:

At some point, a task assigned by Manager A is going to conflict with a task assigned by Manager B, if for no other reason than that the employee has only so much time in his or her day, and has to make a decision about which task has priority. If either manager disagrees with the employee’s decision, both managers and the employee waste time figuring out how to resolve the conflict.

This will happen over and over again, for no good reason. Because wasted time is wasted money, wasting time is a cardinal sin of business.

Now let’s look at it from the managers’ point of view:

Suppose the employee doesn’t want to perform a task assigned by Manager A. Rather than going to Manager A about it, they go to Manager B and ask for their permission to ignore the task, or at least to push it down their list of priorities. Or, if they are really clever, they won’t even ask. Instead, they will simply get Manager B’s agreement that one of Manager B’s tasks is very important, and use that as an excuse to downgrade Manager A’s task(s).

Sound familiar? It’s the age old strategy of going to Dad and, if Dad says no, going to Mom for the answer that you want. If there is conflict, it occurs between Dad and Mom; the child throws up their hands and says, “It’s not my fault!”, when of course it is.

To begin with, because of the limited view imposed by their position, a lower-level employee’s priorities should be set by their manager. This is impossible if the employee has more than one manager. The employee has freedom to prioritize the actual steps involved in carrying out a given task.

To a certain extent, this is dictated by the employee’s ability and readiness, as well as their level within the organization. For example, a mid-level manager has more responsibility to make decisions about the priority of their tasks than an entry-level employee, and should have more ability to do so (that is, if you’ve hired the right manager).

Of course, all employees ultimately work for and report to the organization. Organizations that fail to cultivate this perspective as part of their culture are headed for trouble. A single manager or even a group of managers may assign tasks that are in their own best interests or the interests of their department, and in opposition to the interests of the organization. While there are times this impression may simply be the result of the lower-level employee’s limited view (i.e., they cannot always see the ‘big picture’, because they do not know all of the facts), in general it is best to keep the lines of communication open, and encourage lower-level employees to go to their manager’s supervisor if their manager presents tasks that appear to conflict with the goals of the organization.

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