In some chains of command, decisions come from the company head to the mid-level managers. From there, instructions on when and how to take action flow to the lowest-level employees. This company structure represents a top-down chain of command. At times, though, situations arise that have a high potential for customer loss, reputation damage or the eventual destruction of the company. Accordingly, some command hierarchies allow front-line employees to react to an immediate challenge first and then report it after the fact. Management then examines the situation, develops policies to handle similar issues in the future and returns to its original top-down decision tree.
The chain of command organizational structure simplifies decision-making. Employees at the lowest level of the company hierarchy complete the tasks assigned to them for that day. Managers prioritize any remaining functions before staging materials and personnel for the most efficient use of tomorrow's time and resources.
Front-line employees with a clear chain of command know who to ask for guidance when they hit a snag while carrying out their duties. Understanding who you report to also provides a ready-made face saver for situations in which fellow employees try to shirk their responsibilities onto the new hire. Being able to say, "Sorry, the boss did not authorize me to do that yet," goes a long way toward maintaining good morale.
While its origins lie in ancient military history, use of the chain of command organizational structure as a management philosophy springs from the 20th-century efforts of sociologist Max Weber and French engineer Henri Fayol. Each employee should have one supervisor only, according to Fayol, so that conflicting orders would not keep employees from taking action. Having a clear line of authority to issue commands meant that supervisors took responsibility for the final results rather than scapegoating the employees who carried out their instructions.
Autocrats, narcissists and bullies sometimes take over a top-down structure. When that happens, chaos and organizational paralysis can result until the true successor arrives on the scene. An excellent real-life example would be when Secretary of State Alexander Haig said, "I'm in charge here," after John Hinckley attempted to assassinate then-President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Constitutionally, the Secretary of State is fourth in the line of succession to the presidency, so three other people were ahead of him. Haig's gaffe ended his career and almost caused a constitutional crisis.
While taking over when a superior becomes incapacitated or steps down might be seen as admirable under some circumstances, ignoring the chain of command rarely turns out well. Smart companies have a clear line of succession already in place. Upper management makes sure the heirs-apparent receive advanced training to ensure a smooth transition.
Following the chain of command provides accountability for every action you take. Unfortunately, the business world does not always educate workers on the importance of following the chain of command. Upper management may even encourage flouting the chain of command when positions go unfilled or when turnover is so high that front-line employees do not know who holds which position. Maintaining an interactive organizational chart can help both newly-hired and tenured employees remain aware of who does and does not have authority in the company. Tables that include photos, full names, titles and contact information allow employees to associate faces with names and positions, further reinforcing the chain of command.
Management at every level in the company hierarchy has a responsibility to educate employees about the company's existing and future chain of command often enough to keep up with any changes. Management also bears the task of enforcing the chain of command, first by counseling employees and then by providing progressive discipline to chronic violators. The U.S. Army does an outstanding job of providing such guidance and counsel to soldiers, and the business world would benefit from following its example.
As an example of this type of guidance, Staff Sergeant Wells counsels Sergeant Reed why his decision to go over the Staff Sergeant's head caused so much trouble. Sergeant Reed learned that vital tasks had gone undone. His actions put fellow soldiers at risk and took the Staff Sergeant away from his duties to search for Sergeant Reed. SSGT Wells quotes the relevant sections of Army Command Policy and states what the next disciplinary action will be if the Sergeant persists in ignoring the chain of command. Providing such specific counseling in the business world would reduce turnover and prevent churning: continually having a position unfilled or a department undermanned.