A chain of command is a term borrowed from the military to describe how instructions are handed down from one person to another. It describes an orderly line of authority from seniors leaders through middle managers and line managers, all the way down to the workers at the bottom of the corporate hierarchy. Unity of command sounds similar, but it describes a very specific type of hierarchy where an employee reports to one, and only one, supervisor.
The chain of command refers to the hierarchy within an organization, and specifically the way that instructions flow downwards and accountability flows upwards through the various ranks within an organization. Each company has its own organizational structure but the conventional top-down chain of command starts with the C Suite at the top, followed by senior managers, department managers, first line managers and regular employees.
Other chains of command include the matrix structure, where employees are allocated to both a department and individual project groups, and thus report simultaneously to several supervisors. This can create confusion with competing priorities and demands.
In small businesses, flat organizational structures have few layers of management between senior leaders and employees. This structure empowers employees to make decisions and be accountable for their own results. However, it can lead to overlapping orders and/or tasks falling between the cracks when the company grows above a certain size.
Unity of command is a management technique where individuals report to and get orders from one, and only one, designated supervisor. It's a type of chain of command that's commonly used in hierarchical organizations, and it also describes the span of control that a supervisor has over her direct reports. Adopting a unity of command structure has a number of advantages for both managers and employees:
Clarity: Getting instructions from more than one superior can be confusing to employees who do not know who they should follow or what instruction to prioritize when multiple supervisors contradict each other. Having unity of command removes the confusion so an employee can carry out his duties effectively.
Efficiency: Supervisors get to know and understand their direct reports and are able to manage them more efficiently. It's easy to fix responsibility to an individual when there's only one boss to report to, which means there's speedier complaint resolution and the performance of the employee should increase.
Accountability: Having such a clear channel of control means that everyone knows who is reporting to whom, and where accountability for an action or decision lies.
Morale: Implementing a unity of command structure can eliminate confusion and chaos. This improves employee morale, leading to higher productivity and lower turnover.
There's another phrase you might hear in this context and that's unity of direction. This principle means that all employees having the same objective – such as the members of a sales team – must be directed to carry out the same plan and objective. It's all about unifying the focus so the team is pulling in the same direction, not swimming against the tide.
Unity of direction is often confused with unity of command and span of control as they both sound the same. However, there are clear differences. Unity of command means taking instructions from one boss, whereas unity of direction means coordinating the activities of a department or team so they are systematically working toward the same objective.
Both terms were coined by Henri Fayol, the so-called father of modern management, in his management theory The 14 Principles of Management. They make up just two of the 14 concepts, the idea being that all 14 concepts must work in synergy to ensure good management.