The Chain of Command

In business, the chain of command is not “the chain I go get and beat you with ’til ya understand who’s in ruttin’ command here.” Although, not following that chain of command can often make your employees feel like it is.

The higher you go in an organization as a manager, and more often as an owner, the more likely it becomes that you’ll run into a situation where you’re going to be looking down the length of your own chain of command and deciding to go around it. The best advice that I can give to you is: don’t.

The scenario comes up often that between you and the employee that you would like to discuss an item with, there is another manager. The quickest method of communication is always direct and the natural inclination is to address the employee. But when doing this, you’re undermining your own command structure.

Regardless of your power in the organization or your role in the organization, respecting the chain of command is important. Let’s take some examples that come up and look at how it can make the employee and the managers between feel.

Addressing an error

From the employee’s perspective, they’re wondering why the error they made was so big that their boss’s boss (or the owner of the company) had to talk with them about it. Regardless of how it is brought up to the employee or how you feel about your delivery of the message, the power that comes with your position tints the glasses and it becomes very intimidating. They may be wondering if their manager went to you instead of coming to them directly, and in those cases the employee feels resentment toward their own manager regardless of that manager’s involvement. It can create mistrust and uneasiness.

The manager, when the employee talks about it, has no idea about the situation and won’t be prepared to answer any of the employee’s questions. This disrupts the communication flow between the manager and the employee. In some cases, it leaves the manager in a weaker position for correcting future errors and leaves the manager feeling impotent. This fosters resentment toward the “higher ups” and disrupts communication in that direction as well. The manager may feel that they’re not in control of their department or that the boss felt they weren’t competent enough to address the error.

Getting something done

Even simple requests directly to an employee can cause problems. Future items of this type are going to go directly to you, for one, taking the manager of that employee out of the equation. Since you’re the “go-to” person for all items of this type, your workload has increased. Your workload continues to increase because it becomes very important for you to keep “looping in” whatever manager that you skirted and that’s enough work that it doesn’t get done as often as it should. This leaves the manager “out of the loop.”

It undermines the manager’s authority because the employee sees you as the authority figure in this scenario and since they’re working directly for you; your request trumps anything that their manager would request. The manager does not have the ability to reprioritize that person’s work because the mandate to do something else came from someone “higher up.” Again, regardless of how you see yourself, you are coming from a position of power in the organization and your employees see you from that perspective. Between the manager and the employee there is now a rift, especially in the case that priorities between what you’ve asked the employee to do and what the manager has asked the employee to do may be different.

Regardless of what you tell the employee to the contrary or the manner you present the request, employees generally believe that if someone higher up in the organization is spending their thought process time on an item then it is very important and they should get it taken care of right away. This puts stress on the employee to get it done as quickly as possible, often at the expense of other work. If you’re a customer-facing service organization, the employee may sacrifice customer service for internal service.

Gathering information

In organizations where departments and employees have very specialized functions, you’ll often know who the manager is going to go to if you ask them for information. Asking the manager for departmental information can seem like an unnecessary step, but this too tends to backfire when you skirt the manager.

Managers are tasked with improving the efficiency of their employees. When a manager feels like their employees are interrupted unnecessarily, they’ll often see this as a reason why they can’t improve efficiency. Rightfully so, without the control of the employee the manager no longer has the responsibility. This becomes a barrier to performance.

If this request is something that someone else in the department usually does, the employee begins to feel like your secretary. They also begin to wonder how much you really know about how the organization works, losing respect for you.

Everything else

There is a quote from Office Space that is I like to reiterate to managers when I see this kind of thing going on: “I have eight different bosses right now. Eight, Bob. So that means when I make a mistake I have eight different people coming to tell me about it.” This is poignant because it’s exactly how an employee feels when they have multiple people asking them about the same thing. In all of the scenarios where the chain of command is ignored, the employee will feel this way to an extent. Their manager still has a job to do that likely involves the same items that you’ve asked about.

Now, I’m not saying this happens in all cases. Nor is it always as dire as the above. But you also should not feel like you are the exception to the items above. Over time, confidence is eroded, employee morale goes down, and the quality of life in your organization changes. Respecting the chain of command doesn’t solve everything and introduces problems of its own, but what it does do is empower your managers and your employees to do their job the way that their job was supposed to be done. In the case where you feel the manager wouldn’t do it as well as you, use that as a training opportunity to build your managers. Otherwise, you’ll be back to doing everything yourself and no matter how good you are, you have limits to how much you can get done.

The good news is that avoiding the scenarios above is simple. All you have to do is respect your own chain of command. Involve the managers of any employees you want to talk to and make sure that manager is on-board from the start. Involve the manager in any meetings or let the manager take the lead on the project their employees are doing. The manager will be able to do their job and the employees won’t feel the eight boss pressure.

Posted in Advice, Management.

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