Chain of Command

Chain of Command Definition

Chain of command refers to the hierarchy within a company. Specifically, the chain of command lays out what the order of power in decision-making and responsibility is. The person at the top of the chain of command has the most responsibility within the company and thus also the final say on decision-making. The level of power in decision-making and responsibility decreases with every step down the chain of command.

The chain of command is put in place to clarify what the role is of each employee is and who they report to. Most companies will visualize the chain of command in an organizational chart like the one below. An employee reports to the person directly above in the chain of command only. Surpassing a higher level employee to communicate or report to an even higher level employee goes against the organizational philosophy of the company. For example, in the vertical organizational chart below, employee Julie Warren is required to report to Doris Medina first and should not report directly to Derek Crisp. It is the job of James Kristy to report to Derek Crisp.

Vertical Chain of Command vs. Horizontal Chain of Command

The organizational chart clearly depicts the chain of command in a company. The way that the organizational chart is shaped gives insight into the company’s culture and the importance of hierarchy within the company.

Vertical organizational chart

Vertical organizational chart

The above figure is a traditional organizational chart and an example of a more vertical chain of command. Hierarchy tends to be more important in a company with a more vertical chain of command as compared to a company with a more horizontal chain of command. This is because there are more levels of communication in a vertical hierarchy and closer monitoring of subordinates.

Compare the vertical organizational chart above with the horizontal organizational chart below. An important difference between the two charts is that the managers in the horizontal organizational chart have a wider span of control. Span of control is the number of employees that report directly to higher level. In the horizontal organizational chart, the regional sales manager has a wider span of control than than Kate Jeter in the vertical organizational chart.

Horizontal organizational chart

Horizontal organizational chart

With more subordinates, a supervisor or manager has less time to monitor each individual. As a result, employees in a more horizontal hierarchy tend to have greater autonomy than employees in a linear chain of command.

Benefits of a Chain of Command

Clarity and Accountability

A chain of command clarifies which employee is responsible for what. It also shows whom that employee reports to. This sets clear roles for each employee. At the same time, employees know who their direct supervisor is and so know whom to turn to with challenges or when more information is needed.

Setting out the specific role of each employee also gives each employee accountability for their tasks. Since each employee knows what they are responsible for and whom to report to, each employee can be held accountable for the results.

Increased Productivity and Efficiency

Employees with a clear role can work more efficiently and productively because they have a focus. Employees know whom to turn to when they encounter any difficulties. Their direct supervisor is responsible for ensuring that each subordinate is able to perform their tasks. This removes ambiguity in the job description and requirements.

Challenges of a Chain of Command

Slower Communication

A vertical organization has slower communication because there are more levels to go through. This slows down the activities of a company because there are several management levels that need to be asked for approval first. This can be solved with a more horizontal organization whereby the autonomy of its employees allows for quicker responses to situations.

Less Flexibility

As mentioned, a chain of command clarifies the role of each employee. Although this makes a company more efficient, very specific tasks lowers the flexibility of a company. Employees that have more freedom in their job description tend to be more creative. This in turn can offer space for a company to be more innovative. The challenge of a chain of command is to allow for space for creativity whilst still setting clear goals.

Quiz

1. How many levels of command are there between Stephen Woods and Robert Fowler in the vertical organizational chart? How many levels of command are there between Emma and Alexander in the horizontal organizational chart? Which employee has more autonomy, Emma or Stephen Woods?

A.
B.
C.

2. Look at the vertical organizational chart. Who is the subordinate of Tony Williams? Who does Tony Williams report to directly?

A.
B.
C.

3. Imagine that both the companies in the vertical organizational chart and the horizontal organizational chart are in the same industry. Which company is in theory, more likely to respond quicker to a change in consumer demand?

A.
B.
C.

 

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