Chain Of Command: Meaning, Benefits, Types And Disadvantages

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 27 September 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

To seamlessly execute the day-to-day functions in an organisation, a clear division of responsibilities is critical. That is why most organisations set a structure in place, detailing the hierarchy and describing the responsibilities of the individuals, the teams and departments of the company. Learning about hierarchical models in companies can help you understand how reporting works internally and also may help you implement it at your workplace effectively. In this article, we explain what a chain of command is, discuss its types and share its benefits, along with drawbacks.

What Is A Chain Of Command?

In an organisation, a chain of command refers to a structure that decides and documents how each member of a company reports their work to one another. It is the company's pyramid of reporting relationships, from the bottom to the top. Typically, there is a founder, owner or chief executive officer (CEO) at the top level. The people working under them appear directly below as senior managers who have a team of people reporting to them. Its implementation continues until every employee becomes a part of the established system.

Such a structure can encourage accountability amongst employees when they work with senior leaders who offer support, motivation and encouragement to their respective teams. The primary goals of establishing a hierarchy are to distribute control over the company's functions and responsibilities, keep employees up-to-date about any vital news on the company, and create a systematic approach to knowledge sharing.

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Types Of Chains Of Command

Establishing a command structure is quite a traditional way of organising different authority levels of a company. From customer-based businesses to government entities, the hierarchical model is quite usual across different organisations. Depending on the size of the company and style of hierarchy, these are of two types:

Flat hierarchy

A flat hierarchical structure refers to organisational rankings where a manager's job entails a higher degree of control within the company. It has comparatively fewer to no middle management between executives and frontline employees. Individual professionals and teams report to the manager, making the organisation's structure look horizontal or flat. It works better for small or new businesses with fewer employees, though some mid-size companies follow the flat bureaucratic structure.

Even when a middle management level exists, the pyramid of command from top to bottom is usually short. Each management level controls a broad team or group, and employees report to one or a few overall managers who contribute to decision-making. Managers in this structure have the authority to make vital business decisions with very little involvement from the top. There may be the business owner or founder, followed by a middle manager and then groups of employees.

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Vertical hierarchy

A vertical hierarchy of command is more complex than that of a flat one, involving more steps and levels in its hierarchy. As this involves significantly more steps, it is long and creates a vertical structure. This organisational hierarchy includes many middle layers of professionals as intermediaries between the top management and bottom-line executives. Every manager is usually only responsible for dealing with a few associates in such organisational models, consequently making their level of control limited to their own department.

Usually, a company's guidelines, processes and procedures are more fixed and critical directions come directly from the top leadership in the vertical hierarchy. The onus to disseminate information is then on other managers according to their departments and responsibilities or based on the projects on which they work.

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Advantages Of A Chain Of Command

Here are a few advantages you can expect from establishing a hierarchical structure in an organisation:

Increased efficiency

Having just one person to report to makes it easier for most employees to work closely with each other. A proper hierarchy facilitates faster communication and empowers employees to solve problems faster.

For instance, there is a team member who is responsible for solving a customer issue. Their direct supervisor is likely to understand their department's operations better and have a clearer idea of the best approach to solving the issue. In a hierarchy, the team member can quickly reach out to their direct supervisor and get their valuable guidance instead of going back and forth between their peers and other managers. If required, the supervisor can escalate the issue to upper management.

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Clear directions

Without a proper hierarchy in place, conducting day-to-day operations becomes a chaotic situation. If there is no department-specific manager or direct supervisor, an employee is likely to receive conflicting directions and instructions from different members of the management. A structured command sets a specific hierarchy which helps eliminate confusion and having to decide which manager to listen to when proceeding on a task or project.

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Another advantage of placing a hierarchy is that it provides stability in hectic schedules. While executing their responsibilities throughout the day, employees may require guidance on some issues or tasks. Consequently, having someone to support them and help them navigate their responsibilities is critical for seamless operations in a business. A hierarchy ensures a place for them to reach out to in case of any concussion or questions.

Be it feedback or help, with a structured hierarchy, an employee knows exactly whom to approach. This makes them feel more in control of their role and even stable in the workplace. With a proper hierarchy, an employee also understands their manager's expectations and identifies situations that may require a manager to ensure adhering to company guidelines.

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Accountability and productivity

A hierarchy allows supervisors and managers to have a close working relationship with their direct reports and be more aware of their responsibilities. They know what projects the employees under them are working on at any time, which can lead to better accountability. As employees have someone guiding them towards success, their motivation and productivity may also increase.

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Structured responsibility

With a hierarchy in place, each employment position that appears in that hierarchy has its own set of duties and responsibilities. Every team member knows what their job entails and what measures to take to achieve their goals and help the company succeed. This can encourage a sense of accountability towards the work they deliver, which can enhance efficiency and productivity across teams to meet organisational or team objectives successfully.

Outside understanding

While dealing with individuals outside of your organisation, specific titles can have more importance in certain scenarios. For example, an upset customer may want to speak with a senior manager because they believe a superior is more likely to solve their problems. Assurance from a superior can help foster stronger customer relationships.

Disadvantages Of Chains Of Command

A proper hierarchy can often benefit a company. Yet, it has some drawbacks which are important to consider. These include:

Less collaboration

With a hierarchy in place, even if the intermediate managers and employees have some autonomy in their work, the topmost authority positions decide how the system operates. In a hierarchy, those at the top set the standards and the guidelines. Because of this, an organisation with a hierarchy is less likely to foster much collaboration in the workplace, as the management expects everyone else to comply. It also reduces the chance of employees getting the chance to interact with those above their direct superior.

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Slow communication

A hierarchy involves a question, concern or idea going up several steps before it reaches the top-level management for them to address or approve it. Sometimes, it can be a time-consuming process in this aspect. This can affect the pace of employees completing their projects or can hinder timely resolution of a customer issue.

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Decreased employee empowerment

It is more likely for an organisation without a hierarchy to provide more autonomy to its employees. With more independence in their task execution, employees often become more informed to make decisions related to their work or a particular situation. A hierarchy can decrease this employee's authority.

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More competition

A hierarchy can increase the competition rate amongst managers. Team leaders are likely to feel competitive with their fellow managers and, as a result, may push the team members to reach unrealistic goals. While healthy competition facilitates growth, too much of it leads to a culture of distrust between peer managers and can lead to burnout and disengagement amongst employees.

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