What Is Chain of Command?
What Is Chain of Command?

What Is Chain of Command?

What Is a Chain of Command?

In simple terms, a chain of command is a hierarchy structure within a business.

The chain of command is put in place so that each member of the company can easily know who they would report issues, achievements and information to, as well as establishing what their position is within the business.

When implemented correctly, a chain of command ensures that employees at every level within the company have somebody that they can refer to.

The exact size and structure of this chain of command will vary depending on the size and needs of the business.

In the lower levels of a company, this could be a supervisor or department manager. In higher levels it could be that the board members report directly to the CEO.

What Are the Benefits of a Chain of Command?

Having an established chain of command has been a common feature of businesses for many years, so it is understandable that there must be some benefits to the system.

Structure to Responsibilities and Clearly Defined Authority

With a chain of command, each person knows exactly what they are responsible for, what actions they will need to take and who is the next person of authority after themselves.

This means that no matter what the issue is, an individual will know who they need to speak to.

Division of Labor

By dividing a company into departments or sections, each with its own manager, it means that jobs can be split up more equally among the staff and individuals are able to become more specialized in their tasks.

This allows workers to do their jobs more efficiently and enables staff members to become highly skilled.

It also means that projects and tasks can easily be allocated to whichever area of the business is best able to carry them out.


By having someone designated as being responsible for a department or area of the business, it increases accountability.

Employees know what their responsibilities are and who they need to submit information or reports to.

It also means that if something goes wrong within a company, it is easier to find which area of the business is responsible.


When a chain of command works well, it makes communication within the company easier.

Rather than attempting to deliver a message or a question to every individual within a company, it can be passed up and down the chain, allowing the appropriate managers to relay the information to their teams.

For example:

If a shop is implementing a new customer service policy, it will make sure that the supervisors and managers are briefed. This will then be relayed to the staff working on the shop floor so that they can put it into practice.

Efficiency and Organization

Rather than having a situation where information is continuously passed to the wrong person, having a distinct chain of command can make working for a company more organized and efficient.

If an employee knows that their first line of contact with an issue is their supervisor, this will avoid unnecessary delays.

Decision-Making and Feedback Is Passed up to the Appropriate Authority

If an issue or question requires a decision from someone further up in the company, then the chain is in place to make this process easier.

Each person knows who the next is within their chain, meaning that information can quickly and easily make its way to the right location.

This also applies to feedback.

When reports or information are required from those higher within the company, employees are able to make sure that the right people see the right information.

Usual Structure of a Chain of Command

Traditionally, a chain of command is structured with the CEO or company owner at the top and then layers of management further down.

As the chain progresses through the business, there could be levels of senior management, middle management and supervisors.

In a smaller business, the chain is usually simplified, with the business owner only choosing to have a few employees in managerial or supervisory positions.

The names given to those within the chain of command may vary from business to business.

In very traditional businesses, they may choose to use terms such as ‘subordinate’ or ‘superior’. Other companies may choose to refer to staff as ‘team members’ or by their job titles.

Elements of a Chain of Command

There are many elements that can be found within a chain of command. Depending on the needs and size of a company, not all features will be needed, but it is important to understand the different elements and know where each element sits within the chain.

  • CEO or business owner – This is usually the person who sits at the top of the chain. They have overall authority and responsibility for everything within the business.

  • Board members – Large companies may have a board made up of vice presidents and senior executives. These individuals answer directly to the CEO or company owner.

  • Senior management – This is often the top management level within a business and is usually composed of people who are responsible for large teams or entire departments. They will report to the board members.

  • Middle management – In a large company, teams and departments may be broken up into smaller sections, which would each have a manager or supervisor of its own. The individuals in charge of these sections will answer to the department heads and senior management.

  • Supervisors – At the lowest levels within a company, employees will report to a supervisor. This may be someone responsible for their branch or their department within a branch. The supervisor is responsible for the smooth running of day-to-day tasks and reports to an allocated member of middle management. Supervisors may also be known as first line management as they are usually the individuals who are most involved with the frontline aspects of a business.

It is important to note that each level of management will generally be responsible for managing their own teams, achieving targets and reporting to the level above them. There may be some occasional overlap in responsibilities and the area or department manager will have a level of control over all managers in their designated section.

For example, an area manager may have some contact with individual branch managers and supervisors within their area.

What Is a Chain of Command (Definitions and Benefits)
What Is a Chain of Command (Definitions and Benefits)

Are There Different Types of Chain of Command?

Most businesses will have some type of chain of command structure, but what exactly that looks like may vary depending on the size and needs of that particular company.

The most common types found within businesses are flat and vertical chains of command.

Flat Chain of Command

A flat chain of command is the term used to describe a company that has a much less defined hierarchy.

In these businesses, the company owner or CEO will often take a much wider command of the business, meaning that there is less need for senior and middle management level employees.

Because of the reduction in management employees, power and responsibility tend to be spread more evenly across the company.

This type of chain of command is a more modern approach to the chain of command and is more commonly found within smaller businesses where a large number of different managers is not necessary.

Vertical Chain of Command

This is the most traditional form of chain of command, with each level having only a few people allocated for others to report to.

Depending on the size of the business, this could mean that there are many layers of management within the company with a variety of department heads, section leaders and supervisors.

In a smaller business, this could mean that there are only one or two people who employees report to.

What Problems Might Arise With a Chain of Command?

Although there are numerous benefits to implementing a chain of command within a business, any system will have the potential for problems.

Breakdowns In Communication

The main issue with having to communicate via a chain of command is that it can sometimes be a long and complicated process. This means that there can be occasions when communication may break down and messages may be missed.

This is understandably frustrating for all of those involved as it will often mean starting the process again or chasing up on progress.

Increased Competition

When a company is broken down into smaller sections, it can lead to higher levels of competition within departments. This is especially relevant for large companies that may have more than one location or branch.

Competition is not necessarily an entirely bad thing, but it can lead to difficult relationships between staff members and departments if the competitive attitude gets out of hand.

Less Flexibility

When the structure is complicated or extensive, it can also appear to be rigid.

While having a set protocol and procedure means that employees know who they need to contact and report to, it can also mean that processes don’t have the ability to be flexible or adaptable to changes or unusual circumstances.

Can Be Considered Outdated

The most traditional forms of chain of command can be considered outdated by some.

Having one person who has overall control and many layers of management can mean that employees feel less empowered and as though they don’t have much of a say with regards to how things are done.

It can lead to feelings of employee dissatisfaction if they feel that their opinions aren’t listened to or that they have to ‘jump through hoops’ to be heard.

Results May Be Slow to Achieve

If there is an issue that your direct line manager is unable to deal with, they may need to refer to someone further up the chain.

This can mean that it takes longer than expected to see results, as a problem may be continually handed up the line until it reaches someone who is able to deal with it.

For example:

A holiday request may initially need to be applied for via your line manager, but then may need to be passed to HR to be signed off. This means that you may not always be able to have an answer straight away.

Uneven Distribution of Power

In a very traditional chain of command, a small number of individuals have a lot of control over a company.

This can lead to those employees further down the chain feeling as though they have no power to create change within their company and can cause feelings of dissatisfaction.

Final Thoughts

While there are undoubtedly potential downsides when implementing some kind of chain of command, the benefits will often outweigh the negatives.

Having defined resources for employees to use and report to will often make things simpler for managers who don’t necessarily always know how to deal with every situation, as they themselves will have someone they can ask for advice.

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