A chain of command is an organizational system where instructions are passed from one person to another. It’s widely used in military and other disciplined organizations (e.g., police departments) in addition to civil organizations.

In many cases, individual reporting relationships depend on where employees are placed on an organizational chart. Employees will generally report directly to those who are listed above them on the org chart, and the most popular, tried-and-tested way of building these reporting relationships is through a corporate chain of command, also known as the “hierarchical structure.

In civil organizations, a chain of command tells employees who they should report to and when they should consult their supervisor or another manager for things like project decisions and passing information.

How Does a Chain of Command Work?

In a traditional chain of command, one person sits at the very top. In an organization, this is usually the Chairman or Chief Executive Officer (CEO). Below this person on the second line, you’ll typically find other C-level positions (i.e., CFO, COO, CDO) who are the CEO’s directly reporting staff members.

Moving further down the chain, you’ll typically find regional managers, department heads, mid-level managers, team leaders, supervisors, and, at the very bottom, regular staff members.

At each level of the chain of command as you move downwards, autonomy and decision-making power is diminished. This hierarchical method for organizing power, authority, decision making, communication, and information flow assumes that each level of the organization is directly subordinate to the one above it, i.e., the level to which it reports.

In larger companies, the chain of command is often split into many levels across three distinct tiers: senior management (e.g., CEO, Director, Senior Vice President), mid-level management (Regional Manager, Department Heads, Supervisor), and regular employees who don’t manage other employees.

Types of Chain of Command

The chain of command definition highlights its important role in shaping the structure and management of organizations, especially in streamlining communication and decision-making processes. Here are the two primary types.

Vertical Chain of Command

The more traditional model, a vertical chain of command in business is characterized by multiple layers of management in a clear, hierarchical structure.

It takes a top-down approach to decision-making, where instructions come from the upper levels of management and flow down to the front-line employees. Advantages of this setup include clear lines of authority, well-defined roles, and ease of scaling operations. On the other hand, it can lead to slower decision-making, reduced flexibility, and sometimes a disconnect between upper management and lower-level employees.

Large corporations, governmental agencies, and military organizations usually employ a vertical chain of command.

Flat or Horizontal Chain of Command

A flat or horizontal chain of command is identified by fewer hierarchical levels. It promotes a more open and collaborative workplace.

In this setup, there’s faster decision-making due to the reduced number of layers between the top management and the front-line employees. This structure encourages direct communication and a greater sense of autonomy among team members. However, the broad span of control can sometimes blur role definitions and overload managers with responsibilities.

Rapidly evolving organizations such as startups, small businesses, and companies usually have this type of chain of command due to the need for flexibility and quick decision-making.

Chain of Command Examples

Vertical Chain of Command Example: Marketing Department of a Tech Firm

The chain of command chart in a large tech firm’s marketing department starts with the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), followed by regional marketing managers, then by team leaders, and finally, the marketing specialists and assistants. This structure allows the CMO to set strategic marketing goals that are then broken down into actionable plans by the regional managers. Team leaders oversee the execution of these plans to ensure each specialist contributes to the overall strategy.

Flat or Horizontal Chain of Command Example: Project Team in a Software Development Company

A project team in a software development company often operates with a flat chain of command in management. The team might consist of a project manager, developers, designers, and QA testers, all working collaboratively. The project manager usually facilitates the entire process, but most decisions regarding project direction, design choices, and problem-solving approaches are collectively made.

5 Advantages of an Organizational Chain of Command

Here are five key advantages of an organizational chain of command:

1. It’s Highly Efficient

The chain of command tells employees who they should report to and when they should consult their supervisors with key information like project decisions. It also tells employees where they fit within the organization and what their remits are.

This clarity is essential for creating an efficient work environment where people can carry out their roles without fear of overstepping the mark or acting out of turn. And unlike in a matrix organization, the linear reporting structure where employees report to a single supervisor or manager makes it easier for employees to seek help and advice when they need it before making a decision.

2. It Supports All Employees

Every employee within an organization, regardless of where they sit on the organizational chart, is at a different point in their career with their unique levels of experience. However, those lower down often need more support as they develop within their roles.

A chain of command supports employees with less experience and tenure because it shows them where they fit in and who they can turn to for assistance. This enables a general feeling of confidence and empowerment among lower-level employees, which in turn leads to a greater potential for growth and development.   

3. It Simplifies Delegation

Delegating authority is a lot easier when there’s a chain of command in place because it clearly tells employees who to give their orders to and who to take their orders from. In this way, it becomes possible for senior managers to delegate tasks and responsibilities to a subordinate where necessary.

For example, a senior manager may have to skip a meeting due to an unforeseen schedule clash. Instead, the manager can delegate a subordinate to attend on their behalf, helping to ensure continuity of projects and the organization itself.

4. It Creates Accountability & Clarity

In a chain of command, responsibility and accountability are clearly assigned; each manager has their own ultimate oversight and responsibility for a group of employees performing a specific function.

This not only means that employees are not confused about whom to approach for things like resources, feedback, and assistance, but decision making is given a lot more careful thought and scrutiny because managers have their own skin in the game. 

5. It Standardizes Communication

In an organizational chain of command, there are usually more standardized methods of communication, which create a more formal internal environment.

This creates a form of “discipline” within the organization when it comes to communication, with orders, instructions, and information flowing down or up a clearly defined pathway: higher-ups pass their orders down the chain and employees pass information up it.

3 Disadvantages of a Chain of Demand 

The organizational chain of command does come with its own set of unique challenges, however. These include:

1. A Disconnect Between the Top & Bottom

In an organizational chain of command, the decision-making power is heavily concentrated at the top and begins to dwindle as you move further down.

This means that there’s an inherent disconnect between the top & bottom of the chain because the people making all the important decisions are not necessarily aware of the realities and problems faced by those working at a lower level. Teams may be tasked with unrealistic goals and face other problems like insufficient budgets as a result.

2. It’s Not Always Efficient

While the chain of command is efficient in many ways, it’s inefficient in others. Most notably, the chain of command slows down the decision-making process because of the long hierarchical chain along which information and instructions must pass.

A decision that could be made by a lower-level employee relatively quickly—e.g., expensing a train ticket—will find itself slowed down by the bureaucratic nature of the chain of command because permission for the decision must be requested up the chain and then approved back down it.

3. It Doesn’t Always Fit the Modern Organization

The chain of command is generally representative of a time when the world of work was far more mechanical and habitual with less information communication. Today, organizations are more agile and liberal, jobs are less rigidly defined, and organizations are beginning to promote employee empowerment and autonomy.

The means that the modern organization clearly doesn’t mesh as well with the chain of command as it once did, and we’re starting to see more and more organizations use alternative structures like the matrix or flat organizational structure as a result.

Build Your Own Chain of Command

Despite these challenges, it’s still possible to make a chain of command work for any organization when you build one that focuses on supporting employees at all levels rather than strictly govern them. This helps to build a strong culture where it’s easy to communicate and information flows freely.

As with anything, building the right chain of command for your organization is a matter of experimenting until you have something that works for your organization. Think carefully about the roles that equipped to guide other members of the team and be careful not to overload the chain with too many layers.

Looking for a tool to build your chain of command with? Check out our organisational chart builder which can be used to map out your own chain of command hierarchy.

Frequently Asked Questions 

What are the positions in the chain of command?

The positions in a chain of command can vary greatly depending on the organization and the type of chain of command. However, the positions are usually made up of top-level executives, middle management, front-line managers, and operational employees. 

How do you tell employees to follow the chain of command?

For employees to follow the chain of command, there needs to be clear communication and emphasis on the importance of following protocols. Organizations usually implement this by providing training sessions, employee handbooks, and regular reminders.

What is the chain of command and span of control?

A chain of command refers to the system that outlines the authority and reporting relationships within an organization, while the span of control is the number of subordinates directly managed by a supervisor. Both of these determine organizational structure.