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“We have a chain of command that you need to follow.”*
*(a similar/related statement is “Why are you involved in this issue?”)

If this, or any statement like this is uttered in an organization, warning bells should be ringing. This statement indicates several things about the person who is making the statement:

  • He/she feels threatened
  • He/she has an “Us versus Them” mentality, ‘Us’ being the all powerful, and ‘them’ being you, the speck of dust
  • He/she wants to silence alternate ideas and creative thought by “Them”
  • He/she is or feels they are in a position of power and authority over everyone else
  • He/she is creating conflict, not resolving conflict

None of the above are good for the organization, and yet few people in the business world can deny that they have said or had someone say something similar to them.

A ‘Chain of Command’ is a military strategy that assumes people will be sacrificed for the greater good. A chain of command is designed to isolate power in the hands of a very few people who may have to order others to take action that they may not want to take in order to preserve a way of life for their country. Despite the chain of command structure in the military the fact is that in any given battle at least half the General’s plans will fail, and often the plans of the General’s on both sides will fail and the winner of the battle is the army that screwed up least. Time after time it is often the person who was not privy to the chain of command, who ignored the incompetent and/or uninformed orders of those in power, and saved the day despite the chain of command.

Organizations, whether they be for profit or not for profit, must be based on the concept that everyone is important and everyone’s ideas should be considered. The idea that some will be sacrificed (ignored, shown disrespect, demoralized, etc.) for the greater good creates a flaw in the organization that will at best constantly hold the organization back, and at worst be the wound that causes the organization to hemorrhage to death. The reality is that most organizations instinctively

“…most organizations instinctively know this and routinely bypass the chain of command.”

know this and routinely bypass the chain of command. It is only when a weak manager or executive feels threatened that they assert their power and invoke the organizational chart.

Organization charts are great….on paper, but rarely do they adequately function in the real world. The idea that any problem or opportunity needs to flow through a predetermined chain of command assumes that communication within the organization has been directed to the correct people AND that the correct people have retained and assimilated all the required information to make informed decisions. In practice this is rarely true and the result is costly errors in judgement or failure of action by the chain of command. The result is frustration and dissatisfaction that ripple across the organization.

The fatal flaw of the concept of a chain of command is the futility of ‘control’ of an employee. For decades many business schools have preached the need for management to establish controls that set expectations, measured, motivated, and evaluated employees.   The problem is that any method of control inherently creates a degree of dependence on management, and somewhat ironically, often reduces confidence in management. A ‘well-managed’ employee is often (knowingly or unknowingly) discouraged by the controlling manager of exercising creative thought. That causes obstruction to an organization’s ability to react and respond in its environment, which ultimately can be fatal. In addition, efforts to control an employee is demeaning and demoralizing, which ultimately leads to disloyalty, dissatisfaction, and turnover. Management through control is subject to what I call the Uncertainty Principle of Management.

The Kiser Uncertainty Principle of Management states:
The more a manager applies controls to, or attempts to manage an employee the less loyalty** that employee will have to the manager and/or organization.

**(Definition of Loyalty: anonymous dedication and support to a manager, an organization, and goals of both.)

The idea that loyalty is, 1) a dependent factor on management control, and 2) has a negative relationship to management control would seem to be a leap in logic, but in over 30 years of observing, studying, and practicing management I have never seen an exception to this principle. Disloyalty may manifest itself in turnover or even employee theft, OR may be as simple as not considering the best interest of the company while performing his or her job functions. Hidden camera videos of bad employee behavior are often in companies with the tightest management controls.

So is the solution an organization based in anarchy that operates in chaos? Almost.

The first step is to Re-Imagine the role of the manager or executive as a consultant, not a boss. A consultant advises her or his clients, but knows that it will be up to the client to follow or reject the advice.  For a controlling-type manager who believes they are responsible for the success or failure of those in her or his charge, that may be interpreted as surrendering all authority over the employee, but the reality is that by empowering the employee and assuming a consulting role, the manager is giving the best possible opportunity for the employee to succeed. In addition, it frees the manager to evaluate the employee, not on how well they follow orders, but rather on achieved results.

The second step is to design an organization to be responsive. This doesn’t mean the organizational chart should be abolished, but that its role is significantly different. The organizational chart should be a guideline to help people access and channel information and improve decision-making, but never should it be restrictive. The idea of a chain of command is based in power and authority and it serves a few people in positions of authority, but is disrespectful and demoralizing to everyone else in the organization.