What Is a Chain of Command? (Definition and Explanation)

Updated August 2, 2023

Image description

A woman in a military uniform is standing next to a list titled "Chain of Command" with these bullets:
• Less collaboration
• Slow communication
• Decreased empowerment
• More competition
• Increased efficiency
• Clear direction
• Stability
• Accountability
• Structured responsibility
• Outside understanding

Most companies have a hierarchy in place that describes what people, teams and/or departments an individual is responsible for. This is called a chain of command—a valuable component of any organization. With a chain of command in place, each member of the organization has a firm understanding of who they report to and who makes up their team.

In this article, we’ll discuss the traditional chain of command structure,  the associated advantages and disadvantages and explain more about flat and vertical chains of command.

What is a chain of command?

A chain of command is an organizational structure that documents how each member of a company reports to one another. At the top of the chart would be the founder, owner or CEO, and the people who report to them would appear directly below. This pattern continues until every person or level of employment at the organization is accounted for. This hierarchy changes over time as employees join and leave.

A chain of command exists to distribute power and responsibilities, keep employees aware of company news and create a system for sharing knowledge. It also ensures each employee is responsible for their own work but also has a more senior leader to offer support, encouragement and motivation.

Related: 15 Leadership Qualities That Make a Great Leader

Traditional chain of command structure

The chain of command is a very traditional way of structuring a company's authority levels. It's common to see the same chain-of-command structure at various organizations, from customer-based businesses to government entities.

A business owner or CEO holds the position at the top of a chain of command because they hold the top position at the company. The next level down usually includes senior executives or individuals who are in vice president roles over a part of the organization. These individuals report directly to the owner or CEO.

Under the upper management level, you may find individual managers or supervisors who are responsible for an entire department or group of employees. These employees would appear under the middle-management level and at the bottom of the chain of command to represent that their authority figure is their direct supervisor.

It's also common to find several ways to break down the hierarchy even further, depending on how large a company is, how many departments it has and more. There may be more management levels or fewer, depending on business needs.

The important thing to remember is that the farther at the bottom of the hierarchy your position is, the less authority you may have. Those at the top of the hierarchy possess more control over organizational developments and are in the position to make important decisions. They also carry more accountability and responsibility for the company's success and all the individuals who fall under them in the chain of command.

While there is a traditional structure to a chain of command, you may find the language used in a company's hierarchy to differ from one business to another. Some companies use traditional terms like "superior" and "subordinate" to describe members of a company's hierarchy, while others use "team members," "employees" or actual job titles.

Related: Delegation of Authority: Definition and Guide

Advantages and disadvantages to a chain of command

As with most things at a company, there are certain advantages and disadvantages to having a chain in command in place. Consider these pros and cons when deciding on building a chain of command or following your current one:

Chain of command advantages

Here are just some of the advantages you can expect from having a chain in command in place:

Increased efficiency

When an employee has just one person to report to, they will likely work together closely, resulting in faster communication and the ability to solve problems quickly. For instance, imagine a team member who is working on solving a customer issue.

Their direct supervisor probably has a better understanding of their department's operations and how best to solve the issue. Rather than an employee going to the next higher manager, their supervisor can provide them with valuable guidance quickly. The supervisor can escalate the problem to upper management if they need to.

Related: Advancing Your Career With Leadership Development

Clear direction

When there isn't a chain of command in place, an employee may receive conflicting directions and instructions from various members of management. A chain of command helps eliminate confusion or having to decide which manager to listen to when proceeding on a task or project.


It's natural for employees to have questions throughout the day or need some guidance on their work. It's also important that they have work goals and someone who is there to support them. Having a chain of command provides stability so they can experience these things.

An employee will know exactly who they should approach for feedback or help, and therefore, feel more in control of their role and more stable in the workplace. With a chain of command, an employee also comes to understand what their manager's expectations are and which situations require a manager to get involved.

Related: How To Define Team Roles and Responsibilities in 4 Steps


With a chain of command in place, supervisors and managers have a close working relationship with their direct reports and are more aware of their responsibilities and what projects they are working on at any given time. This can lead to more accountability and increased productivity, as employees have someone guiding them to success.

Structured responsibility

Each employee that appears in a chain of command has their own set of responsibilities. With a chain of command in place, everyone is aware of what their job entails and what they have to do to meet goals and help the company succeed.

Outside understanding

Certain titles carry a certain weight with individuals outside of the organization. For example, an upset customer may want to speak with a senior manager because they understand that this person has more ability to solve their problems.

Related: When Should You Escalate an Issue at Work?

Chain of command disadvantages

As great as a chain of command could be, there are some disadvantages to having one in the workplace. The disadvantages include:

Less collaboration

An organization with a chain of command can have less collaboration in the workplace because those at the top of the hierarchy set the rules and standards and they expect everyone else to comply. While middle managers and employees may have some say in decisions or have some autonomy in their work, it's the authority figures who approve everything and choose how the company operates. Also, if the chain of command is respected, an employee may never have the chance to get to know those above their direct superior.

Slow communication

If a question, concern or idea has to go up several steps of the chain of command so that upper management can address or approve it, it can take some time. This can affect how quickly employees can do things like complete their project or resolve a customer issue.

Related: 7 Common Workplace Communication Problems

Decreased employee empowerment

Without a chain of command, it's likely that an organization values employee empowerment and giving its staff the ability to make decisions related to their work or a particular situation. A chain of command can decrease this employee authority.

More competition

With a chain of command, decision-making managers could feel in competition with their fellow managers because they may feel protective over their employees and want to exert control over their team. This could lead to a culture of distrust among peer managers.

Related: How To Avoid Being Overly Competitive at Work (With Tips)

What is a flat chain of command?

A flat chain of command is when a manager has a lot of control within an organization. They may have a lot of individuals and teams reporting to them, and so the chain of command of that organization looks more flat or horizontal. Usually, with these types of hierarchies, some fewer middle managers and employees hold a lot of power and control themselves, particularly over their own work and environments.

You can find a flat chain of command in any kind or size of organization, but it's common for smaller businesses to have this type of hierarchy because there are fewer employees at the organization. There may be the business owner or founder, followed by a middle manager and then the group of employees.

What is a vertical chain of command?

A vertical chain of command has more steps and levels to its hierarchy than a flat chain of command. Each manager is typically only responsible for managing a few associates, so their level of control is more narrow and usually confined to their department.

With a vertical chain of command, you may notice that the company's rules, processes and procedures are more fixed, and they come from the top leaders of the organization who then give other managers the responsibility of disseminating information.

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