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A Brief Guide To Workplace Hierarchy and Chain of Command

Many companies and organizations have a hierarchical structure or chain of command that corresponds to field-specific experience and expertise. It makes sense to have the person with the most experience leading team members that are aren’t as adept in the particular field. You might be wondering, “What is a chain of command?” This article discusses everything you need to know about the workplace chain of command and how to set one up.

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What is a chain of command?

A chain of command is an organizational structure where instructions pass from one person to the next in hierarchical order. The person at the top of the chain of command has the most authority and expertise. Despite the number of people within a given chain of command, it’s always the most superior person at the top and the least experienced or subordinate person at the bottom. It’s kind of like a scale of gradually increasing authority and expertise.

A chain of command in business might have the CEO at the top, followed by the manager, followed by the assistant manager, and last, the regular employees. The lower down a person is on the chain of command, the less authority they have.

Why is a chain of command important?

It’s normal that some people have more skills and expertise than others. Having a chain of command simply ensures that the people with the most expertise get the most say. It prevents people with less skill from overruling people with superior skill or suitability because they’re louder or more assertive. It contributes to workplace productivity and ensures that employers get the most out of each employee.

Chain of command in business: pros and cons

Having a chain of command in operation has an array of advantages and disadvantages. While it may make perfect sense for one type of business to have a clear chain of command in place, it might only serve to hinder other kinds of workplaces. It’s important to consider the pros and cons before setting up a chain of command.


Operating under a transparent chain of command can be beneficial to a business in the following ways:

  • Increases efficiency
  • Easier to track accountability
  • A clear sense of direction
  • Relationship stability among employees
  • Clients and customers can understand employee roles


Despite having many benefits, a chain of command might have some of the following disadvantages:

  • Decreased employee empowerment
  • Lack of growth opportunities
  • Feelings of subordination
  • Less collaboration
  • Higher competition
  • A more serious workplace culture

The pros and cons need to be carefully considered and weighed. Whether your organization can benefit from having a hierarchy largely depends on your company goals. If you’re hoping to foster a work environment with a collaborative attitude where everyone feels equal, having a strict hierarchy may not be the best option. However, if you’re goals are clear and you’re focused on stability and results, it could be beneficial.

Setting up a chain of command at work

While it might sound easy at first, setting up an effective chain of command involves more than simply putting some people in charge of others. It requires a keen intuition for personality characteristics and interpersonal dynamics. You’ll need to be able to identify who suits each particular role and which arrangement will be the most beneficial to your work process. Here are some tips to get you started:

1. Identify leaders

Strong leaders hold the entire chain of command together. Without a suitable leader, productivity at each level will be suboptimal. That’s why being able to identify good leaders is nine-tenths of creating an effective chain of command. You need to be confident that the person you’re trusting to manage is capable of doing so and fit for a leadership role. People often make the mistake of simply assigning the person who writes “I’m a natural-born leader” on their resume to a high accountability leadership role.

People who claim to be good leaders aren’t always good leaders, and good leaders don’t always claim the “leader” title. Oftentimes, good leaders are those with more understated temperaments. Since leadership is as much about listening as it is about telling, people with open and receptive personalities often make stable workplace leaders.

2. Establish a hierarchical order

After you’ve decided upon your primary leader, it helps to have an order of gradually descending responsibility. You’ll want to figure out who is your second-in-command, third-in-command and so on. The person you choose for each position should reflect the role’s responsibilities. They should be adept in their areas, capable of leading and receptive to authority. Finding someone with this combination of qualities can take time and consideration, but it’s not something you should cut corners on.

3. Make sure everyone understands the hierarchy

A chain of command only works if everyone is aware of it. For example, it’s no good telling one person that they’re another employee’s manager if the employee isn’t also told. If team members who are subordinate continue to think their input is equal to the manager’s input, it leaves a lot of room for misunderstandings. That’s why once you’ve established the command chain, you should host a team meeting to ensure that everyone’s on the same page about it. Putting the hierarchy in writing can also ensure clarity.

4. Ensure clear communication

Once you’ve assigned roles and established what the chain of command looks like, it’s important to ensure that everyone is communicating effectively. Everyone should know who to turn to if they’re having issues or are unsure about what to do. It might be helpful to set this up and test it out before taking a “hands-off” approach and letting it run itself. Using team communication software or workflow trackers can be a great way to promote clear communication throughout the hierarchy.

5. Reinforce the chain of command

When things are working well, make sure you reinforce that. Rewards are strong motivators and people respond well to them. Rewards don’t have to be monetary or even physical. Simply letting people know that you’re happy with what they’re doing can stimulate a sense of reward. Workers like to know that what they’re doing is being appreciated, so when giving praise, be specific about it. That way, you’ll get more of what you want to see from your team.

So, what is a chain of command? In short, it’s an arrangement where people at the top have the most authority and people below them consecutively have less. Hierarchy keeps job roles clear and makes accountability tracking much easier. However, it doesn’t exactly promote a sense of equality among team members. Deciding whether a chain of command is right for your business should depend on the type of environment you hope to create.

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