The chain of command, sometimes called the scaler chain, is the formal line of authority, communication, and responsibility within an organization. The chain of command is usually depicted on an organizational chart, which identifies the superior and subordinate relationships in the organizational structure. According to classical organization theory the organizational chart allows one to visualize the lines of authority and communication within an organizational structure and ensures clear assignment of duties and responsibilities. By utilizing the chain of command, and its visible authority relationships, the principle of unity of command is maintained. Unity of command means that each subordinate reports to one and only one superior.
The chain of command principle is ancient, but its application to the management of organizations was only systematized in the twentieth century. Two individualshe French engineer and executive Henri Fayol and the German sociologist Max Weberontributed much to our understanding of this principle. In his book, General and Industrial Management, Fayol presented what have come to be known as the fourteen principles of management. These principles include both the unity of command (his fourth principle) and the scalar chain (line of authority). Fayol's principle of the unity of command holds that a subordinate should report to one and only one supervisor. Fayol believed that this was necessary to provide the supervisor with clear position authority, and to prevent a subordinate from receiving conflicting orders. Fayol's scalar chain principle states that authority and responsibility flow, one level at a time, in a vertical line from the highest level in an organization to its lowest level. This line of authority establishes an organization's hierarchy. Fayol believed that it was a management error to abandon the chain of command for no reason, but he also allowed for circumstances in which the chain of command might be bypassed for the good of the company. For example, Fayol suggested that communication delays might sometimes be caused by blind adherence to the chain of command and unity of command principles, and proposed what he called the "gangplank," which allows communications outside the chain of command as long as superiors are made aware. Weber also studied the problems inherent in large organizations, as organizations grew from family structures to much larger entities during the Industrial Revolution (1760850). Weber proposed the bureaucracy as a model of efficient organization. Bureaucratic characteristics have clearly defined hierarchies of authority and responsibility, consistent with the chain of command principle.
In many organizations, the chain of command principle is still very much alive. The manager's status is that of the deliverer of orders, and the employee enacts them under the monitoring of the manager. Both parties share responsibility for achievements. But, as Longnecker suggests in his book Principles of Management and Organizational Behavior, communication provides the underpinnings of this relationship. The discussions and meetings contact managers and their subordinates have may improve or harm the effectiveness of the direct report relationships in the chain of command.
A problem associated with the chain of command occurs when a subordinate bypasses a manager in either the giving of information or the requesting of a decision. This act undermines the authority and position of the manager who is bypassed. If this practice is allowed to continue in a bureaucratically-organized company, morale of the managers will decline. The urgency and frequency of these situations may, of course, mitigate the impact and inappropriateness of such contacts.
With the rapidly-changing environment and increasing uncertainty that organizations face in the twenty-first century, some adopt structures that emphasize flexibility and quick response to change. These types of organizations attempt to place decision-making authority in the organizational structure with those who can most effectively and efficiently respond to environmental imperatives. Thus, these organizations may have flatter hierarchies and communication and decision-making patterns that do not fully adhere to the chain of command or unity of command principles. In the case of matrix organizations, employees frequently have two managers or supervisors, violating the unity of command and chain of command principles. To be effective, individuals working in these organizations learn to share power, use open confrontation to resolve issues, and to utilize all directions in the organization to disseminate information. These more organic structures are not rigidly bound to the chain of command principle, although it is still an important organizing principle in most organizations.
Fayol, Henri. General and Industrial Management. trans. Constance Storrs. London: Pitman Publishing, Ltd., 1949.
Longnecker, Justin G. Principles of Management and Organizational Behavior. 4th ed. Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company, 1977.
Weber, Max. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. trans. A.M. Henderson and T. Parsons. New York: Oxford University Press, 1947.
Wren, Daniel A. The Evolution of Management Thought. 4th ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1994.
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