Weak Link in The Chain of Command

I write this under the strain of frustration, anger, and sadness.  Someone very close to me – and all her staff – are suffering deeply from the short-sighted, fear-based actions of bad bosses.

Beware the invoking of “the chain of command.”  Quite often, it’s the last refuge of the bad boss. If you’re hiding behind it, wake up and smell the best interests of your organization.

Of course, every organization needs a clear, effective decision-making structure.  Of course, the chain of command should be the default in a healthy organization – until a critical problem can’t be resolved at the appropriate level and needs to be escalated.

But the worst bosses hide behind the chain of command to deny or avoid responsibility for those critical problems.  They bury their terrified heads in the sand and project the fear onto the levels below, under the guise of “respect.”

Respect.  The best managers earn it.  The worst demand obedience – precisely because they don’t know how to earn respect.  They think respect and obedience are synonyms.  They’re not.

Respect is volunteered.  It evokes in the troops long-term motivation, initiative, commitment, collaboration, and retention.  All the qualities that make a 21st-Century organization competitive and successful.

Obedience is coerced.  It evokes short-term compliance, long-term resentment … and high turnover.   Good people don’t work for bad bosses for long, unless they see no options … unless they’re ruled by fear.

The beatings will continue until morale improves.

In this economy, the bad boss doesn’t care about turnover.  Employees are cogs in a machine.  You’re unhappy in your job?  There are plenty more cogs out there eager to get paid for their obedience.  I’m your boss – obey me or leave.  Doesn’t matter how effective you’ve been in your job for the past many years.  Doesn’t matter how happy you’ve kept the customers.  Doesn’t matter how well your team works together.  Doesn’t matter how much experience our company loses if you leave.

I’m your boss.  Put on a happy face and do the job I tell you to do.  Don’t talk to me about what’s in the best interests of our customers and staff.  Don’t tell me what isn’t working and what needs to be done to fix it.  Don’t talk to me about how I never respond to your emails, how I never follow through on the promises I’ve made, how I pile on useless reports and extra meetings just to make me look like I’m doing something.  Just obey.

Leadership is a sacred responsibility.  The leader creates the conditions under which people must spend half their waking lives.  The boss who’s more worried about his own butt than the best interests of the team, and who thus pathologically hides behind the “chain of command,” doesn’t deserve the mantle of “leader.”

YOUR PATH FORWARD: If you’re a second-level manager or higher, take a moment to reflect on:

  • What is your default response when an issue is escalated to you from a lower level of the organization?
  • How healthy is the “chain of command” structure enacted in your organization?  To what extent, in other words, do issues get resolved at appropriate levels?  And to the extent they’re not, what are you doing about it?

About the Author

Steve Motenko
Steve Motenko is an executive coach, leadership trainer, and co-host of The Boss Show, a weekly podcast on workplace dynamics. Steve and his Boss Show co-host, Jim Hessler, are co-authors of Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face: A Guide to Building Your Leadership Platform. Steve lives on Whidbey Island, Washington, with his wife and dog, whom he loves, and a cat he tolerates usually pretty well.

One thought on "Weak Link in The Chain of Command"

  1. Susan says:

    I had a boss like mentioned above and got fired for not following chain of command although there were never any complaints about my work -their ego was hurt and damn what’s best for the company.

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