October 9, 2011

Chain of Command

Respect the chain

The best lessons are always the most painful ones.

Here’s a story about how I learned to respect and always uphold the chain of command.

Shortly after I started at VietnamWorks I began managing one of the directors in the company, Ha (not her real name), who had a team of her own.  We worked closely together on several important projects.

During one of our meetings Ha presented a deliverable to me.  It was weak and unacceptable.  I told her so directly but politely.

“Well, you’re the one who knows exactly what you want,” Ha said.  “Why don’t you work directly with my team on it?”

Her suggestion sounded reasonable.  I began working with her team directly.

Huge mistake.  HUGE.

Why?  Two big reasons.

Reason One: By managing her team directly I caused Ha to lose face with her people and hurt my own relationship with the team.  Unbeknownst to me, Ha tried to win back face by telling the team that she thought their work was just fine as it was, but I was being totally unreasonable and demanding.  With such messages coming from a senior figure such as Ha, my relationship with the team deteriorated rapidly.

Reason Two: By working with Ha’s team directly, I assumed her responsibilities and totally let her off the hook.  The second I began working with her team I could no longer hold Ha accountable for their work.

By the time I realized the mistake, my relationship with Ha and her team had become highly uncomfortable.  Not long after Ha left the company.  Most of her team followed within a few months.

My big takeaway from this painful experience: ALWAYS RESPECT THE CHAIN OF COMMAND.

Leaders only can hold managers accountable for team results if leaders never give direct instructions to a manager’s team.  Because the moment you give the team direct instructions you cut your manager’s legs out from under her — not only do you undermine her authority with her team, but you remove her from accountability for results.  Both effects are terrible.

Always give feedback or instructions to the manager directly and privately.  She can decide how to communicate with her team.

The only exception to this is communicating feedback directly with to a manager’s team is when you are praising them for a job well done.  Be sure also to heap public praise on the leader.  Make her feel good and let her shine.

I know it’s sometimes hard to control the desire to communicate instructions directly.  Most leaders love to take immediate action and choose the shortest path to a fix.

Profit from my pain.  Control your impulses.  Respect the chain of command.


  • Urko

    This is one of those lessons that we all think is obvious, but quickly forget in the heat of the moment.

    Good post.

    • Chris


      Usually it’s the simple, easy-to-understand points that make all the difference. They’re also the toughest to make into habits.

  • ThuytienNguyen

    In my opinion the communication is very important for both the team leader (Manager) and the staff (co-ordinator). when we work together in one team, we should understand each other and the Manager should listening to the staff and try to get their feed back. Fundemental Communications is very important. The manager will have a tool how to check and indentify the staff which one in the groups. It’s help the Manager how to work with their staff. Team work is also very usefull, when we have a chance to meet each other , we will understand more and more.

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  • Mac

    Trust fails when one jumps over management boundaries. Drives me nuts as leaders think they are fixing something when they actually should quit meddling and fix it through the people they are trusting to get it done in the first place.

    • This!

      As a leader you have a team for a reason. If you are reaching in, meddling and doing their jobs for them then why do you have a team? Top people hate being micro-managed anyway — micromanagement drives out the very people you need most.

      A leader’s focus always should be on teaching and enabling so the team can achieve great results without your direct involvement. That is the root of every great organization.

  • Dang Minh

    Great experience for me. Private criticize, public praise.