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.