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Managing the chain of command.

Going outside or around the chain of command is appropriate under certain circumstances, but it should be done in an officially sanctioned way.

Hierarchal systems exist in most organizations, and those who fall to use them proceed at their own risk. Emergencies might be expected, but even then, many find it is wiser to go through channels.

Duties at each level of responsibility are usually carefully prescribed. The job holder at the lowest level is accountable to a firstline supervisor, who in turn is accountable to someone a level higher up. This chain of command may consist of three to five levels, depending on the size and complexity of the organization.

In the past, those at the highest levels in the organization usually kept away from employees at the lowest levels. The top level, like the bridge of a ship, was officers' country-barred to those whose rank was not high enough.

The nature of the organization is changing. Employees at all levels are expected to do what is necessary to make sure the laboratory achieves its goals. The interrelatedness of staff members at all organizational levels, the use of task forces and other work teams, and increasing contact of those at lower levels with clients and the public tend to weaken the strong links of the chain of command. When one adds to this social contacts that are developed in dozens of different ways, it is clear that outside-channel contacts are common and often influential.

Higher-ups frequently violate the chain of command. The practice of speaking directly to all employees is one of the most strongly held managerial prerogatives. A laboratory director doesn't hesitate to go to a bench technologist for an answer to a question that has arisen. This is easily justified: There is a need to know, and waiting for words to pass through channels may take too long.

Employees also have responsibilities. One is to see to it that certain information is made available to the proper parties. The day of "It's not up to me-I only work here" has passed. Certain data or questions should be passed up the line even when a higher-up is reluctant to have it happen.

In most circumstances, the person to go to first is one's immediate supervisor, but sometimes this won't be enough. The supervisor may act in a way that is not consistent with the employee's judgment of the case. Then the employee needs to consult his or her conscience as to what should be done next.

Good sense suggests that the matters reported to higher-ups not be trivial ones. Further, the "right" to go outside conventional channels is not a license to be petty, spiteful, or irresponsible.

There are times, of course, when employees will go out of channels for personal or self-serving reasons, even in the best managed systems. This is usually more an irritant than a crime, and the wise manager will be prepared to tolerate a certain amount of it. Of course, if it appears that someone is really trying to get the manager out of the way, the manager can be forgiven for doing whatever seems sensible-and that covers a lot of ground.

Employees nevertheless often have a need to go around the chain of command. They should not shrink from doing so just because someone may be upset by it. Although a vindictive higher-up can cause an employee a considerable amount of grief, the risks are more fancied than real.

In fact, there may be real advantages to going outside channels. The chances are nothing really bad will happen to a person who either passes information upward or makes an occasional end run. If the message is accepted by higher-ups-and acted upon-the message bearer will usually be remembered, if not rewarded, for being helpful. The individual's immediate supervisor may grumble a bit and may even make indirect threats, but the grumbling will probably come to nothing.

Let's examine situations in which breaking the chain of command is common and appropriate:

*Unfair treatment. An individual may feel he or she has had an ,'unfair" appraisal, been passed over for promotion, or been wrongly disciplined for something. For example, several of Mary Ellen's co-workers waste a considerable amount of time socializing: They don't get started until the morning coffee ritual is completed, and they find many occasions during the day to discuss personal problems or the latest gossip. Mary Ellen does not participate in this time-wasting activity, so she was upset when her supervisor sent a memo to everybody in the group, with a copy to management, officially reprimanding them for failing to bear down and complete that day's workload.

Mary Ellen asked her supervisor to clear her name, but he refused to do so. Finally, a few weeks later, when her supervisor wrote a similar memo, she decided to go to the laboratory manager to plead her own case.

*Tunnel vision. Sometimes an employee may see a procedural mistake or come up with a suggestion for a better way to do something-only to run head on into a supervisor who is unwilling to consider a change ("That's not the way we do it here," the supervisor may say). For example, Karen had been on the job only a few months before she criticized some of the test procedures; the laboratory where she previously worked performed the same tests much more efficiently without any compromise in quality. She brought this to the attention of her supervisor, who was more interested in defending the lab's current practices than in considering new, different procedures.

Karen became frustrated, and when an opportunity presented itself, told the laboratory director about her suggestions. The laboratory director immediately recognized their value and issued revised procedures.

* Cutting corners. When faced with the pressures of a work overload, or a particularly demanding higher-up, or perhaps in the interest of economy, a supervisor may encourage procedures that compromise quality, and worse yet, safety. These practices may go undetected for some time until irreparable damage has been done.

Bernard, an experienced and conscientious technologist, routinely ran quality control checks on all tests. His new supervisor told him, "You're being overly careful. With the amount of work we have to get out, there is no time, and it makes no sense, to run quality checks all of the time. Your personal standards are too high." Bernard tried unsuccessfully to convince his supervisor otherwise. Finally, he went around her and discussed the situation with the lab manager.

* Covering up. A supervisor who feels threatened by an embarrassing situation may expect section staff members to suppress the truth, even though it could be damaging to the laboratory to do so. For example, a chemistry supervisor in a hospital laboratory was at war with the nurses. She instructed her staff to ignore their complaints. This was difficult for Eleanor, a technologist, who felt that at least some of the complaints were justified. She became even more uncomfortable when one of the nurses complained to the laboratory manager who, in turn, confronted the supervisor. The supervisor denied any knowledge of the specific complaints: "It's the first time I've heard them."

Knowing this wasn't true, Eleanor blew the whistle.

*Personal agendas. Supervisors may act upon personal agendas. This is all right if their agendas coincide with organizational objectives, but it is harmful if they clash.

For example, Helen, a supervisor in a large laboratory, was very ambitious and competitive. Striving to outdo her fellow supervisors, she made continual requests for new, costly instruments. Because she was intelligent and persuasive, her requests were usually acted upon. She even boasted to her employees, "I can get anything I want."

A veteran technologist on the staff became increasingly concerned about the minimal utilization of the new instruments. She discussed her concerns with Helen, who in effect told her, "Mind your own business!" Eventually, the technologist felt the situation was intolerable and brought it to the attention of higher management in the lab.

When a principle like the chain of command is violated often enough, it is no longer a principle. Instead of abandoning the chain of command, however, it is preferable to give employees an opportunity to circumvent it in officially sanctioned ways. These include the following:

Suggestion systems. Ways have to be found to encourage contributions from all employees concerning organizational policies and procedures. Anybody with a good idea, or even a not so good idea, should be able to get a hearing for it.

Internal advisory commitees. Selected employees can be asked to serve on advisory committees for fixed periods. This, in fact, is what the Japanese have done through quality circles.

Task forces and ad hoc groups. To solve problems in the laboratory, particularly if they involve different departments, it often is helpful to convene a task force or ad hoc group to brainstorm solutions.

Rapid dissemination of lab policy. When employees must wait for information to filter down the chain of command, they usually get it garbled and late. Because they don't learn enough about the big picture, they may become dissatisfied and demotivated over developments in the laboratory that appear unreasonable to them.

A change in management thinking. It is time to be more realistic in our thinking about chains of command and to loosen up a bit in our practice. This is not to encourage either irresponsibility or anarchy. On most occasions, the proper channels should be observed. But there are a growing number of instances where the purposes of the laboratory can best be served by approaches other than following the chain of command.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:employee management
Author:Roseman, Ed
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Jun 1, 1989
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