When Managing Large Teams, Use Your Chain of Command

Managerial spans of control have gotten wider and wider. As a result, most managers are responsible for too many people. Without a doubt, this has contributed to the undermanagement epidemic.

Faced with managing a large team all most managers can do is throw up their hands in frustration. Often, they are thrust into this position with no guidance or support themselves. So, they hide in their offices, complete the required management paperwork, and do most of their “managing” by special occasion.


The ringleader problem

The biggest consequence of hiding in your office and managing by special occasion is becoming trapped in the vicious cycle of undermanagement: small problems have room to fester and grow under the radar, and once those problems can no longer be ignored it is up to the manager to jump into firefighting mode, only to go back to being hands off.


The more subtle consequence is the power vacuum created on the day-to-day management front. This is what I call the “ringleader problem”: ad hoc ringleaders emerge to fill the power vacuum created by hands-off managers.

Often, these ringleaders are the squeaky wheels who have good personal relationships with other employees or some brand of charisma. Sometimes they assert their authority and influence in ways that are self-serving and often damaging to the team. Sometimes they form cliques, bully others, and spread rumors. More often, they are simply self-deceived mediocre performers who believe they are the high performers. They offer guidance, direction, and support to coworkers, but they often lead people in the wrong direction.

Remember, you want to be the one providing guidance, direction, and support. And if you’re not, you want the person who is to be doing it the right way.


Reality check: do you have a chain of command?

Ask yourself: do you have sixteen or sixty people who report directly to you? Or do you have a chain of command, that is, employees who are actually managers or supervisors or team leaders who are supposed to be managing some of the other employees in your group?

If you have a chain of command, you must use it effectively:

  • Make a habit of talking to those supervisors and team leaders every day. Take five, ten, or fifteen minutes each day to get updates on and provide direction for the projects those leaders are responsible for.
  • Focus intensely on helping them play the role you need them to play. Make it clear that you are relying on these managers to assist you in your own management responsibilities. Monitor and measure it as an explicit part of their job performance.
  • Manage how they manage every step of the way. Train them on the fundamentals of management and hold them accountable. Just as you are working hard to be a great, highly-engaged boss, they need to do the same.


If you don’t have a chain of command, establish one in whatever way you can. Although it’s best to avoid unnecessary layers of management, if you have sixty people to manage, you simply cannot afford to be the only leader on the team.

Cultivate and develop high performers who you could consider to be in your inner circle, who share your priorities and help you keep the team focused on the work at hand. Developing new leaders, even informally, will help you extend your reach: you can use them as temporary project managers and deputize them when you are not available. But don’t give anyone management responsibilities—formal or informal—unless you are prepared to focus on that leader intensely and closely manage that leader’s management practices.



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