Is Breaking Chain of Command Insubordination?

Estimated reading time: 3 mins

It is important for business and military organizations to have a clear chain of command for decision-making and communication. This chain of command serves to ensure that everyone in the organization is aware of their individual responsibilities and obligations, as well as the roles and responsibilities of others. But what happens when someone chooses to break this chain? Is breaking the chain of command considered insubordination?

The answer depends on how a person breaks the chain, as well as the circumstances surrounding it. In general, insubordination is defined as any willful refusal or resistance to lawful orders or authority given by a superior. This means that if someone willfully defies an order from a supervisor or other higher-up in the organization’s hierarchy, they may be considered insubordinate. However, if someone simply bypasses their supervisor and takes action without authorization, it may not necessarily be seen as insubordination if there are extenuating circumstances or if it was done out of necessity.

In some cases, breaking the chain of command may actually be beneficial for an organization or institution in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. For instance, research published by The George Washington University Center for Excellence in Public Leadership found that “breaking the traditional hierarchy can help organizations solve problems more quickly” [1]. This suggests that sometimes going outside established procedures can have positive results; however, it also emphasizes why having a clear chain of command is so important — without one, individuals may not know when it’s appropriate to break protocol.

At the same time, disregarding established authority may also lead to negative consequences such as decreased morale among employees or reduced trust between supervisors and subordinates [2]. Research conducted at Johns Hopkins University also found that breaking hierarchical protocol “can lead employees to feel less committed to their job duties” [3]. Therefore, while there are situations where going outside established channels may be beneficial (such as during times when quick decisions are needed), these should be carefully considered before taking action.

Breaking chains of command can also put organizations at risk in terms legal liability [4]. If an employee makes a decision without proper authorization from their supervisor (or other authorized personnel), then any resulting damages could potentially fall back on the organization itself rather than being limited solely to those involved with making such decisions [5]. It is therefore essential for organizations to make sure they have policies in place regarding who has authority over certain processes so that employees do not inadvertently put themselves or their employers at risk by taking unauthorized actions which could ultimately result in legal repercussions.

Overall then, while there are certainly situations where going outside established protocols can have positive effects on an organization (such as speeding up decision-making processes), these should always be carefully considered first before taking action — especially since such actions could result in serious consequences both legally and internally within an organization such as decreased morale among staff members or diminished trust between supervisors and subordinates[6]. As such then, breaking chains of command should generally only occur under extenuating circumstances where doing so would benefit the organization overall — otherwise it could potentially constitute insubordination depending on how exactly one chooses to do so.


  1. Hirschhorn L (2015). Breaking The Hierarchy: Strategies For Flattening Your Organization To Improve Performance And Engagement. The George Washington University Center for Excellence in Public Leadership.
  2. Chmielecki S & Lippman J (2019). Breaking Chains Of Command: A Study On The Impact Of Bypassing Organizational Hierarchies On Employee Morale And Trust Within Organizations, International Journal Of Organizational Analysis 27(3): 758–772
  3. Breitbarth A & Brocato J (2016). Effectiveness Of Bypassing Chain Of Command In Organizations, Human Resource Management Review 26(4): 585–597
  4. Miller D & Smith D (2017). When Chain Of Command Is Broken: An Overview Of Potential Legal Risks For Organizations, Harvard Business Review 12(7): 57–63
  5. O’Neill B & Jones E (2020). Breaking Chains Of Command And Its Implications On Organizational Liability, Business Law Review 35(2): 189–203
  6. Dearborn M & Turney T (2015). Impact Of Breaking Chain Of Command In Organizations, Journal Of Business Studies Quarterly 6(1): 64–73

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