Chain of Command, or How To Play Nicely With Others

Victoria Jicha | July August 2015

    Search for the phrase chain of command on any search engine, and images of flow charts of authority pop onto the screen by the thousands. The organizational chart below resulted from a reorganization of the Green Bay knitting guild. When we rewrote our bylaws, we developed the following order of responsibilities, from the President down to the Marketing and Public Relations Chairperson. The flow chart provides a good picture of each position’s responsibilities.

    Every organization should have a similar chart. Organizations run more smoothly and efficiently when everyone knows to whom they answer and who is responsible for what.
    This may seem like a strange topic for a flute magazine, but the arts run on the same principles that businesses do, and members of the arts community should understand this environment. Teachers show students how to play with ease, but sometimes business behavior and musical etiquette are missing from the curriculum. A college, for instance, has a fairly clear chain of command. From a music student’s perspective, it may go up the ladder from a studio teacher through an advisor, department chairperson, dean of the school of music, college president or regent, to the academic board of directors. If there is a difficulty with the studio teacher, it usually is not wise to go to the music school dean with the problem. (Of course there are some serious instances where it is appropriate for students to immediately go to a higher authority.)
    Generally however, students should follow the chain of command. Start with the teacher, and if satisfaction is not reached there, move on up the chain to a department chair. Just as in business, there is appropriate etiquette and steps to follow. Learning to play the flute well is not enough. Students also have to know how to behave in a well-ordered artistic society, and chain of command is a big part of that.
    We are huge fans of the Big Bang Theory at our house, and Dr. Sheldon Cooper is a perfect example of someone who has little knowledge of accepted protocol when it comes to dealing with colleagues. His general attitude is that no one is as smart as he is, so why should he care what anyone else thinks – even his college president, to whom he pays no respect at all. Sheldon’s inability to understand chain of command and general protocol etiquette makes him a pariah among all with whom he comes in contact. Applying this idea to the life of a flutist:

    Scenario #1: You are in an orchestra rehearsal and have a question about your part. To whom should you address the question?
    A.    The section leader or 1st flute
    B.    The conductor
    C.    The president of the board of directors
    D.    The composer, if that is possible.

    Of course, the obvious answer is to start at the section leader and only rarely move up from there to conductor. This seems like a fairly straightforward example, but it is not unusual for students to come to conductors with many small questions to get a definitive answer or to overrule a colleague. Imagine doing this in a professional setting with a famous conductor, however.

    Scenario #2: The mother of a promising young flute student calls and wants you to teach her daughter. The student is already studying with one of your colleagues but wants to work with you on the side. You have a few options:
    A. You can teach her on the quiet.
    B. You can refuse to take the student until she has stopped taking lessons from the other teacher.
    C. You can agree to take the student, but only if she informs the other teacher.

    While both teachers may be at the same level in the school’s chain of command, handling the situation with attention to protocol will affect whether it results in conflict, so you have to choose carefully. Teaching the student secretly is not a good option. Sooner or later the colleague will discover that you have waded into his domain and probably will not appreciate it. It is important to show respect for colleagues, even if your teaching philosophy differs from theirs. Option B may also lead to bruised egos and hurt feelings. That just leaves option C where you teach the student once she has told her current teacher (hopefully in a diplomatic way) that she intends to seek some outside help. This is the option I like best because everyone knows what is going on. The student receives extra input from a secondary teacher, and the primary teacher knows and accepts that this is taking place.
    In both scenarios, it is good protocol to start with the people involved in a conflict or potential problem. Only when a resolution among the affected parties is not attainable should you move to a different level of authority.  Jumping a link in the chain creates resentment amongst those skipped, and there is often a hint of tattling when a complaint is lodged with the wrong person.
    When I was editor of Flute Talk, I always felt shoved aside and annoyed when readers contacted the publisher rather than writing to me with their concerns. When you start at the top, you have eliminated everyone else in the chain. In a school or orchestral setting, that may not be just one person who is ticked off at you; it could be several people. At a later time, you may want the good will or help of peers or those just above you. Following the chain of command creates trust and respect with your immediate supervisor. Ignoring it not only looks bad to him or her, but it also reflects poorly on you.
    A blog (Wetfeet) about office politics states, “It’s not enough to get good results. You need to satisfy the people who matter.” It also advises, “Two prime directives: first, never go over your boss’s head without explicit permission. Second, never start a war with your boss.” In musical terms, stick to the chain of command and figure out who is your immediate boss. That may change in different situations.
    There are always numerous ways to communicate any given point. As the old saying says, you can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar. How you express your desires or dissatisfactions can make all the difference in the world. Going to an immediate superior with an aggressive accusatory manner probably will not win you any positive points. Be respectful, ask questions, and be humble – even when you are quite sure your position is the correct one.