Most companies (and governments) today are managed in a command-and-control style of leadership that prevents them from becoming high performing, sustainable organizations. Although command-and-control IMAG0188 is our natural tendency as leaders, we must resist this temptation for the sake of our companies and their employees.  

The command-and-control style of leadership is defined as:

…a style of leadership that uses standards, procedures, and output statistics to regulate the organization. A command and control approach to leadership is authoritative in nature and uses a top-down approach, which fits well in bureaucratic organizations in which privilege and power are vested in senior management. It is founded on, and emphasizes a distinction between, executives on the one hand and workers on the other. It stems from the principles of Frederick Winslow Taylor, and the applications of Henry Ford and Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. As more empowered, flat organizations have come to the fore, command and control leaders have been increasingly criticized for stifling creativity and limiting flexibility.

Managers default to a command-and-control style of leadership because it gives them a sense of power and predictability in their organizations. It’s based on a fear that employees, if left unchecked, will make bad decisions and do something that will reflect badly on the company and management (e.g., customer complaints, safety violations, lawsuits) and block the company from being successful (e.g., not achieve sales goals, poor product/service quality, fail to reach revenue targets). Fearful managers believe that they have to tell employees both what to do and how to do their jobs. And they believe that if they create and codify policies and rules for every conceivable situation, they will prevent problems. This is all an illusion.

As we write in our new book, Minds at Work: Managing for Success in the Knowledge Economy:

Command and control starts with the decision-making process. When work and workers were still connected to an actual space, lead­ers felt a need to control distributed decision making. When there are many decisions to be made and many hands to manage, command and control gives leaders a sense that they are in charge of decisions, which will not be made without their input and final say. This approach allows them to justify their importance and remind others of their value to the corporation. But the truth is that the people at the top cannot control everything that goes on in a complex organization.

Bosses who promote fear, who are cruel and mistreat employees, who micromanage and don’t allow employees to control their own work, who don’t support the team, who put up roadblocks that make work more difficult for everyone, who fail to recognize the value of the work that people are doing, who act impulsively and make changes without warning, who criticize and ridicule people who fail, who discourage transparency and information sharing across the organization, who give orders without explaining the reason…and, worst of all, don’t develop the people who report to them, will end up with fearful employees who are more worried about survival than doing what they need to do in order to contribute to the success of the company.

Even though much evidence points to the need for a different kind of leadership, managers are reluctant to change. As Ranjay Gulati puts it in an HBR article:

The freedom of the outside world is banging at the corporate door, demanding to come inside. Yet most leaders are still afraid to open it, because they continue to view freedom and frameworks as antagonists in an intense tug-of-war. And since a tug-of-war can have only one winner, they pour their resources into regulating employee behavior. 

Companies need a different kind of leadership. The Corporate Rebels, in a blog post titled “Why the Command-and-Control Mindset is Killing Your Company,” describe the kind of leadership that is needed:

In today’s world, the most engaging organizations are able to thrive because their engaged, empowered and happy employees make the real difference. People desire an inspiring workplace that brings them fulfillment beyond just a monthly salary. And in return they will reward organizations for it. When work is exciting and motivational, people will thrive and organizations will flourish. This is not just our belief, this is the new reality.

Francesca Pick describes the qualities of a leader who can create a work culture in which people thrive:

Stewarding and coordinating rather than commanding,
Holding space and supporting rather than controlling,
Empowering team members to do their best work,
and be their best selves. 

It’s risky to give up control and empower others, especially when we think we know the best way to do things. But the truth is, we don’t have the amount of control that we think we have and it’s not in the best interests of employees and the organization to try to control people’s work. Leaders need to learn how to give employees freedom to do their jobs while, as Gulati writes, “…trusting employees to think and act independently in behalf of the organization.”

Instead of directives, leaders should provide a framework that gives employees a structure that guides them without directives. According to Gulati, this is a framework consisting of purpose, priorities, and principles. As long as everyone in the organization shares the same purpose, priorities, and principles, there is no need for command-and-control leadership.

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