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Getting Engaged: The New Workplace Loyalty
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Banish Command And Control

“Dad”, my daughter asked, “what’s Command and Control?”

I had just used the phrase in our conversation, and her question brought me up short. She’s in her first management role, and although she had certainly experienced the Command and Control management style, she wasn’t familiar with the label. This caused me to reflect on just what it is we mean by Command and Control, why it has a 100% negative connotation in organizational life today, and why it needs to be banished from the workplace.

Command and Control is based on a set of assumptions:

  • It divides employees into two groups: those who give direction and those who take it.
  • The role of managers is to tell employees what to do, and the role of employees is to do what they’re told.
  • It values loyalty and obedience.
  • It reserves the right to act arbitrarily.
  • It also values titles, believing that with title comes rank and privilege.
  • Among the privileges conferred by titles is deference, the belief that employees with “inferior” titles will defer to those with “superior” ones, and the title alone is sufficient to merit the deference.

In theory employees defer to the title, much as soldiers salute the uniform, not the person who happens to be wearing it. In practice (human nature being what it is) Command and Control believes that “superior” alludes not just to relative positioning on a title hierarchy, but also attaches to the individual. “Superior” means “better”.

Managers who behave according to these assumptions share the following characteristics:

  • Make all the decisions in the department.
  • Must be obeyed.
  • Project an image of infallibility.
  • Play favourites.
  • Are the sole dispensers of rewards and sanctions, which are allocated in accordance with the manager’s pleasure or displeasure.

I think that one reason for our negative reaction to Command and Control is the dialectical nature of the assumptions. Unless employees are in peer relationships, then they’re either the boss in the relationship or they’re not. Superior/inferior, either/or. This dialectic comes out of an absence of trust.

“Leaders need to learn to trust the people they lead.”
George W. Bush, 2005 Inaugural Address

Command and Control managers simply don’t trust their employees. Employees are “inferior”, after all, and permanently so.

Trust: the confident expectation of a future event or condition

Trust is a combination of emotion and logic, a feeling based on observed past behaviour. Relationships between people, whether friendships, marriages, or in the workplace, become trusting relationships with the accumulation of trust that’s rewarded. By “rewarded” I mean that confident expectations of future events or conditions prove often enough to be well-founded for the relationship to be a trusting one.

Logic suggests that when people repeat actions often enough and consistently enough we can have a confident expectation that they’ll keep repeating them. Emotion (the fear that they won’t repeat them) needs to yield to logic and allow trust to form. When employees demonstrate over and over that they can perform tasks correctly, managers need to trust that they’ll continue to do so.

Command and Control never does that, and this is a second reason for our negative reaction to it. Command and Control doesn’t, in President Bush’s phrase, “learn to trust”. Repeated successful accomplishments on the part of their employees don’t dislodge the need to feel superior or the fear that mistakes might happen.

The Command and Control management style is a stifling style. Today’s employees won’t put up with it for long. It’s time to banish it!

I’m sure, however, that my daughter will experience Command and Control again in her career, and that she’ll know it when she sees it. That’s an important first step in deciding to adopt other management behaviours that are based on very different assumptions about employees.

Copyright Mattanie Press 2006