Some Problems with “Command and Control” Management

What is “command and control” management? Many good articles have been written on this by smart folks like Joel Spolsky and Bruce Nussbaum. A good description is included in the Traditional Management Model page of in the section (near the bottom of the page) labeled “25 Lessons from Jack Welch“. Much has been written decrying “command and control” management, but what makes it a bad thing?

A manager-employee relationship is always a two way street. I believe when a manager takes an unnecessarily-authoritative or commanding position with a subordinate, the employee feels less respected, and will have a decreased desire to contribute. As a result, information flow up to the manager will be diminished. This will only reduce the manager’s ability to make good decisions, even to the appoint of reducing their apparent competence.

People work harder when they feel they are making a positive difference, an intrinsic motivation. The command and control management style works through extrinsic motivators such as threats, authority, and even monetary incentives, all of which prevent or even replace employees’ natural intrinsic motivation. A management style that gives people ownership of their methods, tools, and results, and in which people can feel good about collaborating with and helping those around them (coworkers, customers, and suppliers) provides intrinsic motivation, and people work hard because they like the way it makes them feel, and feel important and appreciated — the “psychological pay” principle. Everyone wants to feel good about themselves, but command and control takes that feeling away from them.

People work harder for someone they respect, and preferably like. A manager who understands that the workers in the trenches usually see the organization’s challenges and problems better than he or she can, can gain their input and support their efforts more effectively than a “commander” who assumes he or she knows, or is expected to know, more than their subordinates. This attitude only alienates subordinates and loses their loyalty, respect, and input. It may even move them to undermine the organization’s performance in subtle ways in an effort, possibly never acknowledged, and probably in a form that can’t be identified, that is based in nothing so much as a desire for revenge.

People work harder when they’re not doing it under threat. Some command and control-styled managers use subtle threats to do their job, and may unwittingly put employees in a situation where they can’t see a way to succeed. The results can be disastrous as far as morale and work performance, not only for the employee placed in that position, but for their coworkers who will see what is going on and fear being put in such a position themselves.

An example of that is a supervisor I once had. I had only been at the company for a few months, working as a lowly engineer, and one day my supervisor came in and asked me to fill out a performance review. He was having the other employees write theirs, and it was easier for him to just do everyone’s at once. I was instructed to write my own performance review and provided a standard form. Then, as he was about to leave, he turned back at the door and revealed that he had had nothing to do the previous weekend, and had written a performance review for me. I (brightly) asked if that meant that I didn’t have to write my own after all, and he said that, no, the company policy was that I would write my own. Perplexed, I asked him what it would mean if his evaluation and mine didn’t agree, and he said “Well, then … WE … have a problem.” and walked out. I’m sure he felt very powerful, secure, and in control. I, however, instantly saw I was in a no-win situation in which he was “power-tripping” me with his clear threat, and was taken aback. Not only did I lose respect for him as a boss, I also lost respect for him as a person. After that I was never again comfortable working for him, or even the company to some extent, and I was actually relieved when I was caught in the next down-sizing less than a year later.

People will passively or actively undermine a manager they think doesn’t respect them or is abusing them. Although it was said in jest, there were times in my past assignments when a particularly repressive manager would be discussed in his absence, and people would joke about having someone with a cold or flu be sure to sneeze on the next report they were to put on the manager’s desk. That is an extreme, but, once employees’ feel they are disrespected or abused, their productivity will decrease. Worse yet, the best and most marketable employees will find better employment, further damaging the organization.

Inevitably, once a manager has achieved a negative image it can take much longer to reverse that impression, even with superlative performance and efforts. In general, a manager must remember that it is possible to do damage to oneself in a minute that could take years to repair, and disrespect expressed towards an employee, even in confidence, is a huge risk.

This matter goes back to something my relatives taught me when I was a child: never say anything about someone who is absent that you wouldn’t be comfortable saying to their face. This is a hard thing for most of us, as we are all emotional and opinionated beings, each with our own flaws and preferences, but we must strive to remember this and be careful of what thoughts we express to others. I can’t claim perfection in this area either, but awareness is the first step to real personal integrity, which is essential to a good manager.

The risk of acquiring a negative image is higher for those of us with management responsibilities because our subordinates depend on us, and they need to be able to trust us to do a good job. We, similarly, are dependent on them to do a good job, and must therefore be careful to make the relationship as mutually positive and beneficial as possible. As I said at the beginning, the manage-subordinate relationship is a two-way street, and the manager who operates in a “command-and-control” mode will only diminish the performance of subordinates and the organization as a whole.

Interestingly, one of the sources linked in the first paragraph pointed out that there IS a place for command and control, but it’s when one must make 18-year-old soldiers charge, firing their weapons, across a mine field. I know of no business that operates in circumstances even remotely analogous to this.

I look forward to any comments or experiences you’d like to share. Thanks in advance – Tim


12 Responses to Some Problems with “Command and Control” Management

  1. bigapplezlp says:

    Good article! I very much agree with your points that the command and control management style won’t play well in modern organizations dealing with knoweldge workers.

    Actually, reading your articles, I cannot help thinking if “command and control” is not a good way of management, why most of the companies are still organized in a hierachy. The origin of the “command and control” is the hierachy organization structure. If the manager and subordinates relationship should be more open and equal, why not we have a more “flat” organizational structure?

    Another question is if not “command-and-control”, what do you think the manager’s role and responsibility should be?

  2. timprosser says:

    Actually, I have seen the command and control management style do poorly in less information-intensive businesses. I worked at a dry cleaners in college where the owner was the on-site boss, and rode a bit roughshod over his employees. People were not only unhappy working there, and turnover was higher than it needed to be, but people didn’t treat customers as well as they might have – a major factor for a business like that. He never even though about engaging the workers in making the business do better and their jobs more efficient and effective, which was unfortunate for everyone including him.

    Back in the 80’s a number of progressive management ideas became prevalent, one of them being empowerment of employees (not just accountability). Having a flatter (and lower cost) organizational structure worked quite well with that concept. Over the following decade, however, most corporations had management turnover and lost the knowledge. I didn’t see any other reason for management styles to slip back into the those that require less forethought and understanding. I also believe the business schools didn’t do a good job of putting those concepts together and teaching them. I saw no studies, editorials, or other published information to indicate that the progressive concepts of the 80’s weren’t working. They just faded away.

    The alternative to command and control is to treat people better and actively engage them in improving the business. A good manager, IMHO, keeps in mind that the people doing the work are closest to it, have reason to make it easier and more effective, and are the manager’s most important resource. If the manager stays remote and “above” their employees they will miss out on a lot of helpful ideas, and the loyalty of their employees. I also believe that, ideally, every manager is doing at least SOME hands on work, some real work, and not just giving directions. I also believe that a good manager treats management as a skill and a science, and actively tries to learn what behaviors and concepts get the best results. At the bottom line, a manager who doesn’t like people is not going to do well in most situations.
    I hope that paints at least a sketchy picture of what I see as the alternative to “command and control”.

    Thanks for your comment, and please do so again.

  3. Steve says:

    I agree with the points in your article Tim.
    When there are clearly attributes of command-and-control as you point out such as those subtle threats and undermining statements, one of the things that is often difficult to deal with is when these are interspersed with good logical arguments. the manager may actually think that they are motivating the employee when in fact the opposite is true.

    For example: The manager may say something like, “After all the effort we have put in we should be able to do this easily”. That in itself is fairly innocuous and in fact could be seen so by an outsider and indeed the manager himself/herself. However if it is followed up with a statement like “If we cannot do it then we may as well pack it in” then depending on the context this could be very demotivating to the employee. If the employee already feels under threat having been implicitly warned by means of other subtle threats over time then such a statement merely reinforces the employee’s feeling of diminished capacity and inadequacy. They may be asking themselves what they are actually doing this for anyway because their manager obviously does not feel they are up to this.

    Very often managers do not even know the effect that they have on their staff.

  4. timprosser says:

    Thanks for your comment, Steve. You are so right about the ability many managers have to understand the effect what they say and do has on their employees. It’s a big problem in our culture that we don’t select managers for good people skills and understanding of human nature, elements I think are key to building and leading an organization. Every business school should have required classes in psychology, and not just organizational psychology, but knowledge of motivation among other factors. Abraham Maslow’s work, for instance, was illuminating to me and would be a great starting point for such a class. The business world I know here in the U.S. is famous for rewarding technical achievement with more highly-paid management responsibility, and the result is poor quality management in the vast majority of cases. (I could go on, and probably will … or have … in a separate article here.)
    In any case, so much of the results of our economy depend on the ability of managers, yet we select them for the wrong characteristics and reasons, and equip them with the wrong knowledge as far as successfully dealing with the human factors. It has long saddened me to imagine how much better we could be doing, but common sense is anything but common, and leaders with a lack of savvy will promote others in their own image – how could they know how to do better if even our best business schools do a mediocre job in this area, and the majority fail to address it at all? I look and write for change.
    Thanks again – Tim

  5. timprosser says:

    A colleague inspired me to think about the Soviet Union when it was a “command and control” economy. While they produced some great things, they were never competitive with more collaborative cultures where more of people’s brains were engaged in making progress – the greater collective will in the West by itself enabled productivity and scientific advances on a scale the Soviets could never match. It was a sad time for the good people of Russia and the other countries involved.

  6. I believe that there are benefits to the command and control aspect of management.

    I would like to direct your attention to the new video game, assassin’s creed. The story carries on about assasins who are top of the line preformers capable of taking on many responsibilities over a period of time.

    This was mirrored by the quantity over quality style opponents of the assassins. They had wide connections and operated in a hirearchy of command and control. Theese opponents can be tough to handle in any circumstance and are able to manage masses of people effectively. Police are an example of this.

    I believe if there is a balance between theese two institutions. I find that BOTH sides are capable of planning into the future and adapting to their surroundings. They both experience the front lines in their own ways and are likely trying their best to to the greater good.

    It is therefore my conclusion, that as long as quality foresight and vision goes into the company or organization, it may (i stress may) be more effective to be command and control management. Just don’t go pissing off any assasins so to speak.

    • timprosser says:

      Thnaks for the comment, Jacob.
      I don’t know how well Assassin’s Creed parallels the real world, but command and control typically ignores the potential contributions of people in the organization and expects them to just “do what you’re told.” This is frustrating for most people, and loses their creative and experiential input to the organization – a big disadvantage. It also has a much higher “overhead” for management, as if they’re not directing people those people may not be accomplishing much, so the organization takes a double loss of productivity. If you read some of my other writings on this topic you’ll see links to accounts by ex-military commanders who basically agree that there is a place for command and control management style, but it is very limited as it is basically only good in the situation where you have to get a bunch of 18-year-olds to run into enemy fire without asking questions. At ANY other time those commanders want every soldier thinking and contributing his ideas and perceptions to the endeavor, and the command and control style will not achieve that. The world we work in day-to-day is not a battle in which seconds and absolute conformance to commands can mean life and death, but a much less urgent and much more diverse and complicated environment in which the best performing organizations do the best job of employing every employee’s creativity and intellect. Therefore, command and control is a very poor model for business management, and it is a very poor manager who thinks that is the way to operate – they probably aren’t well suited to a management role and it is probable that a top flight business education would not correct that.
      Thanks again for your comment — Tim

  7. Kelly says:

    Hi Tim,
    We have talked a lot in my business class about Apple Inc./Steve Jobs and the interesting management hybrid that exists there (and did with Mr. Jobs), including command and control elements, but can you give some examples of companies you know about that primarily use command and control techniques?

    • timprosser says:

      While I haven’t seen a specific company of any size that endorses the command and control style (and very few endorse ANY style AFAIK), it seems to be the assumption of the least savvy managers with the least amount of business education that telling people what to do is what a manager does, and that often goes with a sense that the manager is promoted because they are smarter and/or more experienced than others. Of course neither of these assumptions is true, and a manager who applies this kind of thinking to their job will have trouble performing very well.

      The assumption that the manager is somehow smarter than his or her subordinates can block them from getting savvy and experienced input from below, leaving the manager to sink or swim alone. The expectation that a manager is smarter or in any way better than those they manage is a dangerous one because it puts too much pressure on the manager to be right all the time, which is much more difficult when you aren’t getting a free flow of collaborative input from your subordinates. Such an attitude also results in unhappy employees who feel they are being ignored or discounted, and this is bound to increase turnover and all that goes with it (hiring and training costs and increased mistakes due to inexperience, among others).

      As was observed by one of the sources in an earlier article I wrote on this topic, the only time command and control is appropriate is in a real emergency when there is no time for discussion and immediate, decisive action is needed, such as when a commanding officer is sending young soldiers charging into enemy fire. Other than that kind of circumstance, most military leaders understand they do a lot better with plenty of thoughtful input from their teams than if they are trying to call the shots alone, and they will get a lot more good input if they maintain good relationships and keep the respect of their direct reports. Managers who rely on the command and control methods tend to anger and frustrate those who work for them, look clueless to managers who have a better undrestanding of human nature, and perform poorly.

      People have asked for anecdotes before, so here’s one: Back in the ’80’s I worked for a manager at a major multinational corporation who was not only a command and control type, but was defensive and vindictive to boot. Once he made an example of me in a multi-departmental meeting and I later figured out he had done it out of revenge for my contradicting him in a hallway meeting with one of his peers a couple of weeks earlier (no confrontation occurred at the time – I had just offered a polite correction). He was perpetually frustrated, his department of 20+ was mostly unhappy, and turnover was not infrequent. For a year or more I got him to join me and a few colleagues for lunch in a conference room, where we screened many quality videos including a series by W. Edwards Deming. As Deming demonstrated the difference between good and bad management styles and methods with statistical proof of results, my boss gradually softened, and eventually changed his management style completely. Before that time he was usually “blockaded” in his office but after he was often walking around the labs and office space talking with people. Before he was vindictive and forceful (commanding) but after he was collaborative and caring, and protected and trusted his team, who in response rallied around him and made the department’s productivity increase greatly. While he became a star in the organization his peers, managers of other departments, were uncertain or actually resentful of his success (and the smiles on our faces at work, I suspect), and I perceived he was having to fight a bit to keep the alternative culture he had created in his department. He kept it up for about five years but, while his department performed very well, it was stressful for him to the point that he eventually asked to be moved back to an engineering job, leaving behind his manager role. Sadly he passed away a few years after that, but those of us who worked for him had the often-unique experience of working for a savvy and collaborative manager.

      Many people *never* get the chance to work for a good manager, and some spend their lives in a “command and control” world that makes work into hateful drudgery. It doesn’t have to be like that, however, and the better managers use an approach that builds a team of thier people and puts everyone’s brain power to work for the organization – a much more effective alternative. Thanks for your question.

  8. shankar says:

    very true, i wouldn’t work for a person who while becoming commanding turns out to be abusive…
    But i also believe being a manager is like walking on the edge….
    If you are not commanding your subordinates is not going to work properly as they will take you lightly, and if you are commanding you will hurt them and earn disrespect which i suppose you cannot deny…

  9. g says:

    I have a case where both my manager and supervisor were chiefs in the navy together and work as a team through plausibly deniable passive aggressive intimidation tactics to try and force everyone under their control to a ridiculous level of detail. We are rewarded for obedience to their petty desires and not for performance.

    I want to know how to undermine this. How do you deal with it? I have taken up a position as a union steward and through some direct threats in conduction with HR have been able to secure some level of improvement but the little psychological games are endless. It is so bad we have enlisted the help of managers outside the organization who will attack from the outside and go straight to the director when they start acting up towards the workers inside their org.

    To make matters worse we have a female senior manager who has been alerted of the problem but is conflict averse and avoids it at any cost even when she has personally admitted she found out the supervisor goes through her calendar so he can keep track of where she is at.

  10. g says:


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