Command & Control, 108 Years Old and Still Going Strong


I bet as we entered the new millennium some 19 years ago most of us thought that the days of “command and control” as the default management style was going to disappear. However, it is still clearly in existence and shows signs of staying around for a while yet.

I should probably start by defining what it is, just in case there are some fortunate readers who haven’t come across this style. It is often euphemistically called “old school” management, or “strong leadership”, usually by the perpetrators and with a wistful sigh or a rolling of the eyeballs in the manner of your favourite outdated sitcom character bemoaning political correctness gone mad.

It’s best not to say what the ‘victims’ of this style call it.

To test if you work to an ‘old-schooler’, then simply mention how many extra hours you have worked in the last month and they will immediately dismiss it, by telling you how many more hours they worked. That’s you told, now go back to being grateful for having a job in the first place. Or maybe you want a little recognition and you say, “I worked 50 hours last week” and they’ll hilariously quip, “I remember my first part-time job, too”, which will lead to chuckles from their cronies.

Command and control is a style of leadership that uses standards, procedures, and output statistics to regulate the organisation. A command and control approach to leadership is authoritative in nature and uses a top-down approach, which fits well in bureaucratic organisations in which privilege and power are vested in senior management. It is founded on, and emphasises, a distinction between, executives on the one hand and workers on the other.

To put it more simply, command-and-control management relies on rules like the ones below, the same ones we have heard and seen in action since we were children:

  • I’m the manager, so I make the rules.
  • Your job is to do what I say.
  • If you mess up, I’ll let you know about it.
  • If you don’t hear from me, that means you’re doing fine.
  • You’d better be careful not to make a mistake, or cross me!
  • Respect for the boss is the most important attribute you can demonstrate.
  • I make the policies, and you follow them.

The majority of this stems from 1911 and a certain Frederick W. Taylor.  That’s right, some managers are still using a style from over 100 year ago.

If you read the list above and thought, “damn straight” then you should probably stop reading – you’re really not going to like the rest of the article.

Actually those people should continue reading, they might learn something…my hopes aren’t high.

The truth is, in the last 10–20 years command and control has faded…a bit. The rise of The Gig Economy and more people chasing flexible work arrangements go directly against command and control, which values seat-time and presentism over working remotely. The sheer fact that so many people are moving to freelance gigs — unning away from the traditional safety net of corporate work — underscores some of the flaws in command and control. Witness the rise of the virtual assistant.

The Attraction of Command   and Control

So why is it even popular in the first place? The full discussion on this is an article in itself, but here are a couple of factors.

Firstly, if you are naturally “assertive” – as an aside, have you noticed that the majority of people who say, “I’m just being assertive” don’t seem to understand the difference between assertive and aggressive? – then it has the illusion of saving time. It goes without saying that telling someone what to do is going to be quicker, at least in the short term, than adopting a more participative or coaching approach. Obviously, a telling style is correct some of the time, particularly in an emergency or for legal or strict regulatory settings. Some managers though can’t, or don’t want to, understand that this is different to simply getting their own way all of the time.

Secondly, we reward the wrong metrics in managers (1911 again!).

Most managers think their sole focus is productivity, “hitting the numbers,” and managing their P&L. Note that I can guarantee there will be readers who will have a gut reaction that “Of course productivity is my focus!”. Their blinkered approach means they will have completely missed the deliberate use of the word sole.

No-one is disputing that productivity, P&L and many other functions are important, but when you have direct reports these are people with lives, motivations, and priorities of their own. They can’t simply be ignored. Unfortunately, that’s how command and control managers tend to approach the whole deal.

McGregor’s XY The ory

Another famous management theory, this time by Douglas McGregor is now more than 50 years old. It is often referred to as McGregor’s XY theory, and, amazingly, it is still relevant after generations of managers have ignored or misunderstood it.

Rooted in the early industrial era, Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y contrasted two visions of the worker. Theory X, the accepted model at the time, assumed that workers were drones, without ambition or initiative who had to be punished and bullied by bosses to achieve results.

Drawing on newly emerging psychological principles, Douglas McGregor’s Theory Y offered a different model. Some key Theory Y principles are the following:

1. Work is as natural as play or rest.

2. Workers who are engaged and fulfilled actually enjoy their work.

3. Under the right conditions workers actively seek responsibility, take initiative and make creative decisions.

4. Self-fulfillment is the real reward workers seek.

As before a full understanding of this model is another article in itself, but it is worth a quick look at point 2 above. According to the 2017 Gallop State of the Global Workplace report, 85% of employees are not engaged or, worse, are actively disengaged at work. Yes, you read that right, “…not engaged or actively disengaged…”. Delving deeper into the report that breaks down to 18% who are “actively disengaged” in their work and workplace, while 67% are “not engaged.”

If you are in an office of 20 people, look around you – it means three of your colleagues are engaged, 13 are not engaged and 4 are actively disengaged (you probably already know who most of them are).

Now, statistics are just numbers and obviously some organisations will be much better than this. Of course, that means some are worse…

We should also have a little look at point 3 from McGregor as well, which says “Under the right conditions…”. No prizes, but would anyone like to guess which style of management is worst at creating the conditions for workers to actively seek responsibility, take the initiative and make creative decisions.

In my early days I was in an office that had an excellent, in McGregor’s terms, theory Y manager and the engagement levels were very high. Unfortunately, although not too surprisingly, this manager was poached by the regional office. The replacement was new to managing, had shocking interpersonal skills and was classic theory X. Within two weeks the office staff were working to rule and looking for transfers or new jobs.

In fact, a meta study (i.e. study of studies) by Gallup underlines the positive influences on organisational success. They found that workplaces with the highest levels of employee engagement seriously outperformed the ones with lower engagement scores. The engaging workplaces enjoyed significantly higher levels of profitability, productivity and customer ratings. They also had significantly lower numbers on turnover, absenteeism, safety incidents and quality defects.

If the command and control managers are still with us, here’s my second attempt at encouraging them in a little introspection.

Consider the S&P 500. The Standard & Poor’s 500, often abbreviated as the S&P 500, or just the S&P, is an American stock market index based on the market capitalisations of 500 large companies having common stock listed on the NYSE or NASDAQ. It is one of the most commonly followed equity indices, and many consider it one of the best representations of the U.S. stock market, and indeed the U.S. economy.

A recent article by Harvard Business Review showed that investing in Glassdoor‘s ‘Best Places to Work’ will provide you with a significantly better return than investing in the average S&P 500.

What is Glassdoor’s ‘Best Places to Work’ list? Simply put it is a workplace award. There is no self-nomination process and no costs involved and to win a Glassdoor Award, winners are determined based on feedback provided by those who know a company best – the employees. Almost by definition to win an award an organisation’s employees need to be engaged.


There we leave this article. Command and control is at least 100 years old. It is easy because it doesn’t need any skill, just the desire to impose your will because you believe you know better. No-one can argue with you because you are focusing on important things like productivity and profit. Unfortunately it leaves disempowered and disengaged employees in your wake, but that doesn’t matter because you’ll just get new ones. Who cares if it isn’t as profitable as other ways of managing as long as you get your own way.

The only thing that can “change” command and control is managers, and their organisations, understanding that other options are available.

If you work for someone who fits the model I’ve described above then print off this article and get everyone in your office who is disengaged and disempowered and invite them to sign it with you and then leave it on the manager’s desk.

My final thought is this. Most staff feel a little more relaxed when their manager is on leave no matter how positive a role model they are. Here’s the thing; if you and your colleagues visibly relax when your manager is out of the office, or better yet you all check your manager’s leave dates and never, ever book leave at the same time because the office is simply a better pace without them, then you definitely work to a command and control manager.

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