Command & Control: Let’s talk about power

January 2nd, 2012
Command and control isn’t just a mindset and a style of management (though it is both those things). What we don’t often talk about is the power that rests with people in management roles.

Traditional managers have power, and that power comes from different sources. Part of what rankles people in traditional organizations is the way managers wield power. I’m not suggesting throwing out all managers or eliminating all controls–controls help ensure a system is functioning within appropriate boundaries. That’s the case whether we are looking at the financial system, training system, administrative system or any other system in the organization. But controls are different from keeping people in line through positional power–which is the essence of Tayloristic management.

The notion that managers must keep people in line assumes that those people are neither responsible nor intelligent–that left to their own devices, they will make irresponsible and stupid mistakes. In many organizations, managers say they want people and teams to be responsible and accountable, then treat them like children. Let me give a concrete example. One manager I know exhorted people to take responsibility for their professional development. Then when a developer asked to attend training, the manager grilled him on the nature of the training. After the grilling, the manager asked the developer to produce documentation. Finally, the manager rejected the developer’s request because the no one “responsible” in the company had vetted the training. This is an extreme example, but one that makes the point. When managers tell people to take responsibility, then force them to ask for approval, they are sending a mixed message. You can guess which part of the message people believe. They hear, “you are not capable of making a wise decision, I must exert my authority to prevent you from doing something irresponsible or stupid.”

One way to dis-aggregate power is to delegate some power to teams. For example, you could delegate authority for a portion of a training budget to a team. Establish guidelines, (e.g., training must be relevant to current or future projects, or must increase capacity in some other relevant way). Then let team members assess what training they need to improve their capability. Guidelines act as controls, within which the team has autonomy. Both are necessary. The team exists within the context of the organization. Managers do have a fiduciary responsibility. But managers don’t have to force other adults to come as supplicants to fulfill that responsibility. Other areas that are easy to delegate are tools used within the team, books and periodicals, and conferences.

People in management roles can share hiring decisions with the teams who will work with the new person. Rather than have individual managers make decisions about promotions, have a panel. Place professional and career development with mentors, instead of with the manager who evaluates or supports the team.

When power isn’t concentrated with a group of people (managers), there are many more possibilities for creativity, partnership, and empowering leadership.

(This is an excerpt from an interview in Lean Magazine, published by Softhouse.se)

14 Comments

  1. Jamie says:

    Do you assume here that the manager who sends mixed messages is incompetent and that, given the skills, would dis-aggregate their power?

    Isn’t the problem that people hold onto their position power not because they think it’s useful but because it affords them, well, great power. What do you male of this? Isn’t it more constructive to think about how we can destroy power structures like the one from your example?

    Thanks, Jamie.

    • Esther Derby says:

      I assume that most people in management roles send mixed messages or hold on to power because they haven’t really thought about the impact of the theory of management and their management practices.

  2. Jamie says:

    If they stop to think, do they relinquish that power?

    • Esther Derby says:

      I suspect it depends on their beliefs about people and organizations. If the person believes people are lazy or irresponsible, they probably won’t. If they believe people are capable, responsible, creative, and can imagine something other than hierarchical bureaucracy they might.

  3. Bob Marshall says:

    Nice post.

    Jack Stack’s “The Great Game of Business” (book, recommended) has lots of real-world stories about managers that discover (by various means) how much better off everyone can be (including themselves) when they relinquish their morbid grip on power.

    See also Art Kleiner’s Core Group theory (congruent, imo).

    – Bob

  4. Paul Boos says:

    This is a great post!

    I’ve been thinking of facilitating Jurgen Appelo’s Meddlers game to allow managers to better visualize appropriate delegation levels. Seems constructing the roles and collectively organizing folks would help everyone in better understanding the right levels of accountability and responsibility. If you’ve read over his game/exercise, I’d be curious of your thoughts.

    Cheers,
    Paul

  5. Jeff says:

    Interesting post.

    It’s become a hot topic of debate right now whether or not we really need managers at all. See HBR “First, Let’s Fire All the Managers” http://bit.ly/vb8kaD But would we, in fact, be better off relying (entirely) on self-organizing teams instead?

    Personally, I believe that it’s still possible for managers to play an important and positive role in many organizations. The real problem is that most managers have no idea what great managers do and, even if they did, lack the ability, incentives, or confidence to act that way themselves.

    I wish I knew how to solve this problem on a large scale, but I feel that change is more likely to happen one (potential) manager at a time. Great managers teach and inspire others (through their actions) to do the same.

    Unfortunately, most organizations aren’t even capable of recognizing (and rewarding) their best managers. More often than not, doing the right thing (for both employees and the organization) has to be its own reward. This isn’t necessarily a bad form of motivation, but I think it has a lot to do with the general scarcity of talented managers in major corporations.

  6. Madhu says:

    Seems to me, all this leads back to the common and destructive practice of promoting the best engineer to become a bad manager.

    • Esther Derby says:

      That is only a small part of the problem. It isn’t so much the fault of individual managers (tho clearly there are manager who do not have the skills to do the job) as it is the /system of management/ that they work in. Current mgmt practices are based on a set of assumptions and beliefs. Those are seldom examined…and that is our task if we want to change our organizations.

  7. Ade Shokoya says:

    Great post with some valuable take-aways.

    For anyone wanting to learn some ‘people empowering’ management techniques,Kenneth Blanchard’s “The One Minute Manager” is worth reading

    – Ade

  8. Ashish Gupta says:

    Scrum is a good example of Agile Command and Control management framework but without most of the negatives which got associated with command and control through its misuse.

    • Esther Derby says:

      I suspect that the people who developed the scrum framework would not agree with your characterization.

      What have you seen and heard, that leads you to believe that Scrum is “command and control”? What does “Agile Command and Control” mean to you?

      e

  9. […] fact that I find the majority of organizations involved in knowledge work to be run according to an unsuitable theory of management, and bring a toolkit inspired by more progressive approaches such […]

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