Command and control management is murdering people (legitimately)

That headline was a little bit drastic re: command and control management, so let’s kind of outline the steps before we reach the conclusion. First off, you need to know what “command and control” management is. Usually it refers to a very “old school” type of management, although in reality command and control hasn’t gone anywhere and is very much how most managers still approach their roles. It usually refers to a focus on orders, deliverables, tasks, respect for the hierarchy, and “accountability” being confused with “screaming.”

Now look — none of these aspects of command and control are essentially bad. Some employees need these elements, and some respond well to them. Command and control persisted for so many years because it does work and make sense on some level. If you get paid to do a job, and you mess up doing that job, someone is allowed to dress you down. Right?

In the last 10-20 years, though, command and control has faded — albeit only a little bit. You see the rise of The Gig Economy and you see more people chasing flexible work arrangements. Those two concepts (only two of many) go directly against command and control, which would logically value seat time over “working remotely” or something like that. The sheer fact that all these people are moving to freelance gigs — running away from the traditional safety net of corporate work — underscores some of the flaws in command and control.

Let’s take work-life balance as an example. Command and control is diametrically opposed to work-life balance. If you work for a command and control boss, you will — in all likelihood — have absolutely no work-life balance. This is a problem. Although work-life balance has emerged as a buzzword in the modern canon, it’s very much a strategic advantage for the companies who do it right. A command and control manager would never understand that, though. It would be like speaking Chinese to a dog to attempt to get him to grasp “Hey, work-life balance has some value.” We’ve all seen (or had) this type of manager.

But now we’ve got a bigger problem. What if command and control is straight-up killing people?

Command and control management: Research

Here’s the article we’re going to use here; it’s based on this study. This has been accepted into The Journal of Personnel Psychology. The whole deal is based on a longitudinal study of 1957 Wisconsin high school graduates, 10,000 in all. Now, you can argue that people who graduated Wisconsin high schools in 1957 (meaning they were born around the beginning of WW2) are a very specific type of person. You would be right. But all studies have limitations to some extent, so let’s move forward.

Having a series of command and control bosses is making you live less long. Uh, not good. 

In 2004, 2,363 of these 10,000 had not retired. So let’s say these people went to college and graduated in 1961. By now, they’ve been working 43 years — and over 2,300 are still working. Damn. So much for that Boomer slush fund, eh?

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And now here’s the sad part:

When researchers followed up with this group in 2011, those who had spent their lives working in stressful environments that provided them with little control were 15.4% more likely to have died. At the same time, those who spent their careers with high levels of control as well as high job demands were associated with a 34% decrease in the likelihood of death, compared with low-demand jobs. 

So, this is one study from one state and one cohort. But command and control management is making these participants 15.4% more likely to die. Not good.

Command and control: So why is it even popular?

I’d say this comes from two basic reasons:

Most managers think their sole focus is productivity, “hitting the numbers,” and managing their P&L. All those things are responsibilities, yes, but when you have direct reports — those are people with lives, energies, and contexts of their own. They can’t simply be ignored. Unfortunately, that’s how most managers tend to approach the whole deal.

Finally, most of work is really just a quest for (a) relevance and (b) perceived competence, in order to boost your own sense of self-worth. The easiest path to these goals is to be seen as a guy/girl who’s “on top of things.” And the easiest way to get there is command and control management.

Can we fix command and control management, and save people’s lives?

Can “we?” Probably not. Management is a micro-issue. It happens at an individual-to-individual level and everyone manages differently. I will say three things, though:

This era of “Big Data” and “customer-first” means executives will focus a lot more on numbers (“The Spreadsheet Mentality”) and perceived notions of productivity. In reality, these notions of productivity will likely be middle management busy work that cripples the economy, but let’s gloss that over for a second. (Very few people understand the difference between “busy” and “productive.”)

I try to think about work in different ways, and I also try to call out some managerial BS we’ve all experienced. If that kinda sorta interests you, I do a newsletter every Thursday. Feel free to join up.

One of the ways to fix command and control for a numbers-obsessed executive is to show him some different numbers. For example: 55 hours/week is a hard ceiling on productive work. When you say that, he’ll laugh and pithily add: “Oh, I remember my first part-time job.” His lieutenants will howl. He really got you!

No, but by “numbers” I mean:

  • People are working this many hours
  • Productivity is at this
  • If we reduced it, we’d save this cost in building maintenance and these people would be more productive

Most tried-and-true workaholic executives would laugh at you and get you escorted from their office, but still … if they want data, give ’em data the other way.

Will millennials change command and control?

Somewhat, although millennials are just as much workaholics as any of us. A bigger change might be “Oh yea, robots will take a lot of our jobs and we’ll need universal basic income.” That would stop command and control, because the only thing the robots be commanding is our brains! I just wept openly.

The only thing that can “change” command and control is managers, and their organizations, understanding that it makes no sense. People aren’t farm animals who drive Saabs and hit targets for you so that you can get a bigger bonus. Unfortunately, most senior leaders look at people that way. Pound out 447 “sense of urgency” projects in a given year? Here’s a nice 1.9 percent raise. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go vacation in the South Pacific for two weeks — and you best not violate the sanctity of my out-of-office.

That’s work to many people, at least at the enterprise level. Command and control just exists to reinforce and underscore that dichotomy, honestly. And when something reinforces what people in power want, it tends to stay around for a while. (See also: “tax code, United States.”)

What else you got on command and control?

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