What to do with a command-and-control manager

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Rey Elbo-125

In The Workplace

Our department head is an old jerk whose management style is command-and-control. He keeps a close watch on what we’re doing almost every day as if we’re a bunch of elementary kids. We hate our jobs that give us no fulfillment, enjoyment, or the freedom to be creative. Many of us are planning to leave, except that there are not too many opportunities around us. Please write something about command-and-control and I will find a way of putting a hard copy of your column in the suggestion box. — Being Hopeful.

The following story has been told so many times and in various ways from different sources, except for the ending. There is much speculation concerning what heaven and hell will be like. At times, we talk of hell describing both situations – being jobless and with a job but working in a hellish work environment.

In the story, a man who was allowed to see heaven and hell. He was first taken to hell and into a room in the middle of which there was a large pot of stew. The stew smelled delicious, but all around this pot there were people who were starving almost to death.

They all held spoons in their hands that had unusually long handles which reached all the way to the pot. But because the spoon handles were longer than their arms, they were unable to return the spoons filled with stew to their mouths.

The suffering was terrible and continuous with no solutions in sight.

The man was then taken to heaven. Heaven was identical to hell. The room and the pot of stew in the middle was the same, and the spoons were the same. But the people in this room were well-fed and joyous. The visitor was perplexed. As he watched the people in this room, he immediately learned the difference. The people had spoons that would not allow them to feed themselves, so they fed each other.

What does this mean for your particular situation? If you and your colleagues are suffering in a difficult work situation, then what if — all of you cooperate with one another to take a united stand against the unreasonable command-and-control style of your boss? If you act as one, it would be difficult for your boss to refute all complaints.

“United we stand, divided we fall” is a familiar and oft-repeated phrase that can well apply to your case. Therefore, it’s better for all of you to act as one against your department boss. Arrange for a meeting with your boss and you as the facilitator. Organize a department meeting with your boss and all of your colleagues in attendance.

If this fails, then proceed to the next step.

If you are in a unionized work environment, use the grievance machinery of your organization to file a complaint against that particular department head. Otherwise, you can simply write a formal petition to the CEO giving specific details about the management style. That’s assuming that your company does not have a whistle blower program. Whatever approach you take, be clear about your complaint and that you have already exhausted all means to resolve the issue with the boss.

Be ready with particulars and all the reasons you think such a style is unhealthy in any organization. When you file a complaint, give specific examples on how you and your colleagues have been treated badly by your boss.

Of course, you can have a clipping of this article and have it deposited in your suggestion box so that management sees it. The trouble however is the suggestion box is operated by an equally-outmoded human resource department that may be at a loss on what to do with it. Further, the suggestion box is often treated as an ineffective form of receiving complaints, much less employee ideas. At times, you’ll get poison letters that accuse people in the organization without any concrete evidence.

Besides, command-and-control has been considered an ineffective management style since the end of the war, after it was used extensively by the military for practical reasons. John Landry, writing for Harvard Business Review, cites the case of Iron Mountain CEO Bob Brennan. In his article, “Breaking the Command-and-Control Reflex,” Landry writes: “(T)op-down leadership no longer works well for companies. But he (Brennan) believes that too many of his managers still operate in a ‘command-and-control reflex.’”

“They’re a lot like he was earlier in his career: good at holding subordinates accountable but bad at setting clear expectations. When subordinates aren’t sure what the boss really wants to accomplish, they don’t feel safe, and true delegation is impossible. Instead of acting autonomously, they hang around the boss and try to do whatever pleases him at the moment.

“To discourage the command-and-control reflex, Brennan puts a lot of energy into hiring. He looks for people who are open-minded and aware of their own foibles. Those are the ones more likely to encourage autonomy and collaboration even at the cost of control. He especially tries to screen out people who are self-centered. But he acknowledges the difficulty: ‘I’m interviewing people for positions of power. So there’s an alpha dimension to their personality that comes with the package.’”

In conclusion, there’s no other way but for you and your colleagues to take the bull by the horns. Be direct and to the point. But be courteous, diplomatic, and respectful to your boss, no matter how difficult it is. I can’t guarantee that he will change overnight.

What’s important is he has received the message and all of you are serious about it.

ELBONOMICS: Expect the best from worst people and prepare to be surprised.


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