Command and Control versus Autonomy

Jason Clark
December 4, 2019
Jason Clark

Artemis Fowl said:

“Being in command means making tough decisions. Not being in command means shutting up and doing what you’re told.”

It is fair to say most of the leaders I worked for in my military career were schooled in the ways of Artemis Fowl II, the fictional child criminal mastermind; and arguably command and control was considered by them to be the best way to lead. Thankfully, even the military is looking to disrupt its age-old thinking.

The ‘Command and Control’ Leadership Style

At the risk of being controversial though, why are we so critical about command and control as a leadership style?

I can think of several examples where I have needed to ‘take charge’ with a minimal amount of collaboration and the team responded accordingly because they had to—not because they necessarily wanted to. And that is the key issue: Command and control is about the leader, and not the team. To break it down further, it is worth considering the main principles of this type of leadership style.

Typically, the command and control leader:

  • Leads from the front;
  • Directs, checks and controls;
  • Thinks she/he knows best;
  • Dislikes failure;
  • Results orientated;
  • Treats his staff as subordinates; and
  • Does not consult.

These traits do not point to a positive leadership environment; however, command and control leaders are known for rewarding performance, having a lower risk appetite, and creating increases in efficiency and effectiveness. But at what cost?

Autonomous Leadership

Command and control really began to make its mark post–World War II after military leaders moved into the business world, bringing with them a style which was considered at the time to be the most appropriate way to achieve objectives. In more modern times, this leadership style has been found to be based more on unspoken and erroneous assumptions.

What we now know is that employees switch off, feel stifled, stop thinking, feel untrusted and are reactive (waiting for instructions) rather than being proactive. As leaders, we should be encouraging our employees to be autonomous.

Don’t panic! I am not advocating for flattening out the organisational structure and causing chaos. Employees can be autonomous while still working towards the set strategic goals. By allowing each layer of employees to have the appropriate level of knowledge about the direction of the organisation, they have a better insight into how their work is important to achieving those goals.

Getting the balance right

But what about the potential for chaos? If everyone is running their own race towards the same finishing line, how can you make sure they stay in the lines? The key is to find ways of balancing the need to empower employees to act and to be innovative while maintaining accountability and management control.

The Harvard Business Review in 2017 observed that Spotify had “succeeded in maintaining an agile mindset and principles without sacrificing accountability”. Spotify has broken down the organisation into agile teams called squads, all working towards a common project. Each squad works on its part of the project in a “self-organising, cross-functional” manner, and leadership is self-determined, with no set ‘leader’.

Accountability is maintained by each squad having “full visibility of their…success and failures”, with feedback derived from other squads or parts of the business. Spotify naturally does have structured leadership, but this layer is more about coordinating the squads. Spotify says the company is like a jazz band “each squad plays its instrument, but each also listens to the others and focuses on the overall piece to make great music”.

In some ways Spotify is at the other end of the spectrum from command and control leadership, and it is possible that squads will not work in your organisation.

5 tips to encourage autonomy at work

There are key things you can do to encourage autonomy and avoid an Artemis in your workplace:

1. Be vulnerable.

As a leader, be open to the possibility that you do not (and probably will not) know everything.

2. Communicate.

Be open about the strategic direction or goals of the business and let employees know how their contribution is important to the organisation’s success.

3. Trust.

Trust your team – you recruited them.

4. Encourage disruption.

Employees have so much to offer, let them question and challenge the norm and bring new ideas to the table. Invest in training (like Mooski, Worklogic’s online team building program) to help your teams build a positive, autonomous mindset and reflect on their individual traits, values, strengths in order to improve relationships and outcomes.

5. Accept mistakes.

Mistakes will be made but see them as opportunities to learn and develop.

This is not an exhaustive list but should be part of any modern workplace’s culture because the days of telling employees to jump are over, and if your mindset is still there, you may find your employees have already jumped—probably to Spotify.

About Jason Clark

Jason Clark is Worklogic’s Director – Sydney. Jason has extensive experience as a workplace investigator, investigating a range of issues including fraud, bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct. He has also assisted numerous organisations develop strategies to minimise poor behaviour and encourage a positive workplace culture.

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