Recovery from Command-and-Control: A Twelve-Step Program

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMost of us in democratic countries would hate to see the rise authoritarianism. When we hear about authoritarian regimes around the world, we feel lucky not to live there. We know that people do not thrive under authoritarianism, where high levels of control suppress the human connectivity, freedom and creativity that give meaning and purpose to life. The same is true of organisations, but here we seem to have to put up with it.

In 2012, the UK’s Chartered Management Institute released a report on Quality of Working Life, concerning managers’ wellbeing, motivation and productivity. The study found that authoritarian management was one of the most reported common management styles (30 per cent), along with bureaucratic management (45 per cent) and other styles that are characteristic of command-and-control. The report authors, Professor Les Worrall and Professor Cary Cooper, wrote “All these styles have a negative impact on motivation, health, wellbeing and productivity levels.” They examined authoritarianism and employee engagement, and found some clear differences:

AuthoritarianismCommand-and-control management remains, in the 21st century, a disease with no signs of abating. Results from studies over time show a stable if not worsening picture. The same management styles are repeated with the same results – poor performance and reduced well-being.

From the top, this is a blindspot. Worrall and Cooper noted that “There were huge differences in the perceptions of directors and all other managerial levels. Directors saw the prevailing management style very differently from senior, middle and junior managers.” Heading down the chain of command, managers thought the prevailing management style in the organisation was more authoritarian, more bureaucratic, more reactive and more secretive; and less empowering, less consensual, less trusting and less entrepreneurial.

There must be a payoff. But it is not increased effectiveness. So what is going on? Why would organisations stick with a management style that clearly doesn’t work? Could it be that control itself becomes a compulsion? According to Alcoholics Anonymous, a compulsion to control lies at the heart of addiction, and their twelve steps have helped millions to recover. Perhaps these steps, suitably revised, might help to restore organisations to sanity. Here they are, adapted for our purposes.


1. We admitted that we were not in control—that our systems had become unmanageable.

Command-and-control gives management the illusion that they are in control of the work and the workers, and that this control leads to effectiveness. Distance between decision making about the work and the work itself makes decision makers think that when things go right, it is because they are being done as specified: by the book. When things go wrong, it is because people did not do their job: they screwed up. But this is not the case. Even when everyone individually ‘does their job’, it is no guarantee of success. As W. Edwards Deming (2000) put it “It is a mistake to assume that if everybody does his job, it will be all right. The whole system may be in trouble” (p. 126). This is shocking to some, but not to those who do the work. First, what matters in not so much the individual components (the individual workers, the bits of equipment, the rules and procedures, the organisational units), as how these components interact. Second, most work cannot be described and prescribed in detail, at least not in a way that will align with how things really work. Things work because people make them work; inasmuch as they can, they adjust and adapt to changes in system conditions. But they do so in ways that cannot be seen from afar, or from the same perspective. So in reality, distance between the work and decision making about the work increases the gap between work-as-imagined and work-as-done.

More control from the top and more bureaucracy will change the work, but it will change it in all the wrong ways. Tragically, it suppresses human ingenuity, creativity and the leadership in every person, while cementing the them-and-us mindset. It is necessary to admit defeat; command-and-control doesn’t work, it just makes things worse. But there is hope.


2. Came to believe that a change in thinking could restore us to sanity.

The same kind of thinking that gets us into a problem is rarely the same kind of thinking that can get us out of it. The corporate mindset is at the same time part of the system and the culture, and it is hard to see from the inside because it is interwoven in everything we think and do. As anthropologist Edward Hall eloquently put it in The Silent Language, “Culture hides more than it reveals, and strangely enough what it hides, it hides most effectively from its own participants“. If you have always been inside a command-and-control regime, it may be hard to see that there is a better way, or even another way. It’s not that organisations did command-and-control wrong; they did it right. It’s just that it is the wrong thing to do for most organisations, and doing it more right just makes things go even more wrong. A different kind of thinking is needed, and that involves looking at human systems for what they are – complex, dynamic, uncertain, messy. It also involves viewing people for what they are, not cogs in a machine but purposeful, whole, social, and creative beings. But it is possible to improve performance and wellbeing with a blend of humanistic and systems thinking. For this step, all you need is an open mind.


3. Made a decision to involve the people who do the work in the investigation, design and management of the work.

In command-and-control organisations, decisions about the work are disconnected from the people who do the work. Here is an example. Imagine you work in a safety-critical facility and have been given a safety-critical procedure to implement, which has been written by someone who is far away from the work. You know from your local knowledge and experience that if you implement the procedure, things will eventually go badly wrong because the procedure is dangerous by design. But if you don’t, and implement your own solution, you will be blamed if things go wrong. This is the kind of double bind that command-and-control creates. With such command-and-control scenarios often comes another condition, where you cannot speak up freely, and even if you do, nothing happens. There are many such examples that play out every day in command-and-control organisations. Step 3 involves a decision; that people be meaningfully involved in the investigation, design and management of their work. Seddon (2003) explains that “The systems approach employs the ingenuity of workers in managing and improving the system. It is intelligent use of intelligent people” (p. 22). Meanwhile, “Managements’ focus changes from managing people – ensuring that people do as they ‘should’ – to managing the system – understanding and improving how well the work flows, end-to-end, to fulfil the customers’ demands. They establish a collaborative relationship with the agents for they are working on the same problem (for a change)” (p. 36). He points out that everyone has two jobs, 1) to do the work (serve the customer), and 2) to improve how the work works.


4. Made a searching and fearless systemic inquiry of how the work really works.

Ignorance is not bliss. Deming remarked that “There is a penalty for ignorance. We are paying through the nose.” This step is a fact-finding and a fact-facing process; an effort to discover the truth about how the system really works. Not knowing how things work means not understanding: the purpose of the system from the customer’s point of view; value vs failure demand; how much capacity there is in the system; how to measure according to purpose; if work is meeting the needs of customers; if the needs of staff and community are being met; and so on. Managing something you don’t understand must be terrifying. But knowledge is not bliss either. Finding out how the system really works involves facing uncomfortable truths. It probably means accepting how previous top-down decisions have made the system perform worse. This also means finding out what works, and building around that. It is not a hunt for problems, but a genuine inquiry of the system: “to enable a system to perform effectively we must understand it – we must be able to explain its behavior” (Ackoff, 1999).

The inquiry needs to be searching and fearless, and in order to be fearless there has to be new view of human work. First, we must assume goodwill. People do not come to work to do a bad job; neither staff nor managers. So for this step, there has to be an agreement that blame is not allocated and resentment is not harboured for past decisions, nor for how work is done now. It is a blame-free inquiry; we have to be willing to drop the idea of blame from our speech and thought. We assume goodwill unless there is very good evidence otherwise. Second, things need to be seen through the lens of local rationality. People do reasonable things given their goals, knowledge, understanding of the situation and focus of attention at the time. The key is to understand the work-as-done, not to judge people for why it is that way.


5. Admitted to ourselves how the system was really performing.

We cannot improve the system unless we clearly see how it really works. As we synthesise the results of our inquiry, we seek to close the gap between the system-as-imagined (how we thought things were from afar) and the system-as-found. We seek to understand the what, how and why of current performance. Sometimes at this stage, if the results of an honest enquiry are not what was desired, they are hushed-up or buried. But if we do not accept the truths that we have found, it is impossible to move forward. Admitting and discussing how the system is really performing means that we, again, have to assume goodwill and try to see and understand things from the perspective of people at the time.


6. Were entirely ready to remove adverse system conditions and optimise system behaviour.

With this step, we must be entirely ready to accept that there is a better way to manage human work. Genuine willingness and readiness to work on the system with field experts are what is needed first. Here, we prepare to address adverse system conditions, to pay attention to demand, resources, and constraints, and to try to optimise interactions and flows. The only question at this step is: “Are we ready?”


7. Humbly worked with others to improve the system.

In this step, we begin the process of reconstruction with a new view of management: “the first level manager works with people on the work, not on the people. The team and its first-level manager manage all the opportunities for improvement within the team’s control. All opportunities for improvement that lie beyond the scope and control of the team are the responsibility of the first-level manager or other managers, whose job it is to eliminate the obstacles that get in the way of service teams serving their customers.” (Seddon, 2003, p. 133)Improvement involves observing, probing and adjusting system conditions (demand, resources, constraints) and system behaviour (system interactions, the flow of work through the system, trade-offs, performance variability). It is only possible to do this with the people who do the work, who are the experts in their own work, as we need to understand system conditions and behaviour with their insider knowledge, from their perspectives.


8. Made a list of the people we serve, and became willing to improve service to them all.

Who do we serve? We need a clear view of who the organisation serves – customers, staff, community, society – before it is possible to improve service to them all. This becomes a surprisingly vague concern in a command-and-control organisation, where divisions and departments compete for power. Each person’s work should be connected to the needs of those served by the organisation.


9. Improved service to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would harm others.

Armed with clarity on purpose and on whom we serve, and a willingness to work on system conditions and system behaviour with those who do the work, we can set about improving service, bearing in mind the wise words of Checkland and Poulter (2006) “Banish all thought of finding a permanent ‘solution’ or the optimum way of doing something in any human situation.” Mindfulness is needed at this stage to avoid sub-optimising the system, focusing on one stakeholder to the expense of others, or introducing other unwanted, unintended consequences. This will be less likely if we avoid slips into command-and-control, with its habits of resorting to targets, league tables, silos, behavioural constraints and inflexible plans.


10. Continued to work on effectiveness, and when we sensed unwanted system behaviour, promptly addressed it.

Here we enter the maintenance phase. Step 10 involves to growing in understand­ing and effectiveness via continuous probing, sensing, adaptation and learning, and application of previous steps as necessary. Many organisations have never really acquired the habit of accurate self-appraisal, perhaps because the focus is on divisions and departments, instead of the flow of work and the people who the organisation serves. But once this healthy practice has become normalised, the benefits are seen across the whole range of productive and protective business goals. Only by staying close to the work – constantly probing and monitoring – can we sense unwanted, emergent system behaviour, and take steps to address it. There is always the chance of occasionally falling into old habits – authoritarianism, bureaucracy, reactivity. Mindful of this, we seek progress, not perfection.


11. Sought through observation and discussion to improve our conscious contact with ordinary work as we understood it, seeking knowledge of the system conditions and the power to improve them.

Recovery from command-and-control requires constant observation and discussion. If you want to understand work, you have to get out from your own desk to where the work is. You also have to bring people together, up- and down-stream, to discuss the flow of work. Here, we need to point imagination in the right direction – simultaneously improving performance and wellbeing. This means getting knowledge of the system conditions and improving them in order to help unleash the natural potential that exists within people.


12. Having had an awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practise these principles in all our affairs.

Humanistic and systems thinking brings about an awakening. It is a new way of thinking, but it is not just about thinking. It has to be practised, with others, in the world. Like Seddon said: “systems thinking is learned by doing: it is only by doing things that most managers can unlearn – can find out for themselves that their current beliefs about the design and management of work are flawed…It is only by studying the work as work that managers can assess current methods and use new ones to build better systems.” (2003, p. 134).



Ackoff, R. (1999). Ackoff’s best: His classic writings on management. John Wiley.

Checkland, P. & Poulter, J. (2006). Learning for Action: A Short Definitive Account of Soft Systems Methodology and its Use, for Practitioners, Teachers and Students. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons Ltd.Deming, W.E. (2000). Out of the crisis. MIT.

Seddon, J. (2003). Freedom from command and control: A better way to make the work work. Vanguard.

Worrall, L. & Cooper, C. (2012). Quality of working life: Managers wellbeing, motivation and productivity. Chartered Management Institute, UK.

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