Facing up to Command-and-Controlism: Twenty Warning Signs

In my last post, I offered a reworked version of the 12-steps of Alcoholics Anonymous to address the compulsion underlying various forms of authoritarian, bureaucratic management: Command-and-Controlism.

For some, it may make for uncomfortable reading. You may think, “What an order! I can’t go through with it.” Do not be discouraged. No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these steps. We are not saints. The point is, that we are willing to grow our thinking along systemic and humanistic lines. The principles set down are guides to progress rather than perfection.

We need to face up to what Command-and-Controlism has done to us, our way of thinking and our organisations. And to do this, we need to know the warning signs. So, here are twenty questions for managers and others in positions of control to consider. Try to answer them honestly. See how you do. Remember, there is no disgrace in facing up to a problem.

  1. When you think of your organisation, is an organogram one of the first images that comes to mind (after the company logo)?  YES / NO
  2. Is ‘the customer’ far from your mind, most of the time?  YES / NO
  3. Does your division or department occupy most of your thoughts at work?  YES / NO
  4. Do you lack a clear idea what other divisions or departments do, or even why they exist?  YES / NO
  5. Do you think that most work can be prescribed in detail, usually with one right way to do things?  YES / NO
  6. Do you ascribe to the motto, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it“?  YES / NO
  7. And when you see some quantitative data, is your instinct to set a quantitative target for where it should be?  YES / NO
  8. Do you think that if only people would just do their jobs, everything would be alright?  YES / NO
  9. When things go wrong, is your first thought “who screwed up?”  YES / NO
  10. Is punishment your preferred response to procedural non-compliance?  YES / NO
  11. Do you think that management always, or nearly always, knows best?  YES / NO
  12. Do you think that it is up to management to set goals and the process to achieve them?  YES / NO
  13. Do you become anxious when things are not going according to a detailed plan or strategy, and seek to control behaviour to bring it back in line?  YES / NO
  14. And in your mind, does changing a plan equate to personal failure?  YES / NO
  15. Do people below you in the chain of command rarely or never argue with you or challenge you?  YES / NO
  16. Do you think that reports up the chain of command give you an accurate view of the work?  YES / NO
  17. Do you become anxious when there is communication outside the chain of command?  YES / NO
  18. Do you think that involving staff in the investigation, design and management of work is usually a very bad idea?  YES / NO
  19. Do you have frequent thoughts about controlling others’ behaviour?  YES / NO
  20. Has controlling adversely affected your social relationships with others?  YES / NO

Did you answer YES five or more times? If so, you probably need help. Check out the 12 steps below, and in detail here.

Recovery from Command-and-Control: The Twelve Steps

1. We admitted that we were not in control—that our systems had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a change in thinking could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to involve the people who do the work in the investigation, design and management of the work.
4. Made a searching and fearless systemic inquiry of how the work really works.
5. Admitted to ourselves how the system was really performing.
6. Were entirely ready to remove adverse system conditions and optimise system behaviour.
7. Humbly worked with others to improve the system.
8. Made a list of the people we serve, and became willing to improve service to them all.
9. Improved service to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would harm others.
10. Continued to work on effectiveness, and when we sensed unwanted system behaviour, promptly addressed it.
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
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.
Photo: Johnson Cameraface https://flic.kr/p/dzNtky CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Photo: Johnson Cameraface https://flic.kr/p/dzNtky CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Author: stevenshorrock

This blog is written by Dr Steven Shorrock. I am interdisciplinary humanistic, systems and design practitioner interested in human work from multiple perspectives. My main interest is human and system behaviour, mostly in the context of safety-related organisations. I am a Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist with the CIEHF and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society. I currently work as a human factors and safety specialist in air traffic control in Europe. I am also Adjunct Associate Professor at University of the Sunshine Coast, Centre for Human Factors & Sociotechnical Systems. I blog in a personal capacity. Views expressed here are mine and not those of any affiliated organisation, unless stated otherwise. You can find me on twitter at @stevenshorrock or email contact[at]humanisticsystems[dot]com.

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