Here lies bureaucracy: command and control management is dead

June 26, 2019 Derek Irvine

4-minute read


Well, maybe command and control isn’t completely dead, but it’s definitely on its way out. And frankly, I’m happy to write its epitaph because there’s no room for it in modern workplaces. A cultural shift is embracing humanity and reflecting the way work gets done – most commonly in agile, cross-functional teams that just don’t jive with the stuffy, 100-year-old, top-down management model of the past.

Here’s the thing about the hierarchical business models of yore: They weren’t built for change. But that didn’t stop change from happening, it only stopped businesses from evolving. Because most companies haven’t matched pace with advancing technology and the predilections of new generations with a fresh approach to people management, there’s now a huge disparity causing many of them to be less adaptable, less innovative, and less inspiring.

When you consider this along with an authority-phobic millennial workforce and the lowest unemployment rate ever, companies either need to get with the times or – well – look what happened to disco. The question is, why do these new, more human approaches make sense for workplaces of the future? Here are a few reasons:

They’re non-hierarchical.
A leader can be anyone in today’s workplace. As Gary Hamel, Workhuman® Live speaker, iconoclastic business thinker, and best-selling author, said in a prior chat with us: “The real challenge today is not finding an extraordinary CEO and top team, but developing the leadership capabilities of everyone at every level.”

As part of the old model, there was a lot of discretionary authority flying around and leaders managing up while keeping those below them under their thumb. Today our views on leadership are different. The modern employee is looking for a positive work experience – and in this job market, they can afford to. They’re craving mentors who are more concerned with lifting those around them than trying to elevate themselves. But more than that, they want forward thinkers who have the vision, courage, and vulnerability to bust through bureaucracy, get things done, and inspire people along the way.

A peer-to-peer recognition program can help organizations see who their real leaders are because anyone at any level can call out a colleague for good work. This data illuminates both your superstars and those unsung heroes of the office who quietly inspire and support others.

They’re collaborative.
Work is no longer about people in silos staying in their lanes – because growth is so accelerated, we’ve had to adapt. Today is all about fast-moving and responsive tiger teams. It’s peers from different departments – sometimes in different geographies – coming together for a brief period of time to efficiently roll out a new initiative or product. In this world, bureaucracy is the enemy of productivity and inhibitive to innovation.

Doesn’t it also make sense then, for employee development to mimic the way work gets done? This means building a trusted environment where employees feel empowered to take control of their development and support each other with all types of feedback – celebratory, instructive, and constructive.

Traditional performance management tends to be hierarchical, less frequent, and less trustworthy – relying on annual reviews and limited observations focused around job function. Today’s feedback looks as collaborative as the work being done. A supportive feedback environment is one that encourages daily, informal feedback exchanges – between managers and direct reports and between peers – that are generally positive, high in quality, frequently occurring, from credible sources, and where feedback seeking is encouraged.

They’re rooted in gratitude.
Across industries, HR is welcoming a new era that’s all about making work a more human experience. As humans, we need to be seen, to be valued, to be connected to others. Letting go of command and control management practices makes room to create cultures where every worker feels empowered and appreciated for who they are and what they do.

To do this, just add gratitude. There’s nothing more human than thanking another person. What a culture of gratitude does is amplify the goodness that’s already happening and inspires even more. This type of culture forges unshakable bonds between colleagues, cuts turnover in half, improves safety records, accelerates performance, and drives innovation. And it provides a positive employee experience.

Companies that deliver a positive employee experience through human workplace practices like recognition, empowerment, and feedback see a significant impact on return on assets and return on sales. A study done in collaboration with the IBM Smarter Workforce Institute surveyed more than 23,000 workers in 45 countries to determine the impact of a positive employee experience on retention, discretionary effort, and performance. 

They found that those organizations in the top 25% of employee experience have 3x the ROA and more than double the ROS compared to the bottom 25%. And the employees of tomorrow aren’t looking for just a career – they want to live and work in a positive culture.

So, we shouldn’t shed any tears over the unfortunate demise of command and control management. Instead, let’s celebrate the fact that our workplaces are slowly but surely becoming more human.


The end of management as we know it: Q&A with Dr. Gary Hamel (part 1)

A brief history of bureaucracy with Gary Hamel

Workplace predictions for 2019

About the Author

Derek Irvine

Derek is senior vice president, client strategy and consulting, at Workhuman.

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