Leadership   //   March 17, 2022

‘Vulnerability can be your fortress’: How to move away from a command-and-control management approach

The events of the last two years have necessitated the acceleration of a multitude of work-related trends, but the erosion of the command-and-control leadership is arguably the most significant.

A decade ago, “The How Report,” published by LRN, surveyed 16,000 employees in 17 countries and concluded that 97% adhered to a command-and-control model. Four years later, in 2016, the figure in a follow-up survey was 92%. So what is the percentage likely to be in 2022, post-pandemic?

While there is not currently a definitive answer to that puzzler, plenty of other studies indicate a significant shift away from command-and-control leadership. For instance, workplace culture company O.C. Tanner’s 2022 Global Culture Report hints at subtle changes: In 2022, 30% of U.K. leaders will micromanage employees – 17% less than the 2020 number. And this year, 60% of those in charge will “recognize the achievements of their employees” compared with 51% in 2018.

“All the evidence points to the pandemic having accelerated the shift away from traditional command-and-control style leadership towards modern leadership that requires focus on mentorship, connection and development,” said Robert Ordever, managing director of O.C. Tanner Europe.

For many, this will have been “a painful and unwelcome shift,” he added. But research shows that those who had thriving cultures and a modern approach to leadership before the coronavirus crisis fared far better through the pandemic.

Other relevant findings from O.C. Tanner’s new research reveal the corrosive effects of traditional command-and-control leadership practices. These include a 43% decrease in overall employee experience, a 42% drop in workers’ sense of opportunity and a 33% reduction in staff engagement. Unsurprisingly, and worth flagging to old-school leaders, this all adds up to the odds of growing revenue reducing by a whopping 84%.

Empowering employees and developing careers

“Expectations from employees and candidates have shifted completely,” said Ordever. “Taking a traditional approach to leadership doesn’t feel like a genuine choice for any business that wants the best talent in the market.”

Melissa Paris, lead people scientist at employee experience platform Culture Amp, agrees, though understands why there is resistance to evolving leadership models. “A typical command-and-control management structure with information and decisions flowing top-down will be what many – especially older generations – are familiar with,” she said. Other benefits include clear authority and communication, as each employee knows where they stand in the chain of command. 

“There is no longer room for rigid command-and-control leaders, who rely on hierarchical structures, live for the ego, and cannot define empathy."
Joanna Swash, group CEO, Moneypenny.

However, the downsides are increasingly steep in the post-pandemic world. Paris argues that a command-and-control approach stifles innovation and doesn’t enable agility in fast-changing markets. “Employees are hired to fulfill their assigned roles and obey their managers, meaning there is often little room for them to collaborate freely with colleagues,” she said. 

With the great resignation showing no sign of ending soon, the combination of sluggish top-down decision-making, a lack of innovation, and poor internal mobility will likely lead to an exodus of talent and make already challenging recruitment harder. “The employee experience is often less rewarding for those at the bottom than for people working in other organizational structures,” Paris added. “They generally feel more distanced from the organization’s goals and less able to impact progress.”

For Joanna Swash, group CEO of outsourced communications company Moneypenny, which operates in the U.K. and U.S., the most distinctive evolution in leadership is the development of softer skills. “There is no longer room for rigid command-and-control leaders, who rely on hierarchical structures, live for the ego, and cannot define empathy,” she said. 

From command and control to trust and inspire

What sets winning leaders apart, according to Swash, is “honesty, authenticity, adaptability, optimism and a little of outside-the-box thinking.” Her top tip for those seeking to move on from a command-and-control style to a trust-and-inspire approach to leadership is to empower teams to make mistakes.

She advised: “Be brave and put aside anything that would hold them back. You are creating the perfect environment for them to come up with powerful ideas that could change the way you do business better and build a more connected culture.”

"Expectations from employees and candidates have shifted completely. Taking a traditional approach to leadership doesn’t feel like a genuine choice for any business that wants the best talent in the market.”
Robert Ordever, managing director, O.C. Tanner Europe.

This insight chimes with Hadas Mor-Feldbau, global director of human resources at work management platform monday.com, which prides itself on having a bottom-up leadership style based on culture and connection, she said. 

As a first step, companies should create an environment that allows people to “learn from failure as part of a continuous growing experience, encouraging employees to share their thoughts and opinions without hesitation or concern about repercussions,” she added.

Meanwhile, Jacqueline de Rojas, president of techUK, the U.K.’s technology trade association, urges leaders to show humility – for their own sakes. “I used to define leadership as having to know all the answers, but I soon discovered how limiting that was,” she said. De Rojas revealed that after landing her biggest leadership role she soon realized she was “never going to know everything,” so her approach switched overnight from pretending to know all the answers to reaching out and asking questions, she said.

“Rather than being a command-and-control leader, I chose to create space for other people to unlock their potential,” she added. “Asking questions also enabled me to be more accessible and helped the business to grow at scale faster. I honestly believe that vulnerability can be your fortress.”

Management challenges

Paris from Culture Amp has spotted trouble on the horizon, though – specifically for managers. “As organizations become more agile and dynamic, they should – in theory – be creating more potential career paths and opportunities to develop their people,” she said. “But it also means development becomes more personalized, and as a result, more challenging, especially for managers who are expected to guide their direct reports.”

In an increasingly distributed world of work, managers will be the tether that connects each employee to the organization, believes Paris. “They can truly make or break the employee experience, especially amid so many new ways of working,” she said, adding: “Managers must not only adapt to the changing landscape themselves but also guide their teams through this uncertain and unpredictable transition.”

Clearly, there is a desire to move away from command-and-control leadership, spurred by events of the last two years. But without managers being empowered and trained in how to listen and enable hybrid and remote working teams, then aspirations to supercharge innovation, open career paths and boost company agility with a flatter hierarchical structure will, well, fall flat.