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Dec 3, 2013

Command and control easy – but don't rely on it

Leaders who take time to learn collaborative style know there's no going back

By Dave Crisp

David Creelman, a friend and colleague, has (again) written a thought-provoking piece, this one about command and control leadership and organization structure versus collaborative. This grew out of his review of a new book by Dana Ardi, The Fall of the Alphas: The New Beta Way to Connect, Collaborate, Influence — and Lead.

Creelman takes up a theme I often pursue: Why, when we know so much, does the command and control or "hierarchical" style persist so robustly in the vast majority of organizations?

He goes on to mention a conversation with leadership guru, Ed Lawler. That makes quite a contrast, with Ardi arguing that gen-Y’s entry into the workplace ensures that collaborative or lateral approaches will come to dominate in time due to gen-Y’s dominant inclination, while Lawler suggests collaboration is simply a fragile style that appears occasionally when a particular leader gets into a position to try it. But most can’t expand it beyond their own areas and many can’t keep it going as circumstances change. We’d all like to agree with Ardi. I’ve said it myself in fits of hopefulness that I later rethink. Perhaps if enough authors keep saying it, we can make it come true. Doubtful.

Since we now know collaborative style, when it works, is far more rewarding in every way, this is not an idle debate. That should make it the chief style taught in all schools, in all courses, seminars and in all organizations. Fragile or not, it should be a top priority to choose the type of people, build the types of environments and keep the training going continuously to keep it in the forefront.

One might hope that being taught its advantages would start to build a cadre of leaders on boards and throughout management that would struggle until this starts to become habits — or "culture," as we call the combined habits of everyone in an organization.

Just how fragile is it? Not very for some executives, such as we read in stories like Ralph Stayer’s How I Learned To Let My Workers Lead or Ricardo Semler’s Maverick, more recently updated to the intriguing concept of The Seven Day Weekend (a title he said was PR from the publisher to appeal to those who seek work-life balance).

As Semler and his reviewers on Amazon note, the shift to a collaborative style isn’t quite as easy as a seven day weekend, but I know from personal experience that, done right, it substantially reduces workload on the manager even while it requires learning a very different approach. I don’t know if I’d have succeeded in business without this approach. I previously quit politics specifically because it was too physically arduous for my constitution.

For those who take the trouble to learn collaborative leadership, there’s no way they’d go back. Sure you have to lay down the law as boss once in a while. I suspect even Semler does it, though you might not see that from his books. But those times should be few and far between and are almost always unnecessary if you learn properly.

So collaborative leadership isn’t fragile in the sense of leaders not being able to keep it up. They may find themselves stuck in environments where it’s frowned on, made unacceptable in various ways or where staff simply won’t respond due to earlier abusive controls from previous management.

It may take only one bad CEO or division head to ruin the environment and trust in their organization or division and make everyone so gun-shy they won’t take initiative, but most people really want to and appreciate whatever opportunities they get to see their ideas make a difference. So there are some robust elements to the concept.

We know from performance appraisal, relationship and happiness studies that doing these things well requires steady effort to be positive more than negative. We even know the best ratio — 6:1 times as many positive, encouraging comments as negative. We also know there are people who can’t muster a single positive comment if their lives depended on it, while most of us are somewhere in between. 6:1 is a fairly challenging target, but by no means impossible.

It’s even reassuring to note that it’s not the best ratio to be 100 per cent positive all the time (no way Pollyanna). People want the truth, too, and, as Harry Truman said, “I never give people hell, I just tell them the truth and they think it’s hell.”

The fact that negative comments have far more power is exactly the reason why six positive ones are required to achieve the right, forward-moving balance. No question that takes effort... all the time... and can be ruined by a few badly chosen, negative words spoken in anger on the spur of the moment. Nevertheless, with effort even those situations can usually be recovered from if they aren’t the norm.

Of course some managers know negative has more power and impact, and they think it will make them more powerful and get more immediate results to snap orders and constantly tell people their effort is not enough. The word burnout was invented for such behavior.

What does seem to be true for organizations is that it takes steady mental effort on the part of quite a few top leaders especially, but for everyone at most levels, to maintain the positive commitment to a collaborative environment and encourage people to engage and speak up. Probably that ratio will be found to be 6:1, too. If more than one-seventh of your managers are negative, hypercritical, micromanaging order-givers, you probably will have trouble convincing people this is a good place to openly put forward ideas. Why volunteer if it means more work and especially more brow-beating when things go too slowly for Attila?

It doesn’t take many in a board room to shoot down or make fun of innovative concepts and poke holes in their unproven value. Let one person run rampant at that and you won’t find a lot of suggestions being put on the table.

So where’s the fragility? It’s that we’ve allowed all too many problem leaders to be appointed or we’ve appointed people who should have worked out, but put them in places where they’re scared, out of their depth and unable to keep up. In such circumstances, people turn toward whatever certainty they can grasp – command and control is the fall back. Don’t let your staff try anything and they can’t get you into trouble. Not a great orientation today. We need confident, happy, well-adjusted, calculated risk-takers who listen and enjoy getting people engaged.

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit
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