Command-and-Control Management Style delivers the wrong message

Guest post by Lori Fry, Principal with Navigator Management Partners, originally featured as a post at    Follow this link to listen to our first podcast with Lori.

My son, Ben, was written up at work for calling off so he could evacuate Florida ahead of Hurricane Irma’s landfall.  You can read about it in The Washington Post.  Seriously.

Irma – a category 5 storm almost as large as the entire peninsula. Ben is a college freshman living on his own for the first time.  He has a part-time job as a food delivery driver. He works hard, cares about his job, and appreciates being paid. And he cares about his personal safety almost as much as I do.

As the storm approached, I arranged lodging for Ben in Georgia and out of the reach of the worst part of the storm.  He was concerned about getting in trouble at work….But who expects food delivery during a hurricane??? At my urging, he called his manager to tell him he was evacuating.

While Ben was away, his manager sent a group text to the delivery drivers stating that while gas was scarce in the area, not being able to find gas was not a reason to call off. There’s brute force – then there’s this. What did his manager expect? Hot and fresh delivery falls apart when the mode of travel is heel-toe express!

When Ben returned to work a few days later, he received a warm “welcome back” write-up and was informed that future time-off requests would be denied.

By all accounts, the situation was infuriating.  I wanted to direct my wrath at the manager, but my Deming brain knows the source of the behavior likely comes from something much more powerful – the corporate belief system.

Let’s assume this manager is passionate about helping people get food – that is a powerful vision. As laudable as that might be, his vision might become misguided when put in the context of looming natural disaster. One could argue that the manager’s highest priority be his responsibility to the staff and their safety.  At that point, it would be up to each employee to decide whether to evacuate or stay.  Naturally some would stay and work, guided by intrinsic motivation; others would listen to their mothers and get out of harm’s way.

So I wondered…why would the manager feel okay about risking the safety of his employees to make a few extra bucks?

I’ll likely never know the answer, but I suspect something in the corporate system drives this behavior – a carrot, such as a bonus plan; or a stick, such as a a penalty for closing early?

Writing up employees under such circumstances demonstrates how beliefs can extend to a ridiculous extreme. Command-and-control tactics strip integrity and dignity out of work – workers are left with drudgery.  The manager’s attempt to “punctuate” corporate’s threat with the “no gas is no excuse” line illustrates the the misguided management belief that people can be told what to do – and they will get it done – because they know management expects results no matter what.  When the tank is empty and the gas station is closed – brute force won’t make the car’s engine run.

A day or two after Irma left town, The Washington Post ran a story about Ben’s employer, the infamous memo, and the manager’s poor attempt to keep the doors open.  It’s difficult to know what the company will learn from this experience.  We, however, can use it to deliver a message about how to do things differently.

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