Why less central control is more, when it comes to improving performance

Have you ever said to yourself “The amount of control in this organisation is crazy”.  I have heard this from many managers at all levels of organisations. It often stems from a severe frustration at what appears to be unnecessary and inappropriate rules and restraints that prevent or delay practical decision-making.Silos1

In many cases these restraints are initially well meaning and are intended to provide assurance of integrity of decisions or due process. In other cases they may be designed to ensure that a specific outcome is achieved and not prejudiced by ill-disciplined actions.

Unfortunately the designers of these strict controls do not always appreciate the side-effects produced by their creations. I have seen numerous organisations whose websites and company publications extol values of employee empowerment, self-actualisation, team-based environments and the like. Behind this facade however is often an organisation that is highly centralised in its decision making, rule-based, silo structured and un-progressive in both managerial philosophy and operational effectiveness.

Central control did not enhance productivity in Post War Eastern Europe

IronCurtain1I am currently reading a most engrossing book called the Iron Curtain  The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum which recounts the effects on the Eastern European countries like Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and of course East Germany following their liberation by the Red Army at the close of World War II. Much of the book concentrates on the highly repressive social and political controls imposed with the aim of bringing about societies aligned to the Soviet model. However some interesting sections of the writings provide insights into the macro organisational dynamics brought about by those seeking to create a Communist utopia through authoritarian control.

It was believed that as the Red Army drove out the occupying Germans from these countries there would be an uprising of workers who would willingly and popularly embrace Soviet principles. When this didn’t happen in the early post-war years the strategy adopted by the new occupiers was to bring about the same effect by more and more stringent central control. The utopian ideal however was never realised and both the social and economic living standards of those behind the Iron Curtain continued to be vastly inferior to their counterparts in the West.

Behind the ideological fervour and hatred of capitalism as an exploiter of labour, those in control had to admit that there was something in the Western model of employer / employee relationships that didn’t provoke violent revolution among the workers and in fact produced for them better standards of living as well as higher productivity for the capitalists.

What was missing from the Soviet system were the important ingredients to both employment satisfaction and productivity, namely  – initiative, innovation, incentive and independence of thought.

Modern organisations still suffer from Control Mentality

Curiously in a less obvious and less draconian way this concept, that central control of itself will bring about higher productivity, is still embraced in some organisations today. The results are seen in complex procedures, bureaucratic processes, delays in service and circular decision-making.

Where employees are not encouraged or permitted to think or act independently of centralised control there will always be a constraint on new ideas and options for improvement or the exploration of better ways of doing things. Fear of being criticised or persecuted for doing something new or outside the square will always discourage innovation and initiative.

berlin wallThe ability for staff to question rules and procedures that seem inefficient is necessary to allow an organisation to adapt and evolve and for creative solutions to emerge. Obviously, order and quality assurance are important and necessary but flexibility and the search for continuous improvement are also to be highly valued.

The good news is that every organisation has its share of creative and entrepreneurial souls who will continue to buck the system and chip away at their own Berlin Wall to allow new ideas and performance improvement to break out. These people should be encouraged and supported rather than shackled with red tape and threatened with banishment to the Gulag of “You are not paid to think!“.

Managers at all levels can help this urge for greater freedom by encouraging open discussion about how things are currently done and how they might be done better, and by being wiling to advocate to senior management on behalf of suggestions that chalenge traditional operational paradigms.

Join our newsletter

We won’t spam you, you will receive regular updates on relevant topics. 

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.