Relaying Top-Down Decisions: The Command-and-Control Style

By Dawna Jones

Decisions made at the top of the organization set direction and guide goal setting. These decisions tell staff and customers what is important to the business and what it means to them. As a result, the way decisions on direction and goals are communicated sets the tone for how the goal gets achieved and whether people do their part out of obligation or enthusiasm.

In a classic command-and-control management style, decisions get relayed down the organizational layers, with each layer receiving its mandate from the layer above. To the line-worker, the decision comes from the supervisor; to the middle manager, it comes from a director; and so on up the lines of authority.

Here are some typical scenarios and dynamics characterizing top-down decisions:

  • When something goes awry, people tend to blame the person at the higher level. The blame game creates a gap between we and they. It’s a critical organizational challenge for many companies, including small ones. How you engage others and make your decisions can help achieve collaboration.

    What you can do: Promote early engagement across functional expertise and among those involved in creating and communicating a decision. Doing so sends the message that you recognize the value these folks bring to the table.

  • Because decisions can feel imposed, many employees are left with the impression that they have no control. Management that micromanages staff tends to overlook or disregard creative ideas. In the end, employees become passive, waiting to be told what to do because it’s less risky.

    What you can do: Although individual employees may not be able to influence what the decision is, they can directly influence how it is delivered. When management focuses on what needs to be accomplished, staff can add ideas and shape the outcome in those places where the decision and action steps are less defined.

  • The workplace environment becomes internally competitive, and business units may not talk to each other enough to facilitate exchange of expertise or experience. This situation typically occurs when working relationships are excessively controlled. Business units are organized vertically — with the effect that silos, rather than cross-team interaction, form.

    What you can do: Open lines of communication and work to break down the walls. To facilitate sharing of key information, identify and eliminate procedures and measures that block information exchange and collaboration. Effective communication of decisions conveys expectations; then throughout implementation, it relays how things are working at an operational level, for example, or shares customer input.

Top-down decision-making is a high-risk management style in dynamically changing business environments. Top-down decisions require buy-in. Buy-in means that a decision is being sold or told. In other words, the decision is being imposed, and support must be gained through coercion or influence.

The result? A lot of effort expended on convincing others that the decision is a good one. Without buy-in, you end up with lack of commitment, inaction, or, in the worst cases, sabotage. If you don’t achieve buy-in, the real problem isn’t whether the decision is a bad one, although it may be, but that employees weren’t engaged in shaping the implementation or adapting the decision to fit day-to-day realities.

People have creative talent, and they want to use it. Providing them with the opportunity to do so is just plain smart.