What Great Bosses Know about Top-Down Management

I’m not a fan of the “top-down” or “command-and-control” management style — except when it’s perfect for the occasion.

That’s why it’s important to know the limited circumstances when “I’m the boss, do exactly what I tell you” is the best approach. There are five key times, and we’ll identify them.

First, let’s understand why top-down management is usually damaging to staff, to quality and to your reputation as a manager.

Top-down management presumes that only the boss has the right answers. It vests power in the hands of people with titles and demands unquestioning compliance from people without them.

It’s rooted in what psychologist Douglas McGregor called Theory X. That’s a management belief that employees are born slackers and need strict supervision. Compare that to Theory Y, which says that work is a natural part of life, employees generally want to do well, and they do better when they’re encouraged and involved in decisions about their work and workplace.

Top-down bosses deny people that input, and this kills intrinsic motivation. People don’t self-start, they just wait for orders. They feel micromanaged and untrusted. As the authors of “Why Your Employees Are Losing Motivation” point out:

“Incorporating a command-and-control style is a sure-fire path to demotivation. Instead, redefine your primary role as serving as your employees’ expediter: It is your job to facilitate getting their jobs done.”

So, down with top-down! Unless it’s really needed, and sometimes it is.

There are times when the person in charge should grab control. The trick is to know when and why; to do it intentionally, not erratically; and to do it in a way that people appreciate — with clarity, calm and character.

Here are five key scenarios:

  • The situation is urgent and the manager has a high level of expertise.
A decision is needed immediately about a breaking opportunity or challenge. Taking time to gather input would be counterproductive. The boss has a good grasp of the issues and, in making the decision, won’t be stunned by unintended or unexpected consequences.
  • People are in conflict and unwilling or unable to resolve matters themselves.
Great bosses coach their staff to resolve conflicts at the lowest possible level. But when they don’t, the supervisor has to make a call. If a boss has to do this too often, it’s a sign of weak leadership — a “wait until your mom/dad gets home” kind of culture fostered by the boss.
  • People are tired or frightened and need an executive decision to empower them.
The journalism example of this comes in breaking news situations. Everyone on the team rushes in when the Big Story breaks and works until exhaustion. Strong leaders know when to order someone to go home and come back rested so the team has strength for the long haul.

Such leaders also know when a team is demoralized by a setback of some sort and need a confident, unequivocal call to action that says, “Do this now. I believe in you.”

  • The decision carries a high degree of risk for the decision-maker.
Sometimes bosses need to make a call that involves major expense, bending the rules or trying an unorthodox approach. It could work well or it might backfire big time. Great bosses don’t delegate decisions that could harm the decision-maker. They assume the risk themselves.
  • The manager is confronting a truly bad opponent.
Every now and then, you have to punch a bully in the nose, so to speak. It stops the bully and sends a clear message to everyone who witnesses it. The bully may be someone in your organization or some type of competitive or external threat.

You may be an even-tempered team builder of a boss and darn proud of it. That doesn’t mean you don’t know how to turn up the heat. Your good emotional intelligence helps you read a situation and know that the best thing you can do is look the problem person in the eye, demand compliance and not back down.

Leadership styles are like dance steps. If you know only one set of moves, you risk being out of step with the music of the moment. Great bosses know when to stomp and when to soft-shoe.

Great bosses also understand that when they shift into top-down mode, they need to follow up. I’ll tell you what you need to do after a command performance in today’s podcast: What Great Bosses Know about Top-Down Management.

Poynter’s “What Great Bosses Know” podcast is sponsored by The City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. You can download a complete series of these podcasts free on iTunes U. Poynter’s leadership and management expert Jill Geisler shares practical information on leadership and management that’s valuable for bosses in newsrooms and all walks of life.

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