May 28, 2019

The Command and Control Structure in Schools

What is the “command and control” structure of organizations and why is it bad for schools? Command and control is just what it sounds like. A command and control organization is based on superiors telling their subordinates what to do at all times. Words like empowerment are foreign to these types of organizations. As a matter of fact, empowerment is scary because you can’t control what happens when someone is empowered! Although there is always some command and control in all organizations, too much creates an atmosphere of fear and compliance. Let’s follow the good ol’ 80-20 rule…if you have 80% of your organization operating in a command and control fashion, it’s too much.

The command and control structure in a school setting is particularly harmful. First, schools must exemplify (through their practice) what it takes for learners to be successful in a post-industrial society. Critical thinking and collaboration are skills that transcend content and sets learners up for success. Watching their teachers take commands from administrators all of the time does not set a good example. It harkens back to Henry Ford’s factory floor where an entire system of management was created to prevent employees from deviating from what the company wanted them to do. Second, when compliance to rules becomes the focus of an organization, creativity and imagination are lost. The result, in schools, are uninspired lessons by teachers and draconian rules made by administrators. How can you tell if you work in a command and control school? If you hear a school administrator say any of the following more often than not, then you work in a command and control system.

Statement #1

“Policy 123.65 (or whatever other policy is relevant) forbids you from doing this”. Command and control leaders consistently fall back on policy to prevent innovation or justify their actions. They can tell you specific policy numbers because policies prop their command and control organizational structure. Any request that does not fit neatly into policy is therefore bad!

Statement #2

“I can fire you for this”. If you hear a school administrator say this more than once every two years, then they are in a command and control mindset. Reminding subordinates that they have power over you is a sure sign of an organization that is dominated by a command and control structure.

Statement #3

“You are not keeping pace on the curriculum”. This one drives me nuts. Let’s deconstruct this. The administrator is accusing a teacher of not being where the administrator thinks they should be on the progression along the curriculum. Notice, there is no mention of whether learning is taking place. A conversation centered on learning involves subtlety, nuance and courage. It is easy to accuse a teacher of not following the curriculum but difficult to learn why the teacher is at a certain point in the curriculum. A command and control conversation is like a hammer trying to make everything fit by smashing everything at once.

Statement #4

“You can’t do that because you did not fill out the appropriate paperwork”. Oh boy… A school leader steeped in the command and control style loves paperwork. Paperwork keeps people in line. Paperwork deflects blame. Paperwork discourages innovation. Making paperwork fulfillment an organizational priority stifles empowerment. I can actually envision a command and control leader creating a paperwork trail to approve innovation…what an oxymoron! Remember, some paperwork is necessary on organizations, but if you hear it used to prevent something from occurring, then it is purposefully put in place to keep someone in command.

Statement #5

“I am so busy”. No s*@t, all of us are busy. Using this quote as an excuse not to make a decision reflects a command and control orientation. Imagine a subordinate hearing this excuse so many times that they just give up engaging with their boss about anything important. A close corollary to this quote is, “I have to put out so many fires”. If you are the leader and you have to put out so many fires it is because your command and control system prevent your subordinates from making decisions.

Simple Advice for School Leaders

If you are a school leader, pay attention to your organizational mindset. If you find yourself saying these quotes too often, you need to change your mindset. Be courageous and engage with your staff. Trust them to create solutions to problems that you might not even know exist! Let go of some of your ego and enjoy your work. Trust me, keeping the command and control structure is exhausting…try something different!

About the author 

Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.

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