In work cultures where control is highly valued, sometimes the control regime starts when the business was initially established, but more often it happens when the organization enters into growth mode and the previously loose structure needs to be tightened in order for the business to leave survival mode and grow. The intent behind implementing controls and structures is usually to facilitate growth standardize practices, minimize errors, and create efficiencies.

On the spectrum of control, I have encountered organizations that have little to no controls. When they don’t add sufficient structures during the growth phase, sometimes the business does not survive. In other cases, it cannot grow to its fullest potential.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are businesses that are extreme with controls. Whenever these organizations encounter a situation it hadn’t before it is memorialized as a policy. Sometimes the policies are so granular, they don’t facilitate the development of the executive or management team because it takes away their discretion, disallowing the evolution of their critical thinking skills.

When control is the order of the day, decision-making is centralized, homogeneity is expected and reward systems, both formal and informal, recognize conformity. Some highly controlled work environments are quite punitive with thinly veiled and overt threats used when conformity with the established controls is not evident.

Controls come in a variety of forms. Centralized decision making, a punitive environment and granular policies are only three indicators. When the organizational structure is hierarchical, controlled environments can be bureaucratic, adding excessive layers to processes. When environments are punitive, and fear is the motivator for performance, managers resist making decisions because the culture demonstrates little to no tolerance for errors. Therefore, in situations like this, you can find highly qualified managers with underdeveloped decision-making skills.

There are numerous points on the continuum of control where innovation and control can coexist. When control is the only or highest priority, managers are questioned on their decisions, sometimes they are even questioned for following the policies. I know this sounds counterintuitive but it happens in environments that have formal and informal polices that contradict each other.

In highly controlled environments, many aspects of culture have control features so managers are not only order takers they are also order givers. They are operatives who are expected to pass along directives. They limit upward communication or feedback because they don’t want to be seen as questioning directives. The challenge with this is that these organizations can demonstrate strong growth trends especially if the business model is difficult to replicate, but over time, low trust and underdeveloped innovation skills will begin to limit growth.

In highly controlled cultures, micromanagement is the result of direct interpersonal communication, the voices in people’s heads, and granular policies and procedures supported by a culture norm that does not tolerate divergence. Another challenge is that when the time comes for a highly controlled business to demonstrate innovation and agility, it may not be able to move fast enough because the psyche of the entire team is conditioned to remain within the proverbial nine dots.

When strategic decision-makers set a new course for culture, training, in isolation, is not enough. This is because typically, the new skills will not be sustained within a culture that rewards conformity with the control design. Therefore a multi-pronged approach needs to happen. The first step is to envision the desired culture. One that is needed to support the development of managers and evolution of the business.

The next step is to design that culture, from the top down, looking at the organizational structure, delegating decision making authority, revisiting policies and standard operating procedures. It also requires taking a look at the internal audit function to understand how it contributes to a climate of fear that leads to conformism.

Does the audit function support the business by generating fear, or does it drive higher performance through a more collaborative model? The organization also has to ask itself if the right executives are in place for the change. Are they able to demonstrate and sustain the new behaviours?

Any part of the culture that contradicts the new direction can compromise a cultural change initiative. This can lead to failed implementation if there isn’t a system in place to identify and communicate these contradictions and address them as they arise. There also needs to be enough trust built in order for persons to be willing to go out on a limb and say that something isn’t working as intended. They need to trust that they will not a labelled as “Not being a team player” by identifying challenges or gaps with the implementation process.

Training is an important part of the cultural change process, but it should not be the first and only step. Before determining the right timing for training there needs to be assignment of accountabilities to planned changes by modifying job descriptions, performance expectations, and delegated authorities. In this way, executives and senior leaders can demonstrate new behaviors and employees can start to trust that fact that the organization would like to implement authentic change.

Author's Bio: 

Yvette Bethel is CEO of Organizational Soul, an Organizational Effectiveness Consulting and Leadership Development company. She is a Consultant, Trainer, Speaker, Facilitator, Executive Coach, Author, and Emotional Intelligence Practitioner. If you are interested Yvette's ideas on other leadership topics you can sign up for her newsletter at or you can listen to her podcast at Evolve Podcast.