Indirect Control: The Future of Management? - Ideas for Leaders
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Indirect Control: The Future of Management?

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Management models are often seen as falling into one of two camps: command and control or the more laissez-faire, participative variety. But this is a false dichotomy. Successful managers and leaders today combine elements of both — in the ratio that’s right for them and their organizations. They offer autonomy and ‘self-actualisation’ but they do so in a clear and conscious ‘frame’ that reflects their sector and circumstances — and the preferences and skills of their employees. 


Executives and managers are inundated with management theories, philosophies and models, many of which offer contradictory advice. One dilemma they face is whether to grant employees autonomy or to use control to guide their performance.

Both approaches have their merits. Autonomy and independence are important for employee engagement and, by extension, ‘discretionary effort’, productivity and innovation. Control and supervision, on the other hand, are important for a well-focused and goal-driven workforce and, crucially, the management of risk.

But it’s not a question of making a ‘once and for all’ or an ‘either or’ choice. It is more a question of adopting a ‘paradoxical lens’ and managing the contradiction that autonomy and control can be interdependent. (The more you empower employees, the more, for example, you might need to make sure core processes and controls are ‘tight’.)

Recent qualitative research from the Gordon Institute of Business Science suggests that successful leaders and managers navigate between the two contrasting approaches and blend elements of both.

The researchers interviewed 16 leading South African management and human resource experts in depth — and all 16 said that, in the majority of cases, autonomy and control should co-exist and that ‘balancing the right combinations’ was essential for ensuring high performance and creating competitive advantage. Several felt that neither exclusive autonomy nor exclusive control was sustainable in the long term. (The former was felt to be too risky, the latter too ‘creatively’ restrictive.)

Oscillating between autonomy and control can be particularly relevant in today’s complex business environment where uncertainty and ambiguity demand a ‘dynamic equilibrium’.

But what do successful combinations ‘look like’?

According to the study, they can be categorised as ‘indirect control’, models in which the culture of the organization creates the guiding principles and framework and ‘aligns’ employees with overall goals and objectives.

The research further identifies 17 key influences on degrees of autonomy and control and the ways they might combine. Divided into organizational factors, managerial factors and employee factors, these include:

  • The socio-political context: more ‘open’ and democratic societies might tend to foster a more empowering business culture.
  • The regulatory climate: government policies and rules might increase the need for managerial control.
  • The structure of the organization: hierarchies will encourage command and control — and might prevent managers moving towards more participative styles.
  • The sector the business works in: a creative industry is more likely to have low levels of control and high levels of autonomy than a sector such as banking.
  • Technology: greater levels of autonomy can be achieved if a company has systems that allow managers to track day-to-day operations and results. (Technology, in other words, can enable the ‘remote control’ revolution.)
  • The size and the maturity of the business: it’s easier for a smaller, more entrepreneurial business to offer autonomy; the demand for control grows with size.
  • The personalities of managers and employees: ‘trait-like tendencies’ may incline people more towards one style than another.
  • The competence of employees — and the degree of trust between them and their managers.
  • The age of managers and employees: baby boomers are more likely to be used to hierarchical ‘top-down’ organizations; the X and Y generation are more likely to expect freedom and autonomy.
  • Learning and development: companies that invest time and effort in developing their staff will find that their managers are able to give their employees more freedom.


How can organizations move towards a balanced approach? How can they seek to influence the level of autonomy and control?

Several measures can be inferred from the research. These include:

  • Making sure employees have a good understanding of expectations and ‘parameters’ and company values. (Indirect control does not mean prescriptive rules and policies, but it does mean clear, unambiguous communication; employees respond positively when given freedom within a well-understood brief.)
  • Making sure there are the processes and systems to enable and support innovation and experimentation. (The self-empowerment of employees depends on some stability at the core of the organization.)
  • Introducing a performance management system that allows managers to monitor outputs without imposing tight controls. (Kaplan and Norton’s balanced scorecard is one such.)
  • Investing in effective training and mentoring: the better ‘prepared’ employees are, the stronger the framework for autonomy.

Conscious efforts can be made to create a defined structure that combines ‘opposing forces’ and leads to opportunities for competitive advantage. It is important to remember, though, that the right combination of autonomy and control varies not only by sector but also by situation. Successful managers will experiment with different combinations in different circumstances: the equilibrium needs to be ‘dynamic’.



The paradox of managing autonomy and control: an exploratory study. G. Gilbert & M. Sutherland. South African Journal of Business Management (March 2013).

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Idea conceived

March 1, 2013

Idea posted

Dec 2013
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