The Power of Control: Secret Weapon of The Super Villain and The Manager

evil vs good

In my short yet eventful career so far, I think back to the many differing and interesting managers I have had the pleasure (and pain) of working with. I think we all have experience of both. Ultimately, managers and the wider culture within which they operate have a large impact on our experiences of a workplace. I remember a particular case (naming no names) where my entire team was given an exact, action by action work schedule to follow every single day. We were told exactly how to follow this through, because of course the manager’s way was the best and most efficient way, and we should therefore be grateful to them as they took away the ‘laborious’ and ‘painstaking’ process of decision making. Every single day the same task, using the same skills, in the exact same way, in the exact same order – arbitrary rigidity. This to me describes the lack of control that many workers experience when being supervised by the notorious micro-manager. I would hope that this kind of Taylorist manufacturing approach to management would and could not be applied to the service industries. However, I have also had a number of empowering managers. As long as the output quality was high, they were happy for me to work on projects how I choose to (method), prioritising as I saw fit (schedule) and using whatever means desired to complete them (within reason) to the highest standards expected of me. The flexibility and appreciation of individuality was apparent, which with the combination of consistently high quality feedback, fine-tuned my job performance. Thus, this common example demonstrates exactly how much power a manager yields in how they expect their team to work. But, if my anecdotal evidence is not enough, let’s turn to the theory and empirical evidence to see if there is anything to ‘job/work redesign’.

Focussing on job control, Karasek’s classic Job Demand and Control model (1979), dictates that high levels of control and demand can lead to high motivation, learning and hence performance (active quadrant) whereas low control and high demand leads to risk of psychological strain and physical illness (strain quadrant). Going a step further, the seminal motivation theory entitled the Job Characteristics model by Oldham and Hackman (1975, 1976) was revamped by Humprey et al (2007) to address the many factors in job design, which ultimately influence work outcomes. This model identifies motivational characteristics such as ‘autonomy, work scheduling autonomy, work methods autonomy, decision making autonomy, skill variety, task variety’ amongst seven others. They also identify social characteristics such as feedback from others and social support and lastly, work context characteristics i.e. physical demands and ergonomics as all leading to three critical mediating psychological states. These states include ‘meaningfulness’ – a sense of purpose in work, ‘responsibility’- a sense of accountability and ‘knowledge of results’ – awareness of performance levels. It is through these critical states that strong levels of performance, satisfaction, well-being as well as reduced absenteeism and role ambiguity/conflict are achieved. The authors found good incremental validity for the social and work characteristics in explaining the variance of the outcomes. In other words, the social and work characterises, which they added to the model, influenced the achievement of many of the work outcomes, over and above the motivational characteristics, which had already been established by past research. Providing strong empirical support for the importance of job (re)design, Bond, Flaxman and Loivetter conducted a meta-analysis in 2006. Amongst many other results (including a case for better support, work relationships, well-designed roles, greater demands and more effective management) they found that greater control leads to better performance, performance ratings, less absenteeism and less turnover intentions.


Job characteristics model

At this year’s Health and Well-being Conference at the Birmingham NEC earlier this month, Professor Frank Bond spoke at length about the benefits of work redesign. He shared with us a real world example of a work redesign intervention at a large UK based bank (Bond, Flaxman & Bunce, 2008). They worked with call centre employees who entered customer information into computerised systems. The design of this quasi-experiment involved a survey before and after the intervention to measure work design aspects i.e. control, support, demands. The intervention consisted of Participatory Action Research (PAR), a collaborative process between the facilitators and the actual employees via a steering committee in order to identify specific problems of work design. The issues boiled down to a lack of control over the distribution of work within teams and a lack of quality, individual performance feedback and development. As a result of this discovery, the committee proposed that employees be given greater control over their daily and weekly work scheduling, as well as greater discretion over selection, timing and ordering of work tasks. Secondly, the committee recommended monthly team leader-team member one-to-ones in order to gain more consistent feedback. Again, this example highlights the important role that the manager plays in all of this. After the implementation of remedial changes, the follow up survey found impressive results. The intervention led to a significant decrease in mental distress and absenteeism which saved the company over £100,000 across 97 employees. To add to this, there was also steady buoyancy of motivation levels, whereas a control group saw a drop in motivation in the same period. The area of work redesign and this example in particular, provides a real life empirical anecdote, if such a thing exists, as to how one could make tangible changes which have a quick, demonstrable individual level and bottom line impact.

Just as the super villain has the power to take over the world when they control the masses, the manager has the power to reinvigorate, empower and motivate their team, when they hand them back control of their jobs. This passing of the torch, an act of trust and humility, will benefit the employees with better health and motivation, as well as the organisation with better productivity and profitability. The power of control – equally effective, whether it’s being used for bad or the greater good.

Raj Chopra – Follow me on Twitter @Raj_Glowatwork. Follow The Psychometrics Forum on Twitter @TPF_UK


Bond, F.W., Flaxman, P.E., & Bunce, D. (2008). The influence of psychological flexibility on work redesign: Mediated moderation of a work reorganization intervention. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 645-654.

Bond, F.W., Flaxman, P.E., Loivette, S. (2006). A business case for the Management standards for stress. Norwich, UK: Health & Safety Executive.

Hackman, J. R., & Oldham, G. R. (1975). Development of the Job Diagnostic Survey. Journal of Applied Psychology, 60, 159–170.

Hackman, J. R., & Oldham, G. R. (1976). Motivation through the design of work: Test of a theory. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 16, 250–279.

Karasek, R. A. (1979). Job demands, job decision latitude, and mental strain: Implications for job redesign. Administrative Science Quarterly, 24, 285–308.