c. The Failure of Control Systems

The Failure of Control Systems


Control systems are a property that emerges with life. They do not appear in non-living things, except those created by mankind. Control systems co-ordinate the activities of the various specialised parts of an organism, or group of organisms, towards a common goal. However, because all systems comprise sub-systems, and those sub-systems, in turn, have control systems, there is a control hierarchy.

Due to the VUCA nature of the world, control systems must delegate if they are to be effective. If they do so, this enables the organism or group to deal with complexity. The information on which decisions are made is progressively simplified as it ascends the control hierarchy. Conversely, as instructions descend, the components of the organism or group increasingly interpret it.

If all decisions are centralised, then the larger the system, the less and more simplified the information on which a decision is based, and the greater the risk of error. Furthermore, as explained in a previous article, if decisions are made by trial and error, then only a single decision occurs rather than several. So, there is less likelihood of decisions being successful and of the system learning from its successes and failures.

In the case of human organisations, the control systems are management or government hierarchies. If there is no control system, then there is no organisation. So, the collapse of businesses, civilisations and nations is often due to the collapse of their managing or governing system. For example, an effective centralised state is necessary for a successful economy. It provides order, laws, mechanisms for resolving disputes, and basic public goods and services. Failed states, such as South Sudan and Somalia, have no central organisation or one which has no influence outside of the nation’s capital.

The Social Contract vs. The Personal Contract

The concept of the social contract is an ancient one. It was first described in the Greek philosopher Plato’s “Republic” in about 375 BC. The social contract is an explanation of the relationship between leaders and the led. In 1762, the French philosopher, Jean-Jaques Rousseau interpreted this relationship as one in which individuals are willing to give up some of their rights in the collective interest. They will, therefore, follow the instructions of a leader who acts in that collective interest.

On the other hand, as explained in previous articles, leaders can rise to power by delegating  benefits, such as power, wealth or status, to followers who support them. Leaders then use that support to gain benefits for themselves. This is a form of personal contract and is often how a leadership hierarchy develops.

In practical human affairs, there is an interplay between the social contract and the personal one. The actual motives of both leaders and followers lie somewhere on a scale between the two. The position on the scale varies from individual to individual. An organisation is also subject to this interplay. Individuals and other organisations will interact with it if this benefits them. However, they also expect the organisation to act in the collective interest. Again, the actual motive for interaction lies somewhere on a scale between the two.

Both leader-follower interactions and inter-organisational ones are a manifestation of our eusocial nature. This, in turn, is a consequence of evolution. We have evolved to optimise the satisfaction of our needs by balancing the immediate self-interest of the personal contract with the longer-term self-interest of the social contract. A more central and less extreme position is normally the optimum.

The balance point that defines actual behaviour is a consequence, in the case of individuals, of their personality, and in the case of organisations, of their culture. However, to a very large extent, the culture of an organisation is determined by its leaders, and so, individual personality is again the principal factor.

There is a relationship between the World Values Survey’s survival values and a tendency towards the social contract. For example, those with survival values are described as: tending “to seek strong authoritarian leadership to bind the community together into its survival endeavour”; as having a “tendency towards obedience of leaders”; and as having “a tendency towards conformity to group norms”. Thus, societies of this nature influence their members to favour the social contract. However, there does not appear to be a relationship between the World Values Survey’s self-expression values and either the personal or the social contract. Thus, societies of this nature do not influence their members one way or the other.

Trust is an important factor in deciding which leaders we will follow. We assess whether the leader will deliver on the social contract or personal contract. Trust or distrust is based on experience but can be passed from one individual, group, or generation to the next.

If a leader cannot be trusted to deliver on the social contract, and there is no personal benefit for the follower, then the follower will not support that leader. If there are no leaders who can be trusted to deliver on the social contract, then the best option for a follower is to support one who can be trusted to deliver on the personal contract.

Unfortunately, leaders will often feign a focus on the social contract. This is particularly the case in democracies and pseudo-democracies where popular support is needed. Much effort is put into public relations. A follower can, therefore, find himself following a leader who provides no personal or social benefits. Press scrutiny has an important role to play in challenging such leaders. However, the press can also enter into personal contracts with the leader or be coerced into silence.

The social contract becomes more important as society grows ever more complex, and we become ever more dependent on one another. However, the personal contract is far easier to monitor and many of us have a natural leaning in that direction. In extreme cases it entirely trumps the social contract.

So, to improve leadership and avoid the failure of human organisations, it is necessary for:

a) potential followers to focus on the social contract in deciding which leaders to support and what organisations to interact with; and

b) potential leaders to focus on improving followers’ trust that they will deliver against the social contract.