E-letter #9 - Control Isn't Even for the Birds
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E-letter #9 - Control Isn't Even for the Birds
Leadership in Action Series
Part 12: Control Isn't Even for the Birds
By Daniel Robin
This article series outlines a process for shifting away from the need to control and into guiding, organizing and structuring work so that the desired results are obtained with less effort and more reliably in the long-run. See the prior articles on this series at Leadership in Action.
Part 1: Letting Go Into Structure
Increasingly, smart leaders apply just enough energy or attention to facilitate a shift in the desired direction. Through harnessing organizational leverage points, designing and modeling healthy workplace culture, and “disturbing” systems so that they self-organize, the proverbial “all-win” situation is made manifest. No “control” necessary.
Conventional “control” is simply not the goal. Instead, consider building structures and collaborative systems that obviate the need for direct control. Not only are such approaches more energy efficient (less effort, greater impact) but they also happen to be more fun, effective and sustainable in the long run. For most of us, however, this form of “smart leadership” is neither familiar nor field-tested.
Tough question: if it’s so smart, why isn’t everybody doing it? Healthy skepticism about exerting less control is usually accompanied by the fundamental disbelief that an easier way could exist. There are three factors central to shifting the assumption that control is necessary:
- Recognition of how much “control” actually costs us,
- Realization that what’s familiar and habitual is certainly comfortable, but not necessarily smart, and
- Like anything new, successfully operating “out of control” takes willingness to experiment and practice.
The Two-edge Sword of Control
The word “control” has a dubious reputation. On the one hand, it is considered the high water mark of leadership to be “in control” (or at least to appear that way). The harsh reality of leadership, however, is that a business cannot be directed along a linear path. Never mind that hardly anybody likes to be “controlled” — to attempt to move in a straight line is like trying to teach a pig to sing: it wastes your time and greatly annoys the pig.
We each prefer a different amount of responsibility, authority, and control in our relationships. No two leaders are exactly alike (see our website for research from 26,000 individuals). But all of us have the tendency to use either too much or too little control as compensation for something else … for some, it’s a baseline fear that people won’t want to cooperate, or unconscious self-doubt or feelings of inadequacy, or other excuses or restrictions that we put on ourselves. This may inhibit our ability to relax, to guide not push, to have things flow easily rather than through force and pressure. With time, this racks up quite a bill in human wear and tear. What’s your tab?
Logical and Linear? It’s Not Even for the Birds!
Certainly, at times, we all crave clear direction, sharp decision-making, or a single-minded plan for “winning” in the marketplace. A startling shift in the assumptions that underpin leadership has caused business people to rethink how to best provide that direction, what decision making responsibility is optimal, and how we might re-vision “winning” as getting where we all would want to go – without knowing in advance exactly where that is or how to get there.
Surprisingly, even top-down organizations like the US Army have discovered this: operate more like an evolving, living system than a linear, logical, predicable machine. That same awareness has inspired major corporations to give up rigid control in favor of self-organizing and adaptive structures. Although this approach is consistent with “the way things are” (laws of nature), it feels quite unnatural at first to let go of anything – as traditional efforts to control and order things do serve a positive intention.
What Kind of Control Controls You?
If we describe control as “decision-making authority, ability to influence, ownership …” then most leaders would say it’s desirable. But when it comes to others exerting control over us, less than 14% of today’s workforce wants to be told what to do (and roughly one forth of these resent their dependency). The vast majority range from “rebels” (38%) to the more take-chargers (7%), self-confidents (10%), or narcissists (3%); the remaining 28% fall somewhere between rebels and zealots.
Given that so few people look to outside authority to shape their behavior, and traditional leaders often try to do exactly that, it’s no wonder there’s built-in tension and conflict between management and workers. The next article explores ways to bridge this gap while using the laws of nature to make better leaders in a better workplace.
Part 2: Control is Overrated
In the right context, control is a wonderful and admittedly rare thing. Have you ever had a boss that was right on top of the priority issues and neither accepted nor cast blame for the way things are; they could admit a mistake but also knew when to put down their foot, saying “enough is enough;” and they used their positional power in a way that commanded lasting respect? (If not, think about leaders like M. L. King, Jr., Gandhi, or the exact inverse of Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss).
What or who, exactly, was that boss controlling? You? Your peers? Others? Not likely. This person was in control of their own actions, urges, and ambition … responding, not reacting to change. Rolling with the unfolding plan ….
This process is not entirely unlike ocean surfing. You don’t get to tell the wave what to do; at best, you get to (a) pick the right wave, (b) handle yourself in a way so as not to drown in the forces already set in motion, and (c) enjoy the ride. Natural systems are a close analog to most organization in that they “happen” whether or not the executive leaders plan it that way. Sure, we have some control, but not nearly as much as many of us assume we do.
Controlling The Urge to Control
The thing is, nobody likes to be controlled; feeling corralled or “moved along” too forcefully brings up nearly everyone’s boundary and authority issues. We are not cattle. The “new deal” of leadership is about creating a context conducive to people and the organization itself getting what’s wanted without having to control those outcomes. Guide and help set direction, certainly, but don’t push the river. It’s a matter of respect, and happens to be what works.
Control of our own affairs, of our work and our life, is a highly desirable commodity; loss of control is considered a sign of weakness, defeat. We crave the feeling of being in charge, of being the “master of one’s destiny” able to powerfully influence our own success. But if we attempt to control others, they may reject our lead or rebel irrationally, simply because we didn’t give them a chance to “choose in” from their own authority.
Shared Power and Decision-making Authority
If you disagree with a decision, and you care enough to actually speak out, do your concerns get heard and acknowledged? Being taken seriously is something we earn through our actions, but wise leaders encourage feedback, invite differing views, ask pointed questions so they can make informed decisions.
When it’s best for one person to decide, an expert opinion is needed; is the person deciding truly the expert, or do they just feel strongly about the matter? If they’re controlling or dominating the decision inappropriately, failing to ask for help (some people are just used to flying solo and they literally forget to consult with others), it can damage relationships. If our attempts to persuade aren’t acknowledged, we’re likely to withdraw over time, and eventually we’ll learn how to not care.
No Involvement, No Commitment
Controlling and excluding others trains them to withhold what they know ... after being shut out once too often, the attitude becomes “If you’re so smart, you figure it out!” After all, we’re not just paid to show up, shut up, and work; each one of us has an independent will and unique vantage point. Value it.
Although there are times to avoid confronting an issue (when handling an emergency, when the situation is too hot to handle, …. ), more often, this lack of inclusion results in an undiscussable, lose-lose dynamic. That’s where others “cave in” to our leadership and demonstrate obedience and compliance rather than commitment to results.
Part 3 explores how to let go of the need to control, providing several tools that make it easier.
Part 3: Tools for Letting go of the Need to Control
As we’ve discussed, control is not a two-way street. On the one hand, everyone likes to feel that they are “in control,” in charge of their work life, masters of their own destiny. But few of us (less than 10%) like to be “controlled” by another person.
Indeed, for professionals, the ability to “control yourself” – organizing your day to meet complex challenges, letting an adversarial impulse pass, or refusing to let someone else push your buttons in the first place – is at once a virtue and a confidence booster. But trying to control others is a throwback to when “command & control” leadership was seen by employees as a sign of insecurity and “power tripping,” and praised by other managers as a sign of strength, order and discipline.
In today’s workplace, realizing that people cannot be “controlled” – at best they can be persuaded or guided – the need to control others is like an accident waiting to happen. With time, over-control leads to communication breakdowns, as “undiscussability” results when the person gets defensive or tries to control the conversation, virtually ensuring a lose-lose.
Controlling behavior includes being pushy and directive, ordering people around when there’s no real emergency, restricting other people’s choices arbitrarily, or covertly “manipulating” to get your way ... Anything that attempts to enforce “what I want, when and how I want it” as the one right way.
Are There Alternatives?
“A job needs to be done,” leaders often say, “I can’t just wait and see if it pleases my subordinates to show up for work and perform!” True, the opposite of control is not passivity, or pretending not to care. The best tools are self-organizing, collaborative. For example, to launch a project, conduct a “good faith” negotiation to discover (a) if there’s a clear and complete agreement about what’s wanted, (b) who is the right person for the job, and (c) what they might need or want to be successful. Then support, guide, and encourage peak performance. What’s control got to do with it?!
Once the basics are in place, when the guidelines and context are mutually understood, let the experiment unfold. See what emerges. That’s much less work than controlling and commanding to get a certain result. Do not accept “false responsibility” (more than your fair share) for obtaining those results. If you’ve co-created a healthy container for the work to be done, there’s a sense of “being in this together” that makes control the booby prize.
Stay out of the way of the experiment, then take time to review the results. You’ll never know their true capabilities if you constantly check. As the saying goes, you know you’re a micromanager when you “pull up the sod every day to see if there are roots yet.”
Questions Drive Results
The intention behind the controlling behavior is always positive: get a result, get the job done. To convert the overinvolved, overcaring behavior into a more workable approach, an excellent tool is simply to ask: “Could I let go of needing to control this situation?” and “What would happen if I did?” You are not asking “Could I let go of control?” This is about releasing just the perceived need to control. There’s no point in asking to let go of something with such a positive intention. It won’t happen. But the need to control, the energy-draining, white-knuckled grip is often optional.
If the person tries to control everything, then ask, “Could I let go of the need to control (in general)?” Or, “Could I initially let go of just 10% to see what happens?”
Collaborative leadership ultimately takes less time and yields better results than having to “run the show.” What are some of your favorite tools for making this transition from “control” to self-organizing “structure” at your workplace?
© 1997-2001 Daniel Robin & Associates; all rights reserved worldwide
I don't think I have a problem with control, but my colleagues see me as a bit of a control freak .... that I can't just let things be.
I'd back off more if they did better quality work, more consistently. I'm fine with mistakes; I just think they get careless ... Anyway, it doesn't quite seem to be working. They talk about unimportant issues with me but the truly signficant ones goes undiscussed.
Anybody have a similar situation? Ideas?
One person's control is another's chaos. Standards for appropriate and necessary degrees of control vary from person to person and workplace to workplace. It is better (and ultimately more enjoyable) to focus on structure and agreements instead. By structure I mean things like regular communication, having a project plan with a timeline, or tracking actions, productivity and issues. By agreements I mean this.
What you want to establish is a "new day" of open and honest exchange where people bringing in unpopular ideas are not put down or supressed. Instead, they are acknowledged for thinking creatively and demonstrating leadership. If you can install a non-judgemental and more open-minded attitude toward new ideas, tolerance and appreciation of other's perspective (even and especially if you don't happen to agree with it), then the message will get sent. Do this consistently over time and positive change will take hold.
What's worked so far?
Who has had a similar situation?
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