THE LIMITS OF CONTROL

Regardless of the statistics indicating the safety of air travel, why do most of us remain a bit jittery during take-offs and landings? Why does almost any surgery involving anesthesia seem so scary? Why does driving in extremely heavy fog, or suddenly finding yourself on a stretch of black ice, immediately arouse a sense of panic?

Deeply imbedded in each of these scenarios is a sense of “loss of control” over outcomes and our fate. We humans never find comfort in such situations. The struggle to exert some personal control over our environment starts early in life and learning to master the challenge of exerting or surrendering control appropriate to life’s situations never ceases. For some this quest for mastery is harder than for others.

The management profession is a natural choice for many who enjoy the exercise of control over situations and the behavior of others. Moreover, the skillful exercise of management control in establishing a sense of direction and guidance, orienting employees to their roles and status, defining the behavioral norms of the organization, providing performance-relevant feedback, and resolving conflict are essential to organizational success.

But when does the exercise of control by managers – collectively or individually – cross the line into the realm of micromanaging and failures to delegate?

In an earlier blog entitled “The Mind-Set of a Manager” I discussed the balancing act all managers need to perform in deciding when to exert control and when to back off. I suggested that it helps to maintain that balance if a manager examines his or her motivation for taking charge to insure it serves a legitimate management, vice personal, psychological purpose.

Here, I wish to draw attention to the serious impact on subordinate behavior and organizational performance when a manager’s need for control gets out of control.

Few behaviors are as disempowering, demoralizing, frustrating, and likely to generate anger as a manager’s persistent, overweening meddling and insistence that everything get done his or her way. Resistance, at first, is common. But in time that resistance will give way either to serious subordinate under-performance or a workforce that votes with their feet. To try and convince yourself, as many of the worst micromanagers in my experience did, that you are getting the best out of your subordinates by tightly controlling everything is pure folly.

Over-controlled employees will invariably give less than their best. And a manager that spends most of his or her time attempting to control how their subordinates execute their tasks, will under-perform as a manager as well. This is not a pretty picture for the organization involved.

It is, of course, easier to talk and write about giving up control than to actually do it; and having an empowered workforce free to create, innovate, do things their way, and propel your organization forward means giving it up frequently. It also means accepting the inevitability of mistakes and failures for which you as the boss will be held to account.

In his book “The Future of Management”, author Gary Hamel discusses six human capabilities that correlate highly with the competitive success of an organization.  Three of  these capabilities — obedience, diligence, and intelligence — he argues, are essentially commodities that can routinely be supplied to almost any organization that possesses a robust and effective recruitment process.   However, the other three — initiative, creativity and passion — the capabilities Hamel and others believe most closely correlate with being an organization where everyone gives their best, can only emanate from a management-created work environment that encourages their expression.  This, notes Hamel, is not an environment characterized by too much management, too much hierarchy, and too little purpose (pp. 56-65).

The best managers understand that, above all else,  their job is to insure that their organization delivers the goods, whatever they may be. They also understand that it is their subordinates that must do the delivering not themselves.  Thus, with experience, the best managers come to grasp that the more control over others they surrender, the more control they gain to unleash those human capabilities within their subordinates necessary to ensure exceptional performance and success.

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