If you’re driving me down an icy country lane, I want you to be in control of the car to minimise the chance of my ending up in the ditch. There’s good control and bad control – or useful control and control which is counter productive. Useful control in a business will mean that targets, policies, processes and so on are in place and acted on successfully. But how does a leader exert control to ensure that this stays the case? What is the most effective way of the leader exercising this control?
This is a non-trivial question, because many bosses let the idea of controlling inanimate objects or controlling processes spill over into the idea of controlling the people who carry out the processes.
I once had a boss who wouldn’t let out of the door a proposal, or even a letter, I’d written before he had revised it half a dozen times. Often, by version six, we had reverted to version two.
How did I feel? Well, firstly, I felt my ability to write a paper wasn’t recognised, even though the boss couldn’t materially improve it. It’s important to see that controlling behaviour rarely results in any improvement in work.
Secondly, I lost all respect for the boss’s decision making skills. Such a boss effectively creates a situation in which everyone in the business doubts their decisions and actions.
Thirdly, my emotional state shifted to one of annoyance, resentment, and fault-finding. My willingness to go the extra mile evaporated, and my attitude became one of indifference verging on hostility. I daresay this came across to my colleagues and people outside the business.
So, in this (true) case, it is very important to see that the boss’s inability to let go of his need to control other people’s behaviour not only had not a single positive benefit to his business, it actually had a negative effect which, I am afraid, he reinforced daily.
I see this happening over and over again in small businesses. The reason for that is that part of the need to control is the need to validate an attachment to being right, and people who are strongly attached to being right are unlikely to welcome someone whose job it is to challenge them.
One client, though, did micromanage his team, to their irritation and for no good benefit. “How come you do this?” I asked. “Because I don’t trust them”, he replied straight away. Unwittingly, he had given not only the reason for his behaviour – but also the solution.
Whenever a boss tries to control an employee, it is because, on the surface, they fear the staff member will screw up and the business will be damaged. But underneath that – given the degree of identification which a business owner has with their business – the real fear is that the boss will be unable to cope with the consequences to him or her of the employee’s mistake.
Of course, there will be people who recognise they may be controlling but won’t accept my explanation. They will argue that their staff are, indeed, idiots; that, in fact, you can’t trust anybody to do anything; and, if you want something done properly, you’ve got to do it yourself. That may be true. It may be the boss has deliberately recruited staff who can’t do their job but whom they are unable to sack for some reason. Unlikely, though, I would say.
The reason why some bosses don’t see that their need to control staff arises from a fear that, when the staff do something wrong, the boss will get hurt, is because it is all going on subconsciously.
The solution is easy to describe. The solution is to trust the staff. Sack them if they don’t make mistakes. Because it is only by stretching themselves that people learn and develop. Businesses need confident, thriving, people who are proactive and innovative; who can anticipate problems the boss can’t see and then deal with them; and who are happy in their work and proud of the business. Businesses don’t need disgruntled people who have been pushed into an unhealthy dependence on the boss.
We believe that all problems began in the past. In other words, the reason a boss uses controlling behaviour which holds back a business originates from outside that business – it is almost certainly down to something that happened to them long ago. And without delving there, I just ask the question “what is the most useful thing you can do now for the benefit of the business, and why wouldn’t you do it?”
“Just try letting go. For a month – or even a week. Share with your staff that you recognise that this behaviour is unhelpful (after all it will hardly be a revelation to them) and ask for their help.” And, to the boss who has a problem with that, be curious as to why you do.
We always have a choice about how we behave, and I believe every boss has a duty to behave in the ways which will achieve the greatest success for their business. Trusting the people in the business to get it right most of the time, and knowing you can deal with it when they don’t, is the way to get the best from them.
by Jeremy Marchant . © 2013 Jeremy Marchant Limited . uploaded 5 march 2013 . image: Free images