Ironically, you’ve got to lose
it to gain it. If you don’t understand that, then
you’re not in control in the first place.
In some circumstances, losing control has dire consequences.
A distracted driver loses control of her vehicle and crashes it
into a crowd of pedestrians. An exasperated parent loses
control of his emotions and lets fly an angry and hurtful
tirade. A manager loses control of his schedule and is unable
to meet the demands of his colleagues and clients.
In each instance, the individual had command of the
situation at some point—either self-control or physical
control—and lost it. But in many other circumstances,
“losing control” is a misnomer. The phrase implies
there was control in the first place, but in much of life,
especially when it comes to organizations and the people who
work in them, control is just an illusion.
The illusion plays out in varying degrees and in countless
workplaces around the globe. Leaders, executives, managers and
supervisors think they can and should control the behavior,
performance, motivation or morale of other people, thereby
setting themselves up for frustration and possibly even overt
failure. Those enlightened few who acknowledge that human
beings cannot be controlled and
be happy and productive in their jobs are way ahead of those
for whom control is a fixation and an end unto itself. They
understand that in order to gain “control” (defined
now in a positive way, as the ability to influence others to
follow a desired path or behave in a desired fashion) one must
Losing control to gain control is not a passive exercise.
It’s not about throwing up your hands and eschewing
responsibility for a person, a group or a situation. Instead,
it involves introspective thought and open-minded engagement
with your employees. The following suggestions should help you
feel more in command of yourself and the situations you
Define and understand the need
to control. Ask yourself what fears, anxieties and insecurities
are affecting your ability to let people think and work more
autonomously. Are you worried that your staff’s quality
of work will deteriorate if you’re not intimately
involved in every move? Or are you worried that you won’t
get credit for their jobs well done? Most managers worry about
the quality of work produced by their staff, but controlling or
insecure managers might also steal their staff’s thunder
and/or resort to denigrating their employees in a misguided
effort to move the spotlight from the staff back to them.
Take a hard look at your behavior over the past month. In
that time, have you taken credit for another’s good idea
or success? Have you bad-mouthed or poked fun at a key
contributor? If the answer to either question is yes, try to
figure out what you are afraid of or anxious about and how to
respond differently next time. Know that by working against
your employees to gain control, you’ve not only lost
control but have probably also lost respect and credibility in
Set priorities to decide when
a dose of control is necessary and when you should let go of
the reins. Resorting to a top-down approach in an emergency
might be appropriate. That’s when your staff is looking
for you to assert your authority. Of course, if you are in
control, you will also be primarily accountable for decisions
made without conferring with others—the price many
leaders pay in a crisis. In less acute situations, engage your
staff and let them be part of discussions, decisions and
setting direction. Invite employees to join the debate, ask
them questions and then really listen to them.
Your first step in the right direction may be to limit the
scope of what you hand over. For example, if you know you are
headed to the top of the mountain and are pretty sure about the
safest and fastest route, present several ways to get there to
your staff. Review the relative merits of each option, and
listen to their responses with an open mind and without
judgment. I would bet that you’ll reach your mountaintop
goal—maybe in exactly the way you envisioned it. But you
might reach it faster, and in better shape, with the support
and cooperation of those you depend on day-in and day-out to
get the job done.
No matter what your title or your position, other people and
their behavior are not under your control. But you can control
your own motives and actions. Understand what drives your
behavior and lose the need to control, because losing it,
ironically, is the surest way to gain the level of influence
you need to lead your organization.
KRAMER IS THE COUNCIL’S SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT,
LEADERSHIP & MANAGEMENT RESOURCES.