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Leader's Edge Lose Control

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.

By  Julia Kramer

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 lose control.

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 encounter.

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 the process.

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.


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Got a human resources problem you can?t resolve? Ask our HR guru Julia Kramer, SPHR, how to handle those sticky personnel issues everyone wants to avoid.