Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Trouble with Control

Guest post by Jen Shirkani:

I write about the damage done when, as leaders, we don’t fully allow employees to have control over their tasks, projects or budgets. Everyone I know says they hate being micromanaged, and we certainly don’t want to list “control freak” as a skill to be endorsed for on our LinkedIn profile page. Yet, there are signs of low trust/high control managers everywhere. But no one will admit to being one of them.  

And it’s not just the nemesis of new, inexperience managers who are nervous and learning to use their delegation skills. It plagues leaders from the top to the bottom of an organization: new leaders, old leaders, promoted from within, hired from the outside. And the list of reasons to stay involved in the nitty gritty details goes something like this:

·       “I am not telling them how to do it, just what they need to do.”

·       “It’s faster for me to do it myself.”

·       “I’m role modeling how to do it so they know what to do next time.”

·       “The stakes are too high for this to fail, I need to be involved to protect my team.”

·       “I am not above doing the dirty work alongside you. I am just being a servant leader.”

Many of these leaders are well intentioned, they do just want to help their direct reports or expedite progress toward a goal. But too often, it just gums up the works as things grind to halt waiting for executive review. One common issue is the senior leader who wants to approve every new hire. And we are not talking small companies who hire less than ten people a year. This is practice at many large organizations who have to review thousands of resumes. And really, without interviewing the candidate yourself, or knowing the ins and outs of every job in every department in a large company, do you really think you know who the best candidate for the job will be? C’mon. 

The other negative consequence I see is the cycle of control feeding control. Assume that I am a very well-meaning leader who stays involved to help teach, coach or provide ground cover for my employee. I am a good person, so when I make choices for another I also have a conscience that goes along with it. I feel a responsibility to them and the choice I helped them make (that I know they will be directly affected by) successful. Which means if I will probably try and control it even more if I see them struggle or going off course. I justify this by saying, “The whole point of me being involved was for this to go well, I can’t let go of things now…” Of course, even with me involved it can still fail or not live up to our mutual expectations. But now, I have my ego to protect and you still need a positive example to learn from so I will just have to get more involved next time to make sure it goes how it needs to. Get it? We create our own cycle of dependency and involvement.

It won’t be easy, but you can learn to be a recovering micromanager. First work to recognize your instincts to get too deep in the weeds. Is this really something you should really be involved in? Is your involvement slowing things down? How will your next tier leaders get ready if you never let them feel both responsibility and accountability? Remember, it is very hard to hold someone else accountable to decisions you have been involved in. Next, read the environment. Are the risks of failure really that great? Are the people around you truly untrustworthy or is your own fear driving your behavior? Are there ways to stay informed without staying involved? Lastly, think back to when you were a new leader. Did you have all the answers before you tried something risky? Didn’t you have to learn from hardships and failure? Is it possible your team is capable and trustworthy even if they don’t approach things the same way you do?    

Hey, we have all been there, the desire to stay involved and in control is alluring. But just remember, all it does is tie you to dependent employees and stifles your organization’s ability to grow and be competitive.

About the author:
Jen Shirkani ( has over 20 years of experience as a learning and development specialist and coach. She routinely works with both executives from the Fortune 500 and principals in family-owned entities specializing in the application of Emotional Intelligence. She holds a Master’s Degree in Organizational Leadership.
She is the author of Ego vs. EQ: How Top Leaders Beat 8 Ego Traps Using Emotional Intelligence (  Drawing on real-life anecdotes from Jen’s years of coaching and consulting, Ego vs EQ provides research and case study examples in an easy to read, practical format and is ideal for anyone currently in an executive leadership role, including business owners, or those wanting to become a dynamic future leader.


Shane said...

Great article! Thank you for sharing

Unknown said...

This is a critical subject and I loved the way you unmasked the excuses we tell ourselves as leaders sometimes that we are micromanaging because we want to serve the team. I also loved the questions for recovery. It's in this self awareness and curiosity of one's leadership that we not only ask the hard questions but open ourselves the even harder answers. Thank you so much for sharing. I have shared this around so that we all benefit. Great article!

TimeClick said...

Interesting how the effort to improve performance can stifle it in the end by limiting creativity to your own.