Jason, the head of a Canadian company, has a high need to influence and dominate others, finds little need to include other people in decisions, and is not interested in interpersonal connections with others in the office. His particular type of controlling personality has caused significant problems with his subordinates. One such subordinate says of Jason, “My fellow employees and I hate working for him. He never asks for our opinion or inputs, and never allows us to make decisions that de doesn’t carefully review. He is just too controlling.”
No one today would like to call himself a controlling leader. Control has acquired an unpleasant connotation in most organizations, at least in the sense of looking over people’s shoulders and micromanaging their work. Some managers attempt to be controlling for other reasons as well. For instance, they desire to respond to intense pressure for results, believing that the best way to get results is making sure everyone does what he is supposed to do. Others are trying to establish some predictability in a highly volatile environment; they are trying to control and slow things down because everything around them is moving at such a breakneck speed.
Many leaders find it unnatural to let go. They resist giving up even a small amount of control of those things they consider important for fear of what might happen: work will not get done on time, mistakes will be made, and the workplace will become chaotic. Control issues are almost always a concern in how a leader relates to his people.
Controls that focus on behaviors and aspects of relationships (such as checking and reporting) are the ones that today yield fewer results. On the other hand, controls that relate to performance outcomes produce the biggest results. Instead of concentrating on restricting employee behaviors, they establish an environment of performance accountability where everyone is aware of and committed to meeting certain standards. These standards are not arbitrary or absurdly ambitious but realistic and necessary; they must be met for the business unit to grow, thrive, or survive. To a certain extent, these standards direct the pace and quality of work.
Deciding factors. Now is the time for less rather than more controlling leadership. Attempting to clamp down on people is doomed to failure because of the futility of it in a complex environment. If you are skeptical about the need to give up some control, consider the following factors:
The frequency of matrix management. The majority of companies today rely on some form of matrix management, creating interdependencies among units in companies. Geography and product is one interdependency, and there are many others, including global and local interdependency, product development and marketing, and corporate and field. Given a matrix structure, where there are many gray areas with unclear authority and shared responsibility for outcomes, attempting to exert control is like trying to capture a drop of mercury-it’s just too difficult, if not impossible.
The rise of project teams. Andersen’s information technology group has six partner-leaders on three continents who manage teams with worldwide memberships. Project development might take place in Europe, systems development in the United States, and data processing in India. The job of these partner-leaders is to ensure people manage themselves as they promised rather than to manage each individual (an impossible task, given the geographical spread of a given team).
Greater reliance on alliances and partnerships. Because of a desire to share product development and marketing costs (as well as for other reasons), companies are forming joint venture partnerships that can be managed only through influence rather than control. The give-and-take and shared decision making necessary for joint ventures to succeed is antithetical to control. In fact, some companies have developed reputations as lousy partners because of controlling managers who attempt to dictate terms to their partners and generally act as if they control the alliance.
Reduced control. Speed limits opportunities to control. When a proposal has to be completed immediately, a customer has to be responded to instantly, or cycle time for product launch shortened dramatically, the chances to check and re-check are slim to none. People need autonomy and trust to act fast, and effective leaders give it to them.
The volatility of information. Information moves around while people stay still. People in a company have access to enormous amounts of controlled information quickly while sitting at their computer. When leaders attempt to control information or the communication of decisions, information tends to leak out faster today than ever before, primarily because of the Internet.
Critical steps. Learning to give up some control clearly requires dramatic behavioral changes. The objective is not to give up all control but find the sweet spot between the control necessary to meet organizational requirements and the autonomy people need to perform. A simpler way of looking at it is turning down a leader’s control thermostat a degree or two.