Control Freak or Management Ain’t What It Used To Be

First appeared in ‘CIO’ (U.K.)

Over the past decade this lack of control seems to have become the factor in causing stress across management – maybe it always was this way but I just didn’t recognise it. It inevitably involves people. It is so much easier (well relatively) to manage budgets, security and infrastructure.

People though tend to be a bit like you and me – odd, quirky. There was a time when managers, or anyone in authority, said ‘jump’ and the likes of you and me would jump as high as possible (I was never one of the crazy breed that would answer back with ‘how high?’). What happens now though if you say ‘jump’? You get…
“Has this been agreed by the health and safety jump subcommittee?”
“Is this on my performance evaluation?”
“Piss off!”
There may be others that would ask: “What are you trying to achieve by this ‘jumping’ exercise? Let’s look at the outputs and the process.” You may even get a better way of achieving your objectives in this ongoing ‘jump’ scenario.

The trouble is you just don’t know what the response will be. It’s a bit like waiting for a bus – it’s frustrating because your destiny is in the hands of someone else. You have no control over it. How did this happen in the workplace? Surely as you gain more experience, you get better and have more control, not less? Unfortunately not.

I had a colleague who was a superb manager. He worked 14 hours a day, led by example, took pride in never asking anyone to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. However, he couldn’t progress beyond middle management. Finally someone told him why. “You’ve got to let go and get others to do the work for you. There’s only so much work you can physically do yourself.” He came to the painful realisation that he had to trust people.

The first step in learning to adapt to this is to accept that it’s true. It’s what management really is – there’s a clue in the word.

It’s a bit like being a doctor and complaining about only seeing sick people. As a manager you only deal with people and people are a mess of frustrations, inhibitions and vulnerabilities.

You have to learn to give up control and trust people. In practical terms this will mean they make mistakes. This is the heart of the problem, I think. Underneath do you think that you’re perfect? Perhaps not. Better than others? Well there may be some of that. The bottom-line is it’s not a ‘hands on’ job any longer. When you were a young, enthusiastic programmer you were in control. You could stay and finish some coding if you wanted. If you were really enthusiastic you would stay all night until it was tested and complete. Now, as a leader, what do you say to engender that enthusiasm into your team?

“There aren’t enough hours in the day for you to do or check everything. So, take a deep breath and let go”

People like to be trusted. They work better and produce more when they are. It’s not easy, of course, especially in the early stages when you hardly know the new people. But, you really haven’t much choice. There aren’t enough hours in the day for you to do or check everything. So, take a deep breath and let go.

This doesn’t mean anarchy. This means a sensible discussion about limits and outputs. You agree the outputs, the parameters, cost and timeframe. From then on it’s a matter of staying away. The biggest challenge will come with the first mistake they make – and you know they will make a first mistake.

If you’ve discussed this with them you will have said all the right things about it being ‘a learning process’ and told them when it happens, ‘to come and see me and we’ll talk about it’. However, that first mistake will be a big one, at the wrong time and they won’t come to you until the last possible minute. The whole team will be looking at how you deal with this. Take another deep breath and do the right things. One false move here and the next mistake will be hidden for longer and will be more damaging. In some respects this is the difference between changing from a manager to a leader. To quote Bill O’Brien: “The problem with managers is that they’re always pulling up the radishes to see how well they’re growing.”


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