9 Reasons Control Is Bad

"Fifteen calls in the queue holding four minutes!" He would belt that out every ninety seconds or so. He was my manager at my first IT job. My job was helping customers. His job was reminding me. Never mind that my customer service rating was perfect for six months. My average call length was above threshold by a few seconds. Whatever-his-name-was kept reminding me. I left, doubled my salary, and launched my career. He probably hired someone who was better at following directions and wasn't so worked up about "happy customers."

For years I swore I would never get into management. Every new boss I encountered only bolstered my resolve. Management, including senior management, seemed to be about enforcing mediocrity. They did things like:

  • noticing what time people showed up to work
  • pouring over reports looking for potential 0.5% improvements
  • cracking the whip to make sure the hamsters run faster
  • pretending to be SMEs when lecturing actual SMEs

I did what any good engineer learns to do: I got important work done in spite of them. I built valuable relationships with business units. I avoided meetings, ignored pointless forms and procedures, and generally was a prima donna.

Well something happened. I went to work for Dan Case. (I talk more about Dan here.) Working for a leader made many things clear and forever altered the trajectory of my career. I've spent the ensuing time pondering and studying what makes great leaders, and in the process I've learned much about what makes bad managers. The bottom line is control. Leaders lead because they have followers. Managers control because they don't.

Here are seven reasons why control is bad for business:

1. Coercion versus inspiration. When you control your employees, you employ some degree of coercion. Coercion breeds fear. People who are afraid of you will not be inspired by you. They won't even be inspired in spite of you for very long. If you have to coerce people, either you have hired the wrong people or you are the wrong person.

2. Compliance versus excellence. To control your employees, you have to enforce arbitrary standards. Most employees will respond with compliance, not excellence. Excellence involves converting the unique skills, abilities, and passions of your employees into valuable contributions. In many cases these contributions cannot be measured by your standard. Employees who try to excel will either get into trouble or find their way out of your department.

3. Subservience over ownership. When you mandate someone's output in any fine degree, you strip them of ownership. Their job goes from challenging and engaging to perfunctory and uninteresting. You lose their innovative and creative potential as a result.

4. Conformity over spontaneity and intuition. When the "right way" is set in stone, a feedback loop is erected. People will focus on "doing it right." "Aha!" moments will go unharvested because there is no benefit, and perhaps some risk, in pursuing them.

5. Statistics versus value. I once met with a CFO who was unhappy. He had lost money and IT was arguably responsible. We showed him a network SLA report with 4 nines. He said, "Bull. You're lucky if you have 80% uptime." Of course that statement is absurd. So what?. You can't prove to the company that they like you using charts. Attention CIOs: you don't need SLA reports. There is no such thing as statistical happiness. You need one question in a management survey:

"How would you feel if IT management was replaced and why?"

6. More versus better. If you are controlling people and you need improvement, you ask for more. More hours, more tickets closed, more calls handled, more comments written--just more. That is different from better. Better means that people, processes, and output are continuously improving. Try calling USAA sometime to see what I mean.

7. Satisfaction vs delight. The result of controlling always seems to be a satisfaction survey of some kind. Designed by IT, these surveys are rarely as meaningful as water cooler talk. Even more rare is the survey that is interpreted correctly and acted on properly. Try asking questions that use superlatives. Stop giving five options, and switch to yes/no, like this:

"Are you amazed at how easily your iPad works on the company network? [yes] [no]"

8. Tactical versus strategic. Managers use the word "strategy" a lot to describe tactical things. Control is tactical. Control has nothing to do with envisioning the future, setting direction, or getting the very best out of your people. Tactical work is for managers. Leaders focus on strategy and evangelism. Their tactical work consists of clearing hurdles and facilitating the work that their people need to do.

9. Rules versus relationships. People who control make rules. Rules dictate how people will behave. They limit and constrain our interaction, our mutual understanding, and our sharing of knowledge. Relationships, on the other hand, do just the opposite. Even if you're a controlling manager type who has a rule for everything, you still go to conventions in hopes of networking--yes, that's right--building relationships that will help accomplish what you want. You do the same thing in any number of social settings. Why is it that as soon as you're in charge of something you torch relationships and start making rules?

At the end of the day, letting go of control means leveraging trust. You can lead when your people (a) believe that you can and will do what needs to be done, and when (b) they know that you believe the same about them. If those two things are missing, you only have control left.

So, do you simply stop telling people what needs to be done? Not exactly, although if you do they'll figure it out. Setting direction, though, is what people look to leaders for. Thresholds are beneficial for some people. Some people need to learn how to stop being supervised. When such guidance is offered as a means of cultivation it is empowering, unlike the stifling influence of control.

Take a minute to ponder and question. Are you comfortable letting go of control? Do you trust your people to do what needs to be done? Do you believe that they trust you?


Kofi said...

Nice piece.

Anonymous said...

Learning! -Shirley