The Puppet Master

iStock_000012938004XSmall“I’m not over controlling, I just know what’s best and if it wasn’t for me, these people would be lost.”

We all know this boss – the control freak. The “Control” type of Head Trash can be hard to avoid because in some cases, the boss does have to step in and make some decisions, and occasionally, their institutional knowledge of the business actually does help guide the business. But if you think you can do it all, you’re in trouble. As Tish Squillaro and Timothy Thomas say in their business management book HeadTrash!: Cleaning out the Junk That Stands between You and Success: 

Being a great leader means empowering your people, giving them the control to make decisions and manage their own success (p 57).

What can be difficult about this, for the leader, is that their subordinates decisions are playing with the house’s money, not really their own. The leader is often more invested in the business and has a tendency to want to be more involved in they key decisions and projects – particularly if it’s a private or a small business. For a small business, the owner is worried about key relationships and how their staff will handle them, they are worried about the long-term impacts and wonder whether their staff members see the long-term impacts of their short term decision, and they are worried about their business.

For a small business, the employees are definitely playing with the bosses money, and usually his or her livelihood. While an employees’ job may be at risk, say that because of their screw up the company goes bankrupt and they lose their job, its easier to get another job than it is to build a successful business.

But, unfortunately, there is a cost for being a controlling leader, whether it’s a small business or a major corporation:

  • Lacking autonomy your top people will leave and possibly go to your competitor (Squillaro and Thomas 59).
  • Too much control creates compliant employees, rather than committed employees who are creative, innovative and can think for themselves (Squillaro and Thomas 65).
  • Control can reduce speed-to-market (Squillaro and Thomas 70) and cause delays in responding to issues and incidents, which can sometimes make the situation even worse.

I think the death of innovation is the biggest problem with over-controlling employers

What is also interesting about the person with Control as their Head Trash, is that they sometimes AVOID taking control when they should, but then tamper with things that don’t need their help. As Dr. Stephen Covey said, ‘do you find yourself spending your time in the thick of thin things?”

There are ‘leaders,’ (quotes intentional) who will step in to the easy situations then send their subordinates off as sacrificial lambs into a bad situation. A real leader does the opposite. A real leader knows the difference in things that require their involvement, the high level relationships, the touchy situations with a client, or another department or division head, or some other stakeholder, and situations for which their knowledge is required. A good leader steps in the handles the difficult client or customer and doesn’t send a subordinate into the line of fire. And, in those cases when a subordinate must be mentored on how to handle these situations, a good leader can distinguish the good learning situations from those that should still be handled by the leader.

Squillaro and Thomas call this handling-the-china versus handling the Tupperwear. Over controlling leaders and managers believe that everything is “fine China” and must be personally handled by them. But good leaders delegate (Squillaro and Thomas 68). Good leaders build strong teams and then let them flourish (Squillaro and Thomas 68).

Something about control that every leader or manager must realize is that your staff and co-workers bring their own perspectives and skill sets, they bring their own experiences and frames-of-reference and they will be different from yours. Additionally, in many cases the leader does have more experience and sometimes education and training in a certain area but their employees may not. They may still be in a learning phase – this is where you need to visit with them to bring them up to speed, but still let them work to accomplish the goals. I know I’ve found myself frustrated when someone is not doing something the way I know it needs to be done. In those cases, I will sit down and show them what I want – the actual result if possible and explain why its important – remember to listen for their insights too. Once the outcome has been explained, ensure that they understand why and how. Then let them do their work.

Leaders and managers who suffer from Control Head Trash should begin to take out their internal trash by asking themselves (or yourself if this is hitting too close to home), ‘do you really need to be involved in this, or can someone else handle it?’  (Squillaro and Thomas 72). Then look at your people – your time in meetings should be spent letting others talk (Squillaro and Thomas 72), while you clarify outcomes, hold people accountable and ask questions to bring insights they may not have thought about.

I remember back many years ago when we had a coach of the Denver Broncos who was very controlling – telling a now Hall of Fame Quarterback how to do his job, what plays to run, how to run, pass, everything. But every Super Bowl we go to, often in spite of this micromanagement, we lost. Then another coach came along who was collaborative with this QB. Who understood that the QB also needed a running back that could rush for more than 2 yards and be a legitimate threat to the opposing defenses. That coach took that QB and that running back to  back-to-back Super Bowl wins. Both John Elway and Terrell Davis won MVPs for the Super Bowl and coach Mike Shanahan remains one of today’s top coaches – because he didn’t try to do it all.

There may be times you have to let things go a bit. Failure is an incredible better teacher, but it can create an opening to talk to a team that may welcome the guidance (Squillaro and Thomas 74). Again, this is like the situation where you’re mentoring someone – you need to watch for those situations that you can allow to fail, or at least allow to go off the rails a bit, rather than jumping in to solve every problem (Squillaro and Thomas 74). This may be a hard concept to stomach for most leaders and managers but if your employees don’t learn, then you’ll end up doing everything and do you really want to do that? Isn’t that why you hired them.

Get out of the way – theirs and yours. It’s amazing how often I would sit in a staff meeting where I was the airport manager, and I’d watch as staff batted around ideas and thoughts about a problem. I found that the longer I listened the more they would work out the problem – on their own. Thus, the torch has been passed – you now have staff that can take initiative, think through problems and know when it’s time to ask for your help and when they’ve got it covered.

Squillaro, Tish, and Timothy I. Thomas. HeadTrash!: Cleaning out the Junk That Stands between You and Success. Austin, TX: Emerald Book, 2013. Print.

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