Find an Effective Balance Between Controlling and Enabling

By Gary Clayton

Too much control stifles innovation, performance and motivation.

Too much control stifles innovation, performance and motivation.

To succeed, you must find the right balance between management and leadership. That is, the right balance between controlling and enabling your employees and operations. The truth is, the right balance depends upon the industry, market and environmental conditions faced by the organization. Your personality and experience should be much less of a factor. Unfortunately, for most leaders, their personality and experience overshadow the needs of their organization.

Almost never is it appropriate for your followers to feel like puppets on strings. Yet many businesses act as though they wish all their employees were puppets, even when the leaders believe that they are “enlightened.” Yes, some control is necessary, but it is best if the employees see the control as rules or boundaries which they should not cross.  That give them much more freedom work in ways that are more comfortable and efficient than the bosses might envision.

As boss, you aren’t likely to recognize the consequences of too much control. Here’s an example where the company founders were blind to what they had created.

The insurance products firm

A company that provided specialized policy products to insurance companies was looking for a VP. I was contacted by a friend about the opportunity and interviewed with the two co-founders of the company. The interview was going comfortably until one of them raised a concern. “Living 75 minutes away, how will you get here when there is a problem in the middle of the night?” I asked what kinds of problems they had in the middle of the night.

From their replies, I gathered the problems were mostly programming errors in their production IT systems. They explained that it was their policy that the VP responsible for IT should be present whenever there was a production IT error and stay until it was fixed. I asked how often that occurred and their response was two or three times per week.

I was astounded. How could any business run with such frequent errors? And how could they keep qualified IT staff? I explained that I had once inherited an IT shop with similar problems and within 5 months, 80% of the production error problems had disappeared. Within one year of my arrival, the IT operations manager took her first week-long vacation in over eight years - and no production problems occurred during her absence. I explained this was achieved through a combination of procedural and cultural changes without firing a single employee. But this is not what they wanted to hear. In fact, they were adamant that they know how to run their company best.  They wanted no changes in IT operations and for me to move my family close to their headquarters.

It was clear to me there was no room for discussion, so I thanked them for their time and left without meeting any of the employees who would have been working for me. As I left the building, I found a greeting party beside my car: three of the IT staff, who proceeded to complain about how the company was managed. I asked them why they stayed, only to learn that there was a 25% annual turnover in staff.

What was wrong about the founders’ attitudes?

  1. Their minds were closed, they felt they know all that they needed to know
  2. They felt superior to their employees, that their employees could provide no value in improving the organization.  Employees realize that pretty quickly and learn to not show initiative, simply do what they are told to do.
  3. They were losing many valuable employees (including the VP that I interviewed to replace) because of their tight control, thus losing organizational knowledge about their customers and operations and wasting time and money to figure out what the former employees already knew.
  4. They were wasting their time and spending money to hire replacement employees, plus suffering through all the ramp-up inefficiencies associated with new employees.
  5. They didn’t realize they were creating a poor image of their company among insurance and IT personnel at other firms, including their prospective customers

Treating their employees as  puppets-on-strings was costing them a lot of money, consuming much of their time and causing them to  lose their most capable employees.  But they believed that total control was the best way to run their business.  I followed the business  for a few years.  Its growth stalled during that time, which was  not surprising.  After all, how could the founders focus on growing the company and recognizing changes in their industry?  As  the company grew, the founders had to spend more and more time on operating the puppet strings.

Trade some control for leadership

Leadership is an absolute necessity for companies that wish to keep growing.  The more people you manage, the less time you have to devote to each person and  the less time you have to focus on growing the business.  Every business must be managed, but through leadership, you can inspire many more people simultaneously, thus attracting and keeping employees who have the initiative to help the organization.

Gary Clayton is a leadership coach who helps CEOs, executives and other leaders grow their leadership skills while working through current challenges and finding paths to greater success in business and life.

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