Thursday, May 6, 2010

Coaching Lessons: How to Control Your Inner Control Freak

Among the most popular pseudo-psychiatric diagnoses we find: control freak.

Does the label apply to you? Do you want to do it all yourself? Do you feel that you are the only one who is going to get it right? Do you distrust others because they are less competent? Or do you believe that other people can never have your best interests at heart?

Control freaks are bad leaders. They do not manage well because they refuse to give up the reins of control.

Marshall Goldsmith did not use this rather inelegant term, but he addresses the problem in his essay: "Empowering Your Employees to Empower Themselves." Link here.

Goldsmith is addressing CEOs and other top managers, but his advice applies across a larger gamut of human relationships.

Some people are such thorough-going control freaks that once they have finished demoralizing their staffs they work their rough magic on their marriages and families, to say nothing of their friends and neighbors.

Anyone who thinks that he and only he can do it right will quickly persuade his staff that he expects them to fail. Even if they do take an initiative, he will always find something wrong with it. He must always be right and must always be in charge.

Some control freaks panic at the thought of letting go. They believe that once they relinquish control chaos and destitution will descend on their companies or their families. They never imagine that they have the ability to teach others to make decisions. They denounce them for not taking responsibility, all the while refusing to give them any.

On one score they are not entirely wrong. It requires something of a leap of faith to choose someone to manage the launch of the new line of SUVs and then to let him do the job unimpeded and unencumbered. The temptation to look over his shoulder, to second guess, to give directions is, for some people, irresistible.

Some people are such consummate control freaks that they can barely stand to be riding in a car when someone else is driving. Others cannot allow their children to make their own decisions because they assume, ipso facto, that a child can never make as good a decision as an adult.

In some sense they are right. Surely, that is not the point. No child is going to learn to take responsibility if he is never allowed to make his own decisions ... and to implement them. And no member of your staff is going to learn to take more initiatives if you criticize every initiative he takes.

Worse yet, when you are a really proficient control freak, you will make it nearly impossible for your staff or your spouse to succeed. Let's say that you imagine that your wife can never get anything right. Since you never allow her to take an initiative, there is little evidence to the contrary.

And let us imagine that one day, at my or someone else's urging, you grant her responsibility over some trivial project. What is going to happen? She is not going to do very well. And you are going to explain to me that you were right and that I was wrong. You are so full of false self-confidence that you think the important issue is whether you or I am right.

If you are a coach, or even a therapist, you have doubtless have run into this peculiar configuration more often than you would have liked.

The psychology is easy to understand. Once a husband has become totally convinced of his wife's inferior capabilities, she will have an unconscious stake in not disappointing his expectations. If she fails, he will feel vindicated, and she has a stake in making him feel good about himself.

Giving up control does involve a leap of faith. It requires blind confidence in the other person, along with an expectation that things are not going to go as well as they might. After all, if you were promoted above your staff, you must be better at the tasks that they are just beginning to master.

That means that a good boss, a good spouse, or a good parent becomes a master of the art of forbearance. He must encourage others when they get things right, and encourage them when they get things wrong. A little instruction coupled with a little pride goes a long way. And a temperate disposition works wonders.

The real trick in management is offering a vote of confidence to someone who has clearly messed up. Thus, the good manager sees it as his job to bring others along, to empower them, to allow them to empower themselves, and he knows that that might take some time.

The control freak is a micromanager. He is so insecure that he will even insist on controlling areas of the job where he clearly has inferior skills. Think about the presidents who insisted on managing wars from the oval office.

A good manager is fearless. He does not see his staff as his competition. He does not treat them as thought they are trying to eliminate him and to take his job. He is an expert in delegating authority and responsibility.

Otherwise, he will not keep it for long.

When a control freak insists that he alone must make all the decisions he will create a rivalry between him and his subordinates. Since they will not be preoccupied with taking initiatives and responsibilities they will have plenty of time to work on how they are going to dispossess him of his authority and responsibility.

From the point of view of classical ethics, the good manager is benevolent and magnanimous. Somehow these concepts have been folded into the world of charity, where they do not belong, and taken out of the world of delegating authority, where they do belong.

A good leader must distribute authority and responsibility to everyone below him. He will allow everyone to have an area of his job where he can take an initiative, assume a risk, and use the experience to develop his sense of responsibility.

It sounds ironic and perhaps counterintuitive to say that someone who has worked all his life to amass authority must now give it away. But, the truth is, if he does not give it away, someone will surely take it away.


Matthew Lokot said...

I found your blog about a week ago and loved the article. This is no exception. Well done. I look forward to reading more in the future.


Ralph said...

"He is an expert in delegating authority and responsibility."

That line took me back to a business class I had years ago. The instructor said never let someone delegate responsibility without giving you authority also.

To delegate seems to be more like an art than a precise science. I do think people are more competent than even they know. Our litigious society seems to make a lot of us shy about making decisions. A lot of my business freinds say if you are in business long enough, you'll be sued. There seems to be less and less room for error in the perception of the public via the media eyes.

Anonymous said...

From the point of view of classical ethics, the good manager is benevolent and magnanimous. Somehow these concepts have been folded into the world of charity, where they do not belong, and taken out of the world of delegating authority, where they do belong.


As I have said, you have a knack for posting The Good Stuff.

It is about pride:

"My wife? Why of course she can do a great job with this thing. She is my wife. I wouldn't have a stupid wife! She is perhaps more capable than I! I trust her completely in any circumstance. Are you questioning my wife's abilities?"

And I do trust her in any circumstance. (Trust yourself and trust your team, sometimes that's all you gots.)

Pure brazen pride and confidence in yourself and your team is the antidote to micromanagement, but it takes some guts.

How can a Leader denigrate and question the decisions of his Own Team without denigrating his own abilities?

Insecurity and fear is antithetical to Leadership, but you said it better.