When Control Goes South: A True Story

February 14, 2016
Mary Jo Asmus

James was a brilliant manager who struggled to set his knowledge aside when leading his team.

When they are at their best, people often do things that seem illogical to others. So when his employees were doing things in a way that James found different than he would do them, he became concerned about the (possibly negative) outcomes they would have. So he continually reverted to trying to control the work the employees were doing and always had justification for it:

“They don’t know the right way to do things, so I have to tell them.”

“Can’t they see that the way they want to do it won’t work?”

The justifications for his need to control went on for months until he said in frustration: “They always ask me how to do things. So I explain it in detail. And they come back later and ask the same question again.”

James had an overdose of knowledge and hubris. He had come to believe that he was the only one who knew how to do things right.  He was frustrated by a team of highly educated and capable individuals who could do their work in ways that were (shall I say it?) creative and unique. This leader was sinking, drowning in his brilliance while struggling to control a team that was becoming weary of his “my way or the high way” approach.

Finally, the team members gave up trying to resist James’ control because the struggle wasn’t worth it – they might as well just ask James how to he wanted things done. This manager then came to believe his employees were not smart enough as they continually came to him with their questions about how to proceed.

One by one, the employees left the organization to work for a leader who:

Saw them as bright and capable: Sad but true, these employees didn’t feel valued by James, and this made for unfulfilling work. They were smart and fully capable of doing the work in their own way, so they left to work for someone who recognized and encouraged their potential.

Believed that there is more than one way to get things done: The employees who left James’ organization deserved a manager who valued their creativity and their need for autonomy. Their new manager inspired them to try new ways to get to the end results the organization needed. This boosted the employee’s self-esteem and helped them to develop.

Coached them when they were stuck: Instead of directing their work in minute detail, these smart, creative employees were coached by their new manager to solve their own problems. This leader believed they could figure out their own answers by asking the right questions and letting go of a need to be all-knowing.

Allowed them to make mistakes: The wise leader who now managed these employees set them free to stumble, and then picked them up by helping them to learn from their mistakes. In this way, they learned and became valuable to the organization.

A leader rarely needs to direct their employees in detail. When you trust that they are capable and you are willing to let go of your own need to be all-knowing, they may surprise you with their creativity and their results.

More From Mary Jo Asmus

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Meeting Them Where They Are: Navigating Tough Work Relationships

Mary Jo Asmus is an executive/leadership coach whose work spans decades of making a difference in the lives of hundreds of executives, leaders and teams in Fortune 500, mid- and small- sized business, governments and nonprofits. She focuses on facilitating individuals and teams from first-line supervisor to the C-suite to create, develop, and influence the relationships that can make them extraordinary.

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