Ten Failures of a Leader: I Need to Control the Environment to Ensure Success (#8)

How many of us have worked for leaders who felt compelled to monitor every step of every process, avoid delegation unless absolutely necessary, and practice narcissistic behavior in the workplace?  Most of us have worked for or at least witnessed a leader that had control issues.  Here are a few types that you might recognize:

  • Task Jockeys
  • Report Monkeys
  • Squawking Emailers

Task Jockeys are always on the back of employees: riding, directing, and whipping.  No matter which direction an employee goes in, how fast he or she runs, or how much better he or she is than others, the Task Jockey continues to whip and goad the employee to complete even the most simple and mundane tasks.  If the employee shows any deviation from the jockey’s designed path regardless if it saves time or improves performance, he or she will be corrected due to not following directions.

Report Monkeys suffer from “reportmania” or the desire to document, analyze, and adjust everything on a continuous basis.  Nothing is substantiated or even considered acceptable without a report that provides even the most meaningless data to the leader.  When reports are not available, the Report Monkey jumps around and runs from place to place in a frantic fashion requesting data and assuming the worst at every turn.

Squawking Emailers feel most in control when reminding you on a regular (even hourly basis) what needs to be done and how it should be done.   Email has revolutionized their behavior since it is much easier to send an email numerous times than to call repeatedly in short period of time.  It is likely as children they were the masters of the mantra that many a parent has heard on a road trip: “are we there yet?” As adults, they ask continually “are you done yet.”   They are like large, loud birds that constantly squawk with the announcement of each email.

Although these types are presented in a slightly humorous manner, the obvious downfall of a control-focused leader is that most employees cannot work under that type of scrutiny or control for any length of time.  Those employees that are high performers desire to be treated like trusted professionals and leave the organization to find better working conditions.  Those that remain usually have fewer choices and will eventually make up the core of the unit or even organization as a whole.  Not only are these employees lower performing on average, but become demoralized due to the hopelessness of being in a controlling environment with few options for escape.  Sadly, the process of chasing off the high performers while retaining the rest reinforces the leader’s justification that his or her controlling nature is necessary to ensure workplace productivity.  The leader sets the events in motion that result in the justification of their behavior as being necessary.

The cost of having controlling leaders is dramatic.   For the leader, it results in enhanced emotional anxiety, impaired decision making, stunted communication, and confounding priorities.  Within the organization, the costs are increased turnover of high performers, reduced employee performance capacity, enhanced crisis cycles, and diminished workplace stability.

Given these exceedingly high costs, what stops a leader from changing these behaviors? A few of the core assumptions that prevent change are as follows:

  • People cannot function without my guidance
  • One way to do things
  • Distrusting of others

People cannot function without my guidance

Some leaders work under the assumption that their superior intelligence, work ethic, or capabilities make others incapable of doing their jobs without constant attention and guidance.  Among those leaders that adopt this style, they are typically threatened by employees they feel are more capable, show too much independent thought, or question the rationale behind decisions.   Moreover, out of a desire to ensure the perpetuation of their practices, they hire employees that are considered to be less of a threat in the future.  As a result, leaders with this approach end up with a weaker workforce that could need more guidance and support.

One way to do things

As part of an all day session on leadership and operations, I joined a group of participants for lunch.  One attendee had a rather large sandwich she had brought from home that looked like it should have been made on a television cooking show.  Most of us looked on with envy as she removed it from the cellophane and laid it on her napkin with great delicateness.  Taking a plastic knife from someone sitting beside her, she started to cut her sandwich in half with a basic sawing motion.  About half way through cutting her sandwich in half, one of her peers leaned over , cleared her throat, and told her that she was cutting the sandwich wrong.  The peer took the plastic knife from her hand and began to describe how the sandwich should be cut while illustrating with hand movements above the sandwich.  A quite tension filled the room before someone laughed and said “we don’t even trust someone to cut a sandwich unless it is done our own way.”  Not surprisingly, the sandwich became one of the primary metaphors for the afternoon session.    It is human nature to feel that our way is the best or even the only way.  It is not a very enlightened or even realistic view, but it is one that is easy to possess.  When a leader feels that he or she is the only one that knows how or what to do, conflict and fatigue will result in the workplace.  Moreover, the working group does not benefit from the experience and capability of the team.  A leader that can only accept his or her way of doing things is severely constrained in improving innovation, productivity, and effectiveness.

Distrusting of Others

Some leaders find it impossible to trust those that work for them.  The reason for distrust can arise from a leader’s past experiences, general lack of confidence in the team and its abilities, or various forms of personal paranoia.  In the absence of trust, the leader feels that he or she is the only one that can be depended on to ensure the group’s success.  Through not delegating or directly controlling employees and their actions, the leader assumes the best results are achieved and he or she accomplishes the intended purpose.

Economic downturns bring out the worst in most employees as well as leaders.  However, the effect of the recession is even greater on those that are controlling leaders.  As the external environment becomes less constant and certain, the controlling leader responds with attempting to control those factors that are close even more. This is a very dangerous combination for any organization.

Employees want to be partners in solving problems and helping their organizations to be successful.  Very few want to be controlled and will normally seek ways of signaling their dissatisfaction with their environment in variety of unproductive ways.  A controlling leader needs to identify the root of his or her behavior and discover a balance that is more conducive to the organization’s goals.

This entry was posted in Development, Leadership, Organizations and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.