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The Battle between Autonomy and Control

Cooking shows fascinate me. Stressful conditions lay bare group dynamics and leadership styles as the competition heats up on programs like Top Chef and The Next Food Network Star. You can see some contestants’ leadership and communication skills grow from one episode to another. Other contestants remain stuck despite constructive feedback from judges and producers.

“We try to plan every single thing that is going to happen to us. What we need to really do is just let go. Because truly, we are not in control. And the more you try to control a competition like this, the less you’re going to succeed.”
Giada De Laurenttiis, Episode 3, Food Network Star

The dynamics Giada references for cooking competitions apply to leadership in general. Control is an illusion that derails a manager’s ability to lead. Those who default to the authoritarian style consistently tell people what and how to do their jobs. A “Because I Said So” attitude also tells employees they don’t count. Although their work may be exceptional, micromanagement makes employees feel that nothing they do is ‘good enough.’ It strips all sense of responsibility, accountability, and pride from your people.

Image of business people playing tug of war

© Christos Georghiou / Fotolia

What employees really want is autonomy, mastery, and a sense of purpose. A piece of the company’s spirit dies every time you insist on doing things your way. Ultimately, this drive to control impairs the company’s competitive standing. Per Giada, if you want to play to win, then you need to let go.

How to End The Tug of War

As noted above, a rigid workplace that uses titles and power to control creates an ongoing battle with employees. Those employees with strong, personal drive play tug of war with management as they struggle to achieve their goals. This tug of war  fills the workplace with unnecessary, unproductive strife. Eventually the most motivated people leave in search of a culture that gives them the autonomy, mastery, and purpose they crave. Those who remain comply rather than perform.

Letting go of control reverses the cycle of departures/ compliance and gives people the freedom to use their talents in a meaningful way. You can expect to see modest improvement in morale and performance in 3 months, with a broader transformation in about a year. The question is, how do you stop playing tug of war to begin transformation?

Perhaps the best place to start is to redefine leadership on a personal level. While volumes have been written about the subject, Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee provides a practical framework with neuroscientific research to back it up. You’ll learn when it’s appropriate to apply the following six leadership styles:

  • Visionary
  • Coaching
  • Affiliative
  • Democratic
  • Pacesetting
  • Commanding

You’ll also learn why the Pacesetting and Commanding styles work against you almost every time. Please note that the desire to control can go beyond the styles noted above. Do you share information freely, or do you hold critical things back? Managers who act as gatekeepers hamstring themselves (and the company) by shutting everyone else out.

When Power Is OK

Command has a place when you’re in crisis. Decisiveness and authority create a sense of security that people need in the moment. I’ve also observed that a commanding style helps neutralize what appears to be obsessive-compulsive employee behaviors when no other style works. In other instances the misuse of power will damage your relationship with employees.

While reading Primal Leadership may give you context for transforming your style, most people learn by example. It’s far easier to model what you see than apply what you’ve read. Moreover, not every tool fits every person. If you want to end a tug of war between autonomy and control in your workplace, please contact us for help.

© 2012. All rights reserved.

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