Do you sometimes get a kick from bringing a forensic, critical eye to the work of your team?  Are you tempted to spend your energy pushing forward your preferred priorities and find yourself actively avoiding listening to the alternatives?  Do you get impatient and irritated a lot of the time, and seriously wonder whether most other people are lazy and misguided? Do you secretly think that this way of behaving is critical to your success as a leader and have no intention of giving it up? If so, then read on!

So why give up this type of control?  Surely it’s a good thing for leaders to be uncompromising, pushy and obsessive; that’s how organisations succeed!

This is partly true, yet in my experience, if you can discern between the valuable and the destructive parts of this controlling tendency, you can become a much more grounded, trusted and able leader.  Otherwise, if you aren’t self-aware about this, you limit your ability to lead any serious change effort, particularly in these complex, uncertain times, when so little can actually be controlled and engagement and collaboration are so key.

Seven Signs of an over controlling leader

So what are the signs that a leader has become too controlling and needs to find a way of letting go?  If you strongly agree with more than 4 of the statements below, you definitely have some ‘letting go’ work to do…

  • You believe you’re the only one who has a truly clear, objective view of things, as everyone else is less perceptive or selfishly driven
  • You see the process of negotiating common goals as a waste of time as only you can see what the right goals are
  • You believe that if you change your mind or ask your colleagues for help it’s a sign of weakness so you avoid doing this
  • You tend to dismiss points of view you don’t agree with rather than inquire into them, and have been know to put people down in front of their peers if you don’t like their ideas
  • You find it hard to trust others to keep the quality of their work up without your direct involvement and often get accused of micro-managing
  • You indulge in fear-mongering to persuade people away from particular, unfavourable (to you) courses of action
  • You use passive-aggressive techniques such as withdrawing attention or favours to discourage behaviour you don’t like rather than offering clear, adult to adult feedback.

Challenges ahead

Once you’ve recognised that there is a problem with your leadership, and can see the benefits of changing your approach, it’s useful to be aware of the challenges that lie ahead.  First, letting go of habits like these is a very difficult process, even if you agree with the concept intellectually, as there are some deep-seated fears at play here.  The reason you haven’t let go of control already is that there are plenty of payoffs to staying the way you are, which you’ll need to identify and agree to give up, one at a time.  This is likely to provoke anxiety, so it’s best if you work with a coach or trusted colleague to do this.  That means reaching out for help, which you might find painful and precisely what you’ve been avoiding all along!

As part of this adaption and recovery, you will need to experiment patiently with other ways of working, and ask for feedback on how you’re doing, which is also likely to be a little exposing.  Be courageous, and try to enjoy the journey!  The truth is that if you’re serious about being a successful leader in these challenging times, it’s likely that you are going to have to do some work on this sooner or later.  You only have to look at Donald Trump’s performance as President, or Theresa May’s as the UK Prime Minister so far to understand this.

However, the plus sides of changing are pretty attractive.  You’re likely to enjoy life more, feel healthier, experience better levels of contact with your colleagues, family and friends and get better long term results at work.

How to let go in five ‘easy’ stages

Here’s what you could try doing, if you really want to let go of some of your controlling tendencies.

  1. Develop a pen-picture of the type of leader you’d like to be, versus the type of leader you are right now.  Check this aspirational picture with trusted colleagues.  Does this work for you and for them?  Notice any anxieties!
  2. Draw up a list of the top 5 strategic priorities of the area that you lead and open this up for discussion with your stakeholders and team – does this list look right to them?  Would they offer alternatives or want to reshape the list?  Be transparently responsive to what people come up with.
  3. Establish monthly one-to-ones with your key stakeholders and team members, rather than a more ad-hoc (interfering?) process that you might favour.  Structure these, and start to exchange feedback on their and your progress against agreements, while reviewing what’s happened during the month and what’s next.  Learn to see imperfections as learning points.
  4. Start actively inquiring into different perspectives, noticing that you don’t have to agree with someone to open to their views.  Then if you do find yourself agreeing, acknowledge this graciously, and if not, be clear about why not.  Leaders often find that this paves the way for better relationships at home too.
  5. More generally, begin to share information and emerging thoughts with your team and peers more openly and encourage high quality dialogue as you go.  Remember tho’ –  you can bring your authority to bear any time a decision is required or you sense people are wandering off track, which will have even more ‘weight’ if you are an appointed leader.

Supporting your next steps

As you progress with this difficult, but rewarding work you’ll begin to see that your power as a leader comes from your inner, grounded sense of what’s right, rather than your ability to control the solution and the next steps. The idea is to be ‘in charge’ without needing to be ‘in control’.

I’d love to hear your views and stories about how you and others have learned to let go of control, and what it takes to make this type of shift.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to exchange further, please get in touch.  You can also subscribe to my regular digest using the link on the website banner.

[This article was first published on the Integral Change Consulting Ltd website.]

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