How “control freak” leaders learn to let go

Do you get a kick from bringing a forensic, critical eye to the work of your team?  Do you spend energy pushing forward your preferred priorities and actively avoid listening to the alternatives?  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 and obsessive – that’s how organisations succeed!

This is partly true – but in our 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 you limit your ability to expand a business or lead any serious change effort, particularly in these complex, uncertain times, when so little can actually be controlled and engagement is so key.

So what are the signs that a leader has become too controlling and needs to find a way of letting go?  If you say yes to more then 4 of the questions below, you probably have some ‘letting go’ work to do…

7 Signs of an Over Controlling Leader

  1. You believe you’re the only one who has a truly clear, objective view of things, as everyone else is either emotionally muddled, or selfishly driven.
  2. You see the process of negotiating common goals as a waste of time as only you can see what the right goals are.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. You indulge in fear-mongering to persuade people away from particular, unfavourable (to you) courses of action.
  7. 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 recognise the following challenges that lie ahead:

  • 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
  • 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
  • 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 painful and exposing
  • 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!

However, the plus sides 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 business results.

So what are the first steps towards letting go?

How to Let Go in Five ‘Easy’ Stages:

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 of the business 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 managers, rather than a more ad-hoc (interfering?) process that you might favour.  Structure these, and start to offer clear feedback on their performance, while opening up to their views on what’s happened during the month and what’s next.  Learn to see imperfections as learning points.

4. Start actively inquiring into different points of view, 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 are still the leader and can bring your authority to bear any time a decision is required or people are wandering off track.

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.

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 talk to us about how we support senior leaders to make progress with these sorts of issues as part of our change support work, please do get in touch.

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