There are people who are a little more addicted to control than others and no one can help it, they are like that. If this gives them certain qualities, it also has its reverse side: at some point they become a problem for themselves and for others.
The good news is that it’s not such a difficult disease to cure for those who want to.
From controller to control freak.
It’s easy to be critical of people who are control freaks, but it’s important to take a step back.
First of all, not everyone behaves in the same way for the same reasons: for some it is a desire to reassure themselves, for others it is a problem of confidence or trust (in themselves or in others), for others it is their deep nature, their internal software.
Then there are different levels of control: from the one who wants to know where things are going and how and doesn’t like surprises to the micro-manager or even the tyrant who suffocates others, there are huge differences.
Finally, the awareness of the situation is not the same for everyone: there are those who are in denial, those who are aware of it and do not want to change, and those who are aware of it and try to treat themselves.
Control : yes, but not for all positions
The question is not whether such people are good or bad in an organization: they are no more or less good than someone who is fully creative or someone who cannot live with any rules. The question is where and to what extent.
There are jobs and industries in which they excel and are the norm, and in others less so. That’s just the way it is. And if we all have in mind certain caricatures, those who have experienced the opposite, colleagues or managers devoid of rigor and formalism can tell you that it is not better.
You have certainly come across many of them in your career, sometimes you have noticed them, sometimes not. It’s the same for all profiles: when a person knows himself, he doesn’t change himself (we don’t change his deepest nature) but he adapts to have a better impact on others or on the organization.
The control freak is a problem for others and for him
If some control never hurts and is even essential in certain contexts or certain jobs, abuse is bad for everyone.
For the employee to begin with. By dint of having to explain, account for, and report, they simply no longer have the time or attention to work. The abuse of surveillance also puts him in a situation of psychological insecurity.
Control and knowledge workers
It’s even worse when it comes to managing a team of knowledge workers. Unlike other workers, they do not follow a process consisting of a linear flow of activities: task A, then task B, then task C etc.
In their case, in order to achieve the desired result, they will have to make decisions between several ways of doing things, or even create a new one, and schedule the tasks in an adhoc manner. The result of their work is controllable, the way to get there is not. The problem is that because one can’t control a work that is by definition invisible, one over-invest in controlling people.
In such a context, an overly strong penchant for control will be totally counterproductive for both the manager and his staff
A real-life experience
I became interested in the subject for two reasons. The first is that it is a recurring topic in business and needs to be addressed, the second is that the Predictive Index (PI) (like just about every test I have taken in my career) tells me that my typical profile is that of a “controller“.
Without going into details, let’s say that I can be rather collaborative or directive depending on the case, that if I have a tendency to be interested in people I can easily be interested in tools and processes but, above all, that I like to deal with a large number of subjects, quickly, and with a high level of precision and quality.
These last points made me, in the eyes of my PI trainer, a potential pain in the ass. But, he reminded me, the profile is one thing, the way you express it is another.
A colleague recently said to me: “Compared to so-and-so, you have the same profile but you are much more into letting go and trusting, how do you do it?
In fact there is no error on the profile, just the result of an analysis.
Control the system instead of controlling the people
Even if one does not deeply change one’s nature with time, I understood very early on that wanting to control everything and everyone did not work. Not only was it counterproductive and exhausting, it also exhausted others and in the end produced nothing. Worse, at a certain level of responsibility, it distracts from the real work that is expected of us.
But remember what I said about knowledge workers. What is the point of trying to control “immaterial”, non-prescribed work? No point. What’s the point of trying to over-control people because we can’t control their work? Nothing either. As I like to keep my attention and my energy for things that have an impact, I found another approach. And I had no choice: when you have between 10 and 15 people under you, if you want to be everywhere, you are finally nowhere and especially not where you are expected.
The knowledge worker does not need rules but a framework within which to “play” without risk. So rather than building a list of rules, I focus on creating a framework with limits, providing tools, standard processes to adapt, information…. Within this framework I trust people to use their judgment and skills to move forward and, by default, I consider everything to be fine unless someone comes to me and says there is a problem that needs my help or attention.
On the other hand, once one has to go out of the frame, I consider that one is potentially at risk and I can be informed of what happens and what one does.
Imagine a soccer field: as long as the ball is in the field I trust the players to make the right choices, when it goes out I give myself the right to take things in hand.
Imagine a soccer field: as long as the ball is in the field I trust the players to make the right choices, when it goes out I allow myself to take things back into my hands if necessary.
Imagine a soccer field: as long as the ball is in the field I trust the players to make the right choices, when it comes out I give myself the right to look at things more closely.
Having realized that controlling people is futile, I control the system and the process by which I give or withhold my trust. My staff is happy with the autonomy and trust they are given, I am happy to focus my energy on the only thing I can have a useful and scalable impact on: the game system. This is good news: 94% of problems and malfunctions come from the system, not from people