Management: The Illusion of Control

“Command and control” just doesn’t work very well as a management approach.

Perhaps it never did, but until the last couple of decades managers enjoyed the illusion of “command and control” in their organizations. I was reminded at a party last Saturday night of just how wide the gap is between what we know and what we do regarding control. I was talking with a manager who runs a help desk organization with several centers in the US and around the world. She told me that her manager expects her to be “in control” of all aspects of the operation.

She’s aware, however, that as attempts to control increase performance declines — creative attempts to solve unusual problems are stifled, the flow of information and ideas among service agents is restricted, enthusiasm wanes.

Human systems aren’t mechanical systems that can be “controlled” like an automobile or lawnmower. They can be influenced, shifted, nudged — but not controlled. If you’ve raised kids, you know that! So why do managers still try to “control” things?

Based on my experience with hundreds of managers over the past 15 years, as well as managing organizations myself, I suspect that there is a disconnect between what we know (in our heads) and how we respond (from the gut). We often may not even be aware that we are trying to control. One way to build your awareness is to watch what you do when you feel frustrated or when you feel like the others on your team “don’t get it.” This will help you see if you are trying to control what you should be trying to influence.

As your awareness grows, play with the idea of “nudging” the system instead of attempting to control it. Imagine you are steering a car. Instead of grabbing the steering wheel with both hands and making a hard left, take one finger and gently move the wheel a little. This will be uncomfortable at first, but it’s likely to get better results!

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