“Use the Force, Luke. Let go, Luke. Luke, trust me.”
[The spirit of Obi Wan Kenobi]
Have you have ever played a shoot ‘em up arcade game when the bad guys are coming at you from all directions? Have you ever been in that situation when you begin to discover you’ve played it so many times that you are actually getting good at it? You are surviving round after round of enemy fire and despite the fact that the attack ships are coming at you faster and faster you are still matching them and the adrenalin is surging. Then you can’t suppress a smile that spreads across your face because the buzz of endorphins is pressing all the right buttons in your brain. That’s the point at which some people like to shout “Whoohooo!”
That is what it can feel like when you are in charge of a busy office whether in commerce or in government or working for yourself. People keep coming up to you with problems and questions and urgent decisions to be made but you are happy to be handling it all because you are at the top of your game. It’s intoxicating and addictive. Problem is, no matter how sharp a shooter you are, you can’t be everywhere at once and you don’t have eyes in the back of your head. You know there’s a very good chance that if you don’t keep up your concentration and stay in control at all times you might let something slip, so what do you do
You need to be in control, so you put in place controls. You draw up a list of rules and then you set about expanding your surveillance to make sure the rules are being obeyed. You install permissions and passwords and you put a clock on people’s movements. You get people to check-in, to check-out, to justify their movements. Then you start getting your staff to sign things off, as a record that items have been properly checked and as a means by which you can be sure who was at fault if things go wrong. You get people to sign things in, to sign things out and you measure stuff, and then you demand up-to-the-minute statistics so you can be sure what is going on. You’ve got so many people reporting in to you now that you can’t meet with everybody at once so you stop meeting with anybody at all and instead you ask for written reports which will be given due consideration. You make sure nobody does anything risky unless they get your say so. Then you control the risks more by getting people to write you a list of all the risks and put in place control measures and sign them off as under control.
Then your staff start to complain. They say they feel disempowered, deskilled and not trusted. But they don’t say these things to you, they only say them to each other because it’s against the rules to complain and they couldn’t get in to see you anyway. By this time of course everyone is working strictly to the rules. Anybody having a good idea keeps it to themselves. Anybody who makes a mistake keeps it to themselves. They don’t want to get into trouble for breaking the rules – they would have to explain themselves in a report.
Meanwhile you’ve stopped getting that old buzz from what you do. Things don’t feel so chaotic anymore. You’ve got nothing left to fix – no difficult questions and no big decisions to make. And then one day your Department makes a big mistake. Huge. And guess what? You get the blame for failing to exercise sufficient control.
That’s the paradox of being in control. You can only truly be in control when you keep it loose. An authoritarian regime can only maintain control through force and fear. That means no matter how vigilant and how severe the punishments there will always be revolution lurking under the surface. In a tightly monitored, risk averse, bureaucratic set-up, it’s sad but true that control is completely illusory. So what’s the answer? How do you stay in control? Fortunately the answer is very simple – just give it away.
This may seem daft but it’s just counterintuitive. The sense of the statement lies in the fact that you don’t just give away control to anyone. You only give control to individuals whom you trust. The trust comes from the fact that these individuals demonstrate a high degree of competence and confidence, You know that if you let them make big decisions they will do so with some skill and with the best interests of the organisation at heart.
Of course such individuals don’t just jump out of the woodwork. They only exist because you put them there. You carefully recruited them and then you invested in them. You helped them develop their knowledge and skills, rewarded them appropriately and imbued them with strong organisational values centred on trust. Now because you know you can trust them you can perform a very neat control trick. These are individuals who can be present in the midst of a situation where you are not, which in effect expands your area of control. They become your eyes and ears and can make decisions on your behalf. Hey presto, you have massively increased your influence.
Then what happens next is really interesting. When someone has an idea they don’t hide it, they share it – opportunities for new ventures seemingly springing to the surface. When someone makes a mistake they let people know so that the problem can be rectified before it becomes a big issue. Staff tell you they feel empowered, developed and trusted. The organisation becomes increasingly vital and dynamic. People keep coming up to you with suggestions and questions and urgent decisions to be made. And now you realise the buzz is back – you’re back in the arcade. “Whooohooo!”
Joe Rafferty is an organisational development consultant currently in employment with the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration in the UK. Joe has been at the heart of stimulating change in large organisations and specialises in front line delivery of change initiatives, leadership development, managing complexity, creative problem solving, team development, coaching and mediation. Joe is an engaging public speaker and his entertaining writing style stimulates thinking and discussion.
He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org