The Control Paradox

by Apr 1, 2018Communication

In my mid-thirties I started a new job and transitioned my career. After several years, I enjoyed success in my new role and was asked to greatly expand my responsibilities. In this new role, I had to supervise about 15 direct reports across three locations. This was my first staff management position, and I soon discovered that I had some spurs to earn.

Division in the Ranks
The staffs in two locations did not get along and were heavily into backbiting and complaining about each other and… unruly. A great deal of time and money was invested in the training of these individuals, and the company did not want to turn over. The manager before me, frustrated in his efforts to turn the situation around, left. I was sent there to “fix” things, so to speak.

I thought that I knew how to handle the situation, and thought I knew enough about myself in terms of management style – a collaborator. Or so I thought. From individual meetings, I knew the players were solidly locked into a “We/They” mentality, so I arranged a group round-table with all the players to come in and discuss issues with me. The first 15 minutes started well, as we shared our backgrounds. Then I decided to turn my concern to the real issue. I said something to the effect of, “I want to work with all of you, and I need your help. I’m open to learning any ideas you may have about how we can meet our shared goals.” Very quickly, one of the employees pointed a finger at one of the staff members at the other location.

“They are fudging numbers!” he said. “Well they are stealing leads!” “Oh, yeah!”

Almost instantly, everyone was up in arms. People were literally jumping out of their chairs. We were 20 minutes into the meeting, and I knew the place was up for grabs!

Taking Control
I may have known less about myself than I thought, because I immediately shifted into my past teacher role of authoritarian. Now, I know that everyone has a different personality under calm and under stress. I was the new guy, with a new responsibility, and new stress. I was picturing how my new bosses would perceive my work, so I stood up and said, “That’s enough!” I told everyone that we were through “talking”, because they didn’t want to talk or work anything out. We had a job to do and it would be done, “or else.” So I became the order barker. Nothing to talk about, just do what I say! And, needless to say, everyone “snapped to” … for about 2 weeks. Then  productivity began to wane.

Unintended Consequences
We had goals, and minimum numbers were not being achieved on time. I started to intervene in one-on-one meetings and team meetings at each location. I “took over” and told people what to do, and how to do it. I added more reports to write each week to prove that they were following my instructions. Bark, bark, and bark! And we were getting nowhere. What I was ‘ordering’ to be done was only being done half-heartedly, without care, without passion!

My intervention was not working. My numbers continued to erode, and by now the president and the college Dean were looking at me, just like they had looked at the manager before me. I then realized I also had to look to myself. A better way was required to manage this group of stubborn – locked in their ways – hotheads, of whom I was now a part. Changes were needed, and they had to start with me.

Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.

— Lao Tzu

Finding a Better Way
I began reading books and articles and listening to audio books and tapes that focused on developing managerial and leadership skills to size up strategies for making changes. Waiting for things to improve by themselves was over! A lot of the information I was learning was new to me – not so much in theory, but in practice. I needed some changes to occur quickly so production could get back on a proper footing.

I read wisdom literature from Eastern/Western, Ancient/Modern cultures, and I came across something written by the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu more than 2000 years ago in his book, Tao Te Ching. He wrote about life’s inherent struggles. Life sends endless waves at you, and it is your choice how to handle them. It’s better to catch, rather than fight the wave. Which is to say, if we yield as the willow, we are less likely to break. Then one can come back again and move forward – and lead!

I determined that for me. I had to go back into a collaborative and supporting management style. I had to show respect and develop trust in my working relationships. I found myself saying, “What I’ve been doing is not working. What do I know that works?” I chose to return to the tried and true, one-on-one approach as a place to rebuild. I had to curb my own rigidness in thinking, feeling and behaving.

A leader is best:
When people barely know that he/she exists,
Not so good when people obey and acclaim him,
Worst when they despise him.
‘Fail to honor people,
They fail to honor you;’
But of a good leader, who talks little,
When his/her work is done, his/her aim fulfilled,
They will all say, ‘We did this ourselves.’

— Lao Tzu

Turning the Tables and Succeeding
I needed a way to show my reports that I respected their work, that I wanted them to succeed, that I was there for them, and that we were in this together. I went to work developing a quarterly plan template that would be the vehicle for rebuilding relationships with my team. I met with each team member individually and had a frank discussion about the mess we were in. I appealed to each one to personally work with me to change the way we behave with each other.  I advised that they would have a quarterly plan to develop, but I would no longer tell them what to do to achieve their goals. Instead, they were going to tell me what they were going to do. I said, develop your plan and we’ll sit down again, tweak the plans if need be, and work together to accomplish our personal and consequently, our organizational goals. The plan was to include what I could do to assist them in their efforts, what was needed from me.

It’s like a great weight fell off all our shoulders. The quarterly plans and combined efforts began to work. Within two quarters, production was back on track and staff members were starting to feel proud of their accomplishments. I realized that I could not “fix” personality issues, but we could practice mutual respect, and most players did do that in good time.

If you insist, then they resist…

— Rodger Graham

A few months later, I was transferred and had staff already in place at three locations. Again, I had to forge new working relationships. Two things were in my favor with this group. They got along pretty well, but more importantly, the spurs I earned before were spurs I could put back on and continue to wear now.

I enjoyed a great working relationship with my new team. I continued to self-educate with books and a variety of resources, and I encouraged my team to do the same. To show them how much I was willing to personally invest in their growth, I bought each of them “Personal Power” by Tony Robbins. It had made an impact on me, and I wanted my staff to see themselves as able to do great things — things that they might have not even thought possible. I told tell them that the course had a million golden nuggets, but at least one would work for them.

Within 5 years, we had dramatically crushed our numbers, and a strategy of mutual respect and delegation had put my organization on a self-sustaining path to success.

Although I am now retired, I keep reading and learning. I always tell myself, “You never know… that golden nugget may be on the last page.”

Rodger Graham, Ed.D.

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