When I’m driving with my wife and I take a curve too fast, she grabs the strap above the passenger door and lets out a “whoa.” Funny thing, when she’s driving and takes the same curve at the same speed, I’m the one reaching for the strap and panicking. It seems our experiences are vastly different depending on which end of the control stick we find ourselves. We both feel more comfortable when we’re driving the car knowing what’s coming than when we get surprised and have no control over what’s happening. In fact, not controlling the wheel can sometimes be downright scary.
That’s how it was for Buck when he was asked to change his management style. Buck was a middle manager in an electronics manufacturing company with a reputation for being an intense, high-control leader meaning he had his hands in everything and barked out orders like a drill sergeant. With his crew cut, silver-streaked hair, square jaw, and perfect posture, Buck looked the part.
Another hiring surprise
At first, Bill, the division manager, was happy with Buck. But Buck’s team was always mediocre, and after three years watching Buck’s team struggle, Bill was second-guessing his decision to make Buck a manager. Buck was a serious, dependable employee with a great take-charge attitude. Buck worked hard never letting things slip through the cracks. He always knew the status of the work, where things went wrong, and what was being done to fix problems. He wouldn’t put up with slackers and demanded hard work from everyone, but he never lost his cool. He was the perfect fit…or so it seemed. But Buck’s team was totally dependent on Buck. When Buck left, things fell apart; people didn’t know what to do and wouldn’t make decisions. When Buck returned, he always had a mess to clean up.
Bill wanted Buck to get some leadership training, but Buck wasn’t interested. He ran ragged in his department and didn’t think he could get away. If he were gone, he would get further behind and didn’t see how training would help him with that. Besides, he had the team under control. He kept his people busy and, in his mind, didn’t have any real problems. But Bill insisted until Buck finally agreed to go.
In the program, Buck received feedback about his style. It was predictable. He was described as a micro-manager, unapproachable, and over-controlling. Staff wanted more information and say about how the work was organized. In short, they wanted him to let go and let them do their jobs. Buck was assigned a coach who suggested ways to apply the leadership skills he was learning so his staff could be less dependent on him. But Buck didn’t buy it. He pointed out how things ran smoothly when he was there and how they fell apart when he left as proof that he needed to be in control. His coach explained that if he shared more information with the team and let team members make more decisions, they would be willing and able to take responsibility for the work even when he was gone. But all Buck could see was a group of bickering staff. The more his staff knew, the more questions they would ask and the more he would have to explain. Involving them meant there would be discussions, explanations, and even disagreement. What a nightmare! It was a whole lot easier to just tell them what to do and keep them in the dark about why they were supposed to do it. If he gave up control, things would go downhill fast, or so he thought.
Buck was up against a tough choice. He could continue resisting change and the result would be predictable: he would be in his comfort zone, his staff would continue to get the results they had been getting, and Bill would continue to be unhappy with Buck’s performance. Or, he could apply what he learned in his leadership program. If he did, he would be out of his comfort zone and anxious, unable to predict results since it was new to him, and in a worst-case scenario, the results could be disastrous. It’s easy to see why Buck wasn’t ready to let go. Still, he had to choose either to maintain the status quo, or take a risk and try something new.
Buck was scared. From his point of view, he was put in charge because he was accountable. If he gave staff more responsibility and they failed, who would take the blame? He would. What made it even tougher was that as a high control manager, taking risks wasn’t his forte. For him it was like he was being asked to climb the ladder to the top of the high dive for the first time and jump off with a blindfold on. It was a tough decision. To Buck’s credit, he realized he had to change something if he wanted more from his team, so in spite of his fear he took the plunge and accepted his coach’s help.
Not a personality makeover
In doing so, Buck picked up an early insight: that giving up control didn’t mean abdicating responsibility. It just meant trusting that others could get the job done as well or better than he could as a micromanager and giving them the chance to show it. For Buck and his staff, it has paid off. His is now one of the most productive teams in the unit. But Buck is still Buck. He still has a commanding presence and a tendency to take charge, but now he’s better at asking questions instead of giving orders, and he’s not afraid to step aside when staff say they have a situation covered.
Not everyone has Buck’s courage. For most, stepping into the unknown to try new management practices takes a substantial leap of faith especially in an organization that’s resistant to change. It’s a risk some aren’t willing to take. But when faced with a choice between maintaining things as they are and changing to get better results, those who challenge their fears are the leaders who will make the changes to win the day.
TRYING IT ON FOR FIT:
Trying something new can be frightening, but there are ways to mitigate the risk and lessen the stress. If you’re anxious about trying something new, discuss it with your leader and ask for his or her support. Likewise, include anyone, especially staff, who might be affected by your plan and solicit their participation and support. Enrolling others can increase the chances that you’ll succeed. You can also mitigate risk by trying out something new on a trial basis or in a smaller group. That will give you the opportunity to work out the kinks before expanding the change to a larger group. But don’t make a half-hearted attempt. Decide to do it or not. If you decide to move forward, be committed and give it a chance to work. Send an email and let me know how it’s working. I look forward to hearing from you!
Kevin Herring is co-author of ‘Practical Guide for Internal Consultants’, and President of Ascent Management Consulting, Ltd., a firm specializing in performance turnarounds of work groups and business units.