The Illusion of Control

While my background is in operations and safety performance, I like to seek out diverse opinions and approaches to organizational performance as a whole. One of the areas that interests me is how leaders and managers structure their organizations and how they create authority and responsibility frameworks. What I often find is that organizations either ignore the need for a structured approach to authority as they put out fires every day and focus on production goals, or they focus so much on a rigid hierarchical organizational structure that they create an environment where employees are afraid to make a decision. Either way creates an environment that deprives employees of a structured approach that allows them to use their knowledge, creativity, and decision-making capacity to the maximum extent possible. Overly fluid management styles leave employees aimlessly wandering, without clear lines of authority, and wondering who to turn to for assistance when problems arise. Excessively hands-off approaches can be disastrous, particularly when it creates situations where either nobody is in charge or everyone is in charge. On the other hand, excessively rigid hierarchical structures do not allow organizations to fully engage employees and allow them to use their “Autonomy, Master, and Purpose,” as described by Dan Pink in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. It is like placing handcuffs on them and restricting their ability to make decisions. Oftentimes this feels comforting to managers who feel they are in control, but in many cases this control is an illusion that may be damaging to the organization. 

To get the most out of employees and teams organizations must create a balance between a rigid hierarchical structure and looser network-based structure that provides more autonomy where teams are allowed a degree of freedom to take action in their specific functional areas. This requires a level of trust and a belief that organizations should move away from “superheroes” who take too much control over a task and build a depth of capacity so that teams become more resilient. This also requires leaders and managers to loosen the reins a bit.

In one of my blog posts, I commented,

  • Organizations need to develop a level of information sharing, depth in job    positions that allow multiple people to perform the job, and trust. Organizations that rely on a single person to do many mission-critical or safety-critical tasks may be setting themselves up for failure, because life is unpredictable. What happens if one day, this one individual does not show up to work? It could be due to an illness, accident, or other factor, such as leaving to work at a different company. Organizations need resilient systems that can restructure and adapt rather than falling apart under stress. 
  • Organizations need to develop outstanding leadership capacity within their ranks. This means that junior or mid-level employees should be screened and evaluated for future leadership positions, mentored so they can understand how to fill those leadership roles, and given opportunities (working from smaller scale to larger scale) where they can “cut their teeth” as new leaders. Additionally, more seasoned, senior leaders should be encouraged to share their craft with other personnel. This requires trust.

You may view the full post, entitled “Actively Managing Operational Performance and Safety Through Leadership and Resilience.”

In many cases managers may be reluctant to release a degree of control because it may appear that their position will be threatened if others can do their work. However, if teams are staffed with the right people, who are competent and can make decisions related to their functional area, this may free up some of management’s time to work on other tasks.

If you are a safety practitioner, you may ask “How does this relate to safety?” That’s a great question. One of the best assets a safety manager has is the individual employee, who oftentimes understands hazards and operational risks, and can understand how to control those risks if he or she is brought into discussions about the subject. However, if employees are not afforded the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes that affect them they may shut down and stop providing feedback about ways to improve safety performance.

An excessively tight grip of authority over teams stifles creativity and inhibits decentralized decision-making, but there may be opportunities to delegate decision-making authority for functional areas. Georgia Pacific exemplifies through its use of Market Based Management, and specifically the Decision Rights that are granted to certain employees. So, it is possible to avoid micro-management while still retaining enough control to oversee processes, projects, and tasks. If you need a reminder about the consequences of micro-management, here is a post on the subject. Next time you have the urge to “jump in and do it yourself,” consider if there are opportunities to delegate a task and allow a bit of decentralized decision-making. Alternatively, if you are working for a startup or a company in the early growth stage, consider spending some time to build a depth of capacity and structure that empowers employees while still providing clear lines of authority so they know who to when help is needed.

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