CEO Coaching: When Control Fails

The Wall Street Journal recently reported this: “Software giant Microsoft Corp., in a recent survey of more than 20,000 people, found that 87% of employees say they are productive at work, while only 12% of leaders have confidence that their workers are being productive.”

I’m protective of the C-suite as those are the people I coach, but this fact is unfortunate, and I believe that leaders are largely incorrect. 

Ultimately, if your payroll as a percentage of revenue or widgets per person hasn’t declined, it’s likely that people are just as productive now as they were “before.” Productivity is largely measurable. Up to a point, more is better—then it turns into a cultural death spiral.

I believe that this disconnect on perceived productivity is largely an issue of trust and control.

Leaders must do their levelheaded best to control many things, and, in most companies, you don’t become a CEO or senior leader unless you can effectively use control as a tool. Budgets and strategy are about control. One on ones and performance reviews are partly about control. It certainly isn’t a bad thing…until it is! Taken too far, it destroys team commitment, and you’ll end up with less productivity—exactly what you don’t want!

This doesn’t mean I fully support work from home. I’ve written numerous times about the challenges of maintaining culture, building alignment, and fostering innovation in the WFH environment. But those are different from lack of trust.

I’ve worked for, and with, control freaks. Most strong and capable people don’t like working for control freaks and will quickly leave. And in the current environment, there are many options.

True control freaks either have damaged genetic material or mommy and daddy issues. I won’t work with them and have referred a few to therapy. However, many leaders who are innately compassionate, caring people came from environments that were strong on control and have developed bad habits and bad thoughts. Those can be changed with hard work.

Leading through control rather than inspiration is rarely successful. Elon Musk may be able to pull it off at Tesla and SpaceX (though he is making a mess at Twitter in his early days) but emulating him would be a big mistake. 

If you aren’t confident that most of your teammates are adding value, look in the mirror and question your evidence. And if you find that some aren’t adding value, it’s because of the culture you created. Both situations are within your “control,” so use some of it on yourself rather than your employees and lose a lot of the remainder.

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