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To Lead People, Give Up Some Control

Resist the temptation to supply all the answers; seek employee input with open-ended questions.

A self-described control freak, Cheryl Cran built a successful one-person consulting practice over 11 years. She avoided hiring employees for fear of losing her firm grip on her business.

“I was convinced no one could do things I could do in a way that would satisfy me,” says Cran, author of “The Control Freak Revolution.” “But four years ago, I finally started building a team to grow the business.”

She developed what she calls “incremental trust” for her staff. When they completed a small task without disappointing her, she gave them more responsibility. In baby steps, she realized that they could meet her high standards.

At the same time, she replaced bad communication habits with a gentler approach. Instead of accusing people (“What went wrong here?”), she used a non-threatening line of inquiry (“Let’s figure this out”).

“I went from confrontational to investigative,” she says. “I became less likely to blame and more likely to look at the big picture and say, ‘How can we solve this?'”

Like Cran, effective entrepreneurs learn to tame their controlling personality when managing people. That means delegating freely while showing interest in others’ ideas and opinions.

Busy managers often struggle to listen. It’s particularly hard for business builders who rely on their own vision, perseverance and confidence to keep quiet and hear what underlings think.

“Once you have as many as 30 or 50 employees, you can’t start a staff meeting by telling people what the answer is,” says Jay Watkins, managing director at De Novo Ventures in Menlo Park, Calif. “You need to withhold the answer and let people share. Otherwise, you condition them to believe you’ll make all the decisions.”

Step Back, Listen More

One of the best ways to rein in a compulsion to control everything is to seek employee input. Posing open-ended questions enables you to extract information rather than dish it out.

Employees look to the chief executive for cues on how to behave. If you spark lively discussions and listen more than you speak, you foster spirited collaboration that spurs innovative thinking.

Better yet, soliciting others’ views dignifies them. Even if you don’t act on their suggestions, your willingness to probe shows that you value their insight.

Resist the temptation to reply, “We tried that and it didn’t work,” says Jana Matthews, chief executive of The Jana Matthews Group, a Boulder, Colo.-based firm that advises entrepreneurs on business growth. “There’s no reason you can’t recycle ideas.”

Controlling entrepreneurs want to approve every decision or expenditure. They intervene over the most trivial matters.

“People will think, ‘I can’t do that unless I check with my boss’,” says Matthews, co-author of “Leading at the Speed of Growth.” “They’ll stop thinking for themselves because they’ll assume the CEO won’t listen to them.”

Controlling personalities tend to perceive outspoken employees as threats. They may label independent-minded thinkers as “loose cannons who don’t put the team first.” In fact, the problem lies in CEOs who denigrate anything they don’t think of themselves.

Are You Too Controlling?
Take this test to assess to what extent your personality weakens your leadership. Check all statements that apply:

__ I prefer to make my point clearly to employees and repeat as necessary to confirm they understand.

__ I prefer to do something right than delegate it to someone who may or may not do it “my way.”

__ When I interact with employees, I spend more time speaking than listening.

__ When employees initiate contact with me, they usually want my permission or authorization for them to act.

__ I’ve received feedback (from employees, board members, outside consultants, etc.) that I’m intimidating, condescending or unwilling to listen to new ideas or differing views.

__ I like to know how employees do their work so that I can tell them how to improve.

The more statements you checked, the more you’re at risk of controlling behavior. Take the last statement as an example: While there’s nothing wrong with telling workers how to improve, you’re in danger of micromanaging if you unduly focus on how they perform rather than what they produce.

Heed Warning Signs

Some entrepreneurs need a wake-up call to stifle their controlling nature. That’s what happened to Tom Gegax.

In 1989, after 12 years of building Tires Plus into a successful retail chain, Gegax experienced divorce, cancer and financial troubles. His flurry of misfortune led him to overhaul how he treated people.

“I was very controlling,” recalls Gegax, co-author of “The Big Book of Small Business.” “It came from being a first child, a male and a CEO. But I had to change. Let me tell you, when you’re 42 years old, habits are pretty entrenched at that point.”

Thanks to both one-on-one and group therapy, he transformed his personality. He started to listen to employees more respectfully and treat their needs as paramount.

“When you care about people more, you listen in a different way,” he explains. “You empathize and ask more follow-up questions.”

Mike Mears didn’t transform himself in time. When he ran a safety supply company in the early 1980s, Mears hired a “really good sales guy” but drove him away within six months.

“I was thinking it was all his fault and he was thinking it was all my fault,” says Mears, who later founded the CIA Leadership Academy to train CIA employees. “Had I been more self-aware, I would’ve realized it was me.”

Mears warns that the most controlling entrepreneurs exhibit “high drive and low concern for others,” a surefire way to alienate employees. He urges business owners to set up anonymous 360-degree feedback programs or hire coaches to gain awareness of how they interact across all levels.

The best motivators channel their drive into expressing passion for the business. When leaders stop barking orders and start giving employees the space to think for themselves, innovation thrives, morale soars and growth opportunities abound.

Three Smart Steps to Loosen Your Grip
Entrepreneurs who tamp down their controlling tendencies encourage honest give-and-take with employees. Here’s how:
  1. In staff meetings, let people know you’ll evaluate them in part on their participation level. Be patient if they speak in a slow or fragmented manner (i.e., don’t interrupt!).
  2. If an employee makes a suggestion that you reject, don’t just dismiss it and move on. Say, “Thanks for your great contribution” so that the individual feels more comfortable speaking up the next time.
  3. Track key decisions that employees make in your absence. Monitoring the positive results of those decisions can convince you to step back even more.

Morey Stettner is the editor of Managing People at Work and the author of five business books, including Skills for New Managers (McGraw-Hill). Based in Portsmouth, N.H., he coaches executives on their communication skills.

About morey stettner

Morey Stettner is the editor of Managing People at Work and the author of five business books, including Skills for New Managers (McGraw-Hill). Based in Portsmouth, N.H., he coaches executives on their communication skills.