Highly engaged or just a control freak?

17 November 2014

Today’s leaders know they are required to be engaging, be present and invest time with their teams – they either inherently understand this or have developed this understanding via coaching and development.

The demands on leaders are significant. They are expected to create and lead a high performance culture where accountability is paramount. Shareholders, the Board, employees and in some instances, the media and public all have an expectation of performance and behaviour.

So maybe it is the relentless focus on outcomes coupled with the expectation of creating a great place to work that causes leaders to drift into micro-management or in some instances ‘control freak’ behaviours. Maybe they feel they have to keep a close eye on all aspects of the business to ensure positive outcomes.

The problem is that the leader convinces themself that ‘involvement’ is actually ‘engagement’ thereby justifying their behaviours.

Engaging leaders are proactive, they step up and take ownership over issues and problems (they do not look to blame others), they build a sense of enthusiasm among the troops; they reinforce the vision via storytelling techniques. They invest time in their teams and listen to the challenges, ideas and opportunities; they provide opportunities for growth and development, they trust that others have good intentions; they are open, present and confident while retaining a sense of humility.

Controlling leaders like to be in charge, they like power and regularly seek recognition. They expect others will follow them, while overtly creating an environment of mistrust. They engage in ego-driven conversations and compete with their peers for attention and accolades. You can usually spot them as their stories start with “I did ….” and end with “great outcomes due to me or my …”. They happily bask in the limelight and may actually enter into turf wars in the workplace. They are poor delegators and will ‘throw you under the bus’ if a project is going poorly; blame behaviours are commonplace.

So if the behaviours and styles are so different, then why are two so easily confused?

Time and Style – we all have 24/7 and we have to make a choice as to how to use that time – controlling leaders seek short term wins and therefore operate in a ‘tell and do’ style; engaging leaders focus on developing sustainable wins for the business and team and therefore operate in a ‘show and develop’ style.

Ego – having an ego is not a bad thing, it literally means a person’s self-worth or self-esteem – it is the size of the ego that can cause the issue. The engaging leader uses their ego to back themselves while still being able to listen, be humble, consider the points of others et cetera. A controlling leader’s ego morphs into arrogance where they consider themselves to be right most of the time, the most experienced or the brightest person in the room; their ego adversely influences their effectiveness as they are largely focused on protecting the ‘image’ they have built based on their ego. An enormous ego; often attributed to a sense of fear and vulnerability results in leaders aiming to control as much as possible to manage the negative emotions.

Perfection and Achievement – going above and beyond to achieve great outcomes is both admirable and desirable in leaders; engaging leaders deliver on outcomes. Going above and beyond for a controlling leader does not always result in outcomes; often they aim for perfection and of course, perfection is not attainable, so their efforts can be considered wasteful and self-indulgent.

Advice and Directives – engaging leaders will provide input and offer advice; they will then let you decide what to do with the information they have provided. Controlling leaders will offer input and advice with an expectation that you will implement their suggestions; their advice is in reality, a directive.

Engaging leaders delegate effectively; when they ask you to lead a workshop, they contribute as a participant and resist the desire to take over or make corrections to the agenda. They recognise other people around them have talent and quite possibly are better equipped to write communications, analyse data or chair meetings; they are not threatened by the capability of others. Engaging leaders will have up to three successors for their role; they will actively develop and mentor the successors without fear of ‘what does this mean for me’.

The bottom line is that controlling leaders stifle team development, crush creativity and reduce productivity. Yet the essence of building a successful organisation is anchored around people, building their confidence and letting their voice be heard in the workplace. The job of a leader is to bring about many forms of engagement that provide ways in which people can be encouraged to contribute and it’s only in these circumstances that a mission can be achieved, excellence be delivered and a culture fully realised.

So the challenge for leaders is to recognise the emotions of vulnerability and fear – and take personal steps to manage these in order to build high performance teams and a culture based on engagement and accountability.

Kerryn Fewster

Kerryn is the Founder and Director of Change 2020. She has consulted extensively in the area of Transition and Transformation. She places emphasis on strategy development and solution implementation to minimise people and operational impacts associated with major change.

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