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Are you a power manager or a control manager? Here’s how to tell

Control managers aren’t always comfortable with giving employees autonomy and freedom. Here’s why that’s harmful to the company.

Are you a power manager or a control manager? Here’s how to tell
[Photo: Flickr user Yohann Legrand]

As a manager, when you see an employee watching a YouTube video, do you assume they are goofing off? Do you think they are wasting time? When they see you, do they quickly change their screens to an Excel spreadsheet?

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If you’re a manager or leader who is nodding right now, you could be a control manager. In contrast, if you are a manager who views all employees as professionals, as people you hired to get a job done (but you don’t really care how they get it done), you’re a power manager–someone who makes employees feel comfortable with sharing their ideas.

When it comes to the workplace, a few things have remained constant during the past several decades. Generally, there is structure, hierarchy, managers, and employees. With these components, everyone is then supposed to contribute to a well-oiled machine for producing services. But this model has become outdated in the expertise economy, even though the majority of companies still operate this way.

Forcing employees to do “what’s best” doesn’t guarantee that they’ll do their best work

For knowledge workers to thrive, you need to give them autonomy. After all, every individual works differently–and forcing one employee to adopt a working style that isn’t in line with how they operate won’t make them more productive. In fact, it can have the opposite effect and make them less productive.

Most companies claim that they know this–yet they continue to impose control. From instituting non-negotiable working hours to telling employees how to get things done, they’re stripping people of the autonomy and creativity to figure out how they could best carry out the tasks. Research on motivation shows us that enforcing “what’s best” for employees is not the right way to get the most from them. Author and researcher Daniel H. Pink talks more about this phenomenon in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Pink says that “the secret to performance and satisfaction–at work, at school, and at home–is the deeply human need to direct our lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.”

The same concept applies to learning. People cannot be “controlled” to learn what someone else (HR or learning groups) tells them to do. Sure, you can make them sit in a mandatory class or click through an online compliance course, but you can’t force people to learn. They need to want to learn.

Control often is an illusion, but companies don’t see it that way

Companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple might tout that they have an “autonomous” work culture–but in practice, they continue to impose a sense of control. For example, they prefer their employees to come into the office every day because they believe that it would foster in-person collaboration.

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The thing is, how collaborative can employees be in such a huge working environment? Some of these tech companies are made up of dozens of buildings on a single campus. These companies have expanded so much that people have to drive to these buildings to have meetings with coworkers. What ends up happening in these types of organizations is that employees spend hours commuting to work only to use video conferencing to talk to people who work in a different building. Why force people to commute if they are going to use technology to work together in any case? Arguably, the reason has its foundation in control–or at least the illusion of it.

Introducing an autonomous and flexible environment takes work, but it brings results

Autonomy and flexibility only work if managers frequently connect with their employees to discuss tasks, set goals, set expectations, and provide feedback. If a remote working situation isn’t working out, managers should take some accountability for the employee’s failure to deliver. Then they have a choice to make: Either have a proper discussion to ascertain the reasons why they are struggling or fire the employee. After all, if managers don’t trust their employees to work remotely, why hire them at all? If managers took the time to discuss goals and deliverables with their teams, then they wouldn’t need to care so much about when and where they worked.

The thing is, it’s more laborious and more time-consuming to engage with employees on this level, so managers end up measuring productivity by how much time their employees spend in the office–and that doesn’t always translate to results for the company.

But when managers are prepared to put in the work to empower their employees, they won’t need to impose control to see productivity. First, they’ll attract better people in the first place. Second, they’ll have the time to do the work that brings them results, because they’re not spending unnecessary time and energy monitoring what time their employees clock in and out of work.

Companies that build a learning culture and provides real autonomy and flexibility in the workplace will attract the best and most creative people. Happy, motivated employees lead to greater benefits to organizations, including higher retention, increased productivity, and higher motivation.


This article is adapted from The Expertise Economy: How the Smartest Companies Use Learning to Engage, Compete, and Succeed, by Kelly Palmer and David Blake. It is reprinted with permission from Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

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