The Three Assertions Regarding Control

In modern organizations control is very often seen to be a virtue and end in itself. This assumption is both problematic and dysfunctional. It should be apparent that there is an inverse relationship between empowerment and control. Empowered people have to be given some autonomy to do what is required of them. Whereas people who are controlled don’t have autonomy.

The Three Assertions are deliberately phrased provocatively. So as to invite a reconsideration of the usefulness and role of control. While the assertions apparently seem to make control the villain in the story, I am not suggesting that there is no role for control in organizational life.  One of the features of the Care and Growth approach to empowerment is that empowering people requires an incremental suspension of control. And you cannot suspend what is not there in the first place. It is clear that if a person is comparatively immature from either a competency or a will point of view they would require greater control with regard to what they doing than people who are more mature.

The Athlete & The Coach

It is also important that two ideas that we often associated with control, namely standards and monitoring, should not be seen as consistent with what we refer to as control. Control and accountability are opposites. If what I do requires your permission to be done, you become accountable for what I do. On the other hand, it is not fair to hold me accountable for what I am required to do if there is not a clear standard for what is required of me. In other words, to provide me with a standard is not to control me, it is to empower me.

Further to this, we have argued that one of the most eloquent metaphors that describe a legitimate relationship between a boss and a subordinate is the relationship between an athlete and a coach.  It is apparent that the coach cannot coach a game she is not watching. Just as the boss cannot empower a subordinate she does not monitor.

I would therefore like to restrict the idea of control to tasks that need permission to execute. This is either by a boss or by some other support functionary. Furthermore, where tasks are done purely based on a direct instruction from an authority without any choice of the person doing the task being involved.  If we accept this more restricted meaning of the word control then I think the following are true:

The more control you impose the less control you have.

Every time you impose a control you shift accountability from the person who is doing the thing to the person who is controlling the thing. This means that your point of control moves a step away from where the proverbial tire hits the road. The person who is doing the task now no longer has any ownership regarding what he does. Also, should something go awry they cannot hold them accountable because their principle defense would be that they were merely doing what they were told. The phenomenon of ‘merely doing what I have been told to do’ can get toxic. Furthermore, it can get to the point where people would do exactly as they are told wishing that it will fail. And should things threaten to fail, they will not feel in the slightest accountable to intervene.

There is no such thing as a value adding control.

Control does not add value, it prevents value being wasted. The relationship between initiative and control in an organization is like the relationship between the accelerator and the brake in a car. It is the nature of the brake to introduce friction and inertia in the system. In order to slow things down. And clearly that is sometimes a very important thing to do. I have it on good authority that a car without a brake is a very dangerous thing.

However, one must accept that every time you introduce the brake you are introducing friction and inertia in the system. You are slowing things down. You are wasting energy that has already been initiated. This may be a very important thing too, because if the vehicle does not slow down there will be an accident.

If we wish to have value adding behaviour in an organization we need to limit the number of controls we impose on people. Because these controls dampen people’s initiative. Also, If one wishes to have an efficient organization one needs to be circumspect with regard to how many controls one allows in. The more control you gave in an organization the less efficient the organization becomes.

Control is the organizational equivalent of weed

By weed I don’t mean the chemically entertaining stuff people smoke, I mean like weed in the garden. The seeds of weeds are ambient in the soil of gardens, people generally do not plant weeds. They grow quite spontaneously. Similarly, the intent to control is ambient in the matrix of organizations for two reasons. Firstly, most leaders are of the view that their role is to achieve a result through people. Which produces a control bias to how they see their roles.  Secondly, when things go wrong there is less of an emphasis on understanding who was accountable for what happened. And a greater emphasis to ensuring the same thing does not happen again.  This, again, replaces accountability with control.

Just like a garden that does not get weeded gets choked by the weeds, so too an organization where controls are allowed to accumulate gets so top heavy, inefficient and bureaucratic that is no longer viable.

So, while one must acknowledge that there is a legitimate role for control in an organization, handle control with care. Because it is the nature of controls to accumulate incrementally. Furthermore, it becomes a lifesaving requirement for there to be an incremental suspension of control in organizations.

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