Reducing Control To Cultivate Accountability

April 25, 2021 - By Angela Donnelly, Independent Leadership Consultant, Bachelor of Commerce: Management

“To be granted legitimate power in the workplace there needs to be a preparedness by the leader to let go of her need to control the outcome,” I pronounce. The faces of 16 senior executives stare back at me in silent disbelief.

But this is a pivotal moment for me to slay some inherent leadership convictions of contemporary corporate culture. So I take a deep breath and jump right in.

This awkward moment follows a morning of exploring a leadership challenge: why some people seem to work because they have to and others because they want to. At least participants do agree that the latter is preferable.

But the corporate world is navigating the consequences of the prevalent profit-above-people approach to leadership.

Many companies respond to the thorny issue of attracting and retaining employees by plying them with “nice things”. And of course it is nice to provide award-winning workplaces.  But when I saunter back to my desk after a game of foosball, smoothie in hand, Rufus bounding at my heels, to do some serious work ahead of my desk-side foot massage, yet my boss is still an asshole – then, let’s face it, all the nice stuff is for nothing!

Well done on fuelling the conditions for entitlement and cynicism; it’s time to get real and build legitimate relationships that unlock loyalty and trust. Because people are not loyal to things. They do not go above and beyond for things. People are loyal to people and they will go above and beyond for people and passionately pursue the goals and objectives of the organization because of people.

Willingness, commitment, and discretionary contributions are a direct result of the relationship that exists between the boss and her subordinate. Management is either accepted or rejected based on whether the employee feels that his boss sincerely cares about him and provides him with an opportunity to grow. And loyalty and trust are either granted or withheld on this basis – not just towards the line manager, but by implication, the entire executive leadership and the organization itself.

This requires a shift in mindset from no longer just seeing your people as a means to get the job done, to seeing the job itself as a means to grow exceptional people.

But if we are to do this, if we really regard the work to be done as our means to develop exceptional talent, then we must also be prepared to let go of our need to control the outcomes. We cannot have both because if we want to develop exceptional talent then we need to foster an environment that enables autonomy, creativity, and learning. And to do that, we need to explore our relationship with Trust and Control.

And Trust and Control are fundamentally mutually exclusive notions.

As we enable our people to do more (and be more), we are able to reduce the level of control in the relationship, trusting that they will respond appropriately rather than in their self-interest.

First we empower them by providing them with the means and ability to do their jobs successfully, then we hold them accountable to deliver against the agreed standard.

We, as leaders, have to ensure that our people can perform to the highest standards; and we have to hold them to that expectation by trusting that they will step up. Sometimes, we need to get out of their way!

We cannot be running onto the field to score the goals. The job of the leader as a coach is to be at the side of the field scrutinizing the play of each team member to provide her with immediate feedback to improve her game. To make sure the players know how and why – and then courageously step aside and anticipate and encourage excellence.

The leader is not just seeing that work gets done, but also developing strength of character. This is a fundamental change in a leader’s role in the organization.

This shift is not just at the level of behavior. Most well-adapted adults already know how to behave well or badly! The transformation that needs to happen is at the level of Intent – one’s deeper motivation.

In your every moment, your Intent is either to GET or to GIVE.

In every interaction that we have with another human being, we judge him not on his behavior but on how we perceive his intent. Is he in the relationship for what he can get from you, or for what he can give to you?

Leaders are experienced as giving when they shift their Intent from seeing their people as their means to get the job done, to seeing the job as a means to develop exceptional talent. They do this by empowering their people to be excellent human beings – individuals who will shoulder their responsibility and pursue what is right rather than what is expedient, and individuals who are accountable for their actions and the quality of their contribution.

This requires two things from the leader: sincere care, and a desire to enable the growth of the subordinate. When the leader gives to her people in this way, she is rewarded with loyalty and trust. When the leader asks her people to do things, they respond by engaging their very best efforts in pursuit of excellence. And in doing so they not only grant the leader the right to ask them to do things, they fundamentally grant the leader the right to exercise power over them. Legitimate power. The power that does what power is supposed to do – namely, to care for the subordinate in a relationship of power and to enable his growth.

Power is given. Control is taken. In the absence of legitimate power all you have, at best, is control.

This is therefore the distinction between those who work for their leader because they want to or because they have to; it is also the litmus test of legitimate power. When you have the willingness of your people, they grant you the right to ask them to do things. They grant you legitimate power.

But this comes at a price – namely that the leader shifts her intent from what she can get from her people, to what she can give.

So we are proposing a preparedness to reduce control to establish legitimacy in relationships. Therefore, we need to consider how controls function within an organization.

Typically, controls in an organization fall into two broad categories: systems/processes, and structures/people. When we reduce controls, systems/processes should get quicker or shorter and structures/people should get flatter

The level of control needed is directly related to the maturity of the individuals. Your 15-year-old daughter going on her first date may have a different level of maturity to her 23-year-old sibling. Maturation is a journey over time. As an increased level of accountability is demonstrated, controls can be correspondingly and incrementally reduced as trust is developed.

When controls are reduced, they are replaced with increased levels of trust and accountability.

Over time, rules, policies and procedures should become more like guidelines. Where individuals are not acting appropriately, their actions become a means for the leader to have a conversation that reinforces the required standard and the legitimacy of the relationship itself. If an employee’s entire left thigh is flaunted through a gaping slit in her denims it is not provocation for HR to update the dress policy! It is rather an invitation for the leader to have a courageous conversation to remind this individual that while tasteful slits might be trendy and acceptable in the workplace, a gaping hole is perhaps not!

Every opportunity for a leader to have these types of conversations is a moment to reinforce legitimacy in the relationship.

This is not a relationship of equals, it is a relationship of power. To deem this power legitimate, the role of the Big One (the parent, or boss, or coach) is to enable the growth of the Little One (the child, or team member, or athlete).

Power is legitimate if the aim of the relationship is to enable the subordinate.

Power has attracted a bad rap. I hope that the above has restored some dignity to the concept. Undeniably, illegitimate power corrupts and oppresses. Legitimate power empowers those in its charge. Ultimately, your people will decide if you have legitimate power. If they do not deem you worthy of this, you can put copious controls in place but nothing will safeguard you from their wilful non-compliance.

An exec told me some years ago how he discovered employees getting around a rule that imposed a 30% cap on “beverages” as a percentage of the total meal cost expensed when taking clients to boozy lunches. Employees simply learned to pick up the meal portion of people at adjacent tables to inflate their food expenses!

The more control you impose the less control you have.

All this is against the backdrop of a climate of accelerating global corporate mistrust at the center of societies plagued by consumerism and a formidable sense of self-interest and entitlement. The result is an environment of low trust levels with a plethora of controls to safeguard against the untrustworthy few – but at the expense of cultivating an environment in which the majority don’t take accountability.

So cultivating an environment where people will do what is right rather than what is in their best interest is paramount. The end goal is cultivating accountability in individuals to enable better organizations and society.

In an environment of accountability and excellence, mediocrity simply cannot take root. There are consequences for unacceptable behavior; and this enables those who are conscientious and take pride in exceptional contribution to flourish. But they will not do this where there are petty controls in place and distrustful micro-managers checking their every move. Individuals need to be given the authority to make the decisions required to deliver on their mandate and thereafter be held to account for executing this honourably.

When people are appropriately empowered they will commit and willingly pursue the goals and objectives of the organization as their own. They will become loyal over time. When people are working because they want to, not because they have to, they will go the extra mile as they pursue their own personal excellence. When people thrive at the intersection of high performance and purpose, creativity is unleashed and productivity and innovation ensue.

Angela Donnelly
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