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We Have a Leadership Problem

Some Thoughts on "Managing People"

I've been thinking lately about our focus on "managing" people. I spend a lot of time with front-line supervisors in various capacities and they are obssessed with how to control people's behavior.

The discussions are of two basic types--How do you get staff to do the things you want them to do? How do you STOP staff from doing things you DON'T want them to do? There are variations, of course, but only in the details. Mostly we are talking about carrots and sticks and, for me at least, the conversations devolve into a sort of "how do we herd the cats?" kind of thing. It's animal husbandry, not working with people. 

There's a lot of frustration in these conversations--on both sides. The supervisors are frustrated that they can't control people's actions. And I'm frustrated that they are so focused on control. 

Here's the thing. Anytime we are focused on "managing" something, we are really talking about controlling it.  We want to control the outcome AND how people get there. We often want to control people's reactions, too. Not only should they do what we want them to do, they should like it, no matter how ridiculous the expectation. 

But no one likes to feel controlled. I think it's something innately human. The reason we talk about "the Terrible Twos" is because even children resist our attempts to control their behavior. Children resist by kicking and screaming. Adults tend to resist in less obvious, more passive/aggressive ways. But they are still resisting. 

This is why. Control is about power. When we "manage" people, we are exerting our power over them, but pretending we are not. People know this. They are not stupid. They know they are being manipulated and they don't like it. 

There was a time when employees were more willing to accept this kind of arrangement, when they felt like they got something from the deal--"If I submit to your "management" of me, in return I will receive a paycheck and some meaningful guarantee of ongoing employment." But that contract is broken now. It becomes harder to submit to control when you know that it's really a form of servitude, not a choice you've made to exchange your independence for a paycheck.

I think that people are becoming harder to "manage," not because they are spoiled or entitled (as I've heard many managers say), but because on some fundamental level, they know that they are getting the raw end of this deal and they aren't happy about it. Employees are afraid to resist in more overt ways (they still, at least, want that paycheck), but deep down they know that the contract has been irrevocably altered and they are not interested in such one-sided exchanges. 

 How to get out of this impasse? 

I think that we must first understand and accept that "management" is another word for "control." While I can control inanimate objects--financial and physical resources--I can't control people. I can try, but in the end I won't get what I want. And I'll exhaust myself in the process. 

We have to give up the notion of control and accept that we live in a world where many things are uncontrollable--especially those things that have to do with other people.  We can become resilient and able to deal with what life throws at us, but we cannot control how and when the ball comes over the plate. To believe otherwise is to live in a world of illusion. 

To work effectively with people, we need to take a different approach. We cannot manage them, but we can create space for them to do their own work. We can help them tap into their own innate motivation by helping them find autonomy, mastery and purpose in the work that they do. 

I also think that we have to bring humanity back to work, understanding and accepting that we are working with PEOPLE, not machines and that people have feelings and baggage that they can't just check at the door.

We don't want emotions at work, because they are messy and sticky and, well, uncontrollable. So we tell people to be "professional," which really means, "Keep your emotions to yourself, please, because I already feel like the world is uncontrollable so the last thing I need is you adding to that burden." But what we create, then, is a culture of repression and when we repress our emotions, they are going to come out somewhere, usually where we least want that to happen. 

Ultimately, I think that this post is a plea for us to remember that we are working with people, that our institutions (including our workplaces) should exist to serve us, not the other way around. We want work to be this antiseptic, controllable place, devoid of human messiness. But it is not. It is a reflection of our very human selves that we should embrace, not resist. 

What bothers me most about these issues of control is that they divide us from one another, creating an "us vs. them" culture. It's sad. And also unnecessary. 

What I think is this: If we worked harder to understand and embrace our humanity at work, we might find that our concerns about control evaporated. If we worked harder at understanding and working with each other as human beings, not machines, we might find that we're all  in this together. 


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This post reminds me of two quotes. "You lead people; you manage things." --General Omar Bradley.

"90% of all management problems are caused by miscommunication." --Dale Carnegie.

My quote: "Lead more; control less."

A conversation that has been ongoing since I've hit the workplace and I am always interested in how people address the issue. The only thing I've come up with so far is being responsible and conscious of when I feel the need to control a situation, person, etc. and keep myself in check.

I think this is genius:
"When we "manage" people, we are exerting our power over them, but pretending we are not. People know this. They are not stupid. They know they are being manipulated and they don't like it."

This should be printed in stone on every "manager's" desk.

Michele, yet another stimulating post, I totally agree with your comments and would add that if we can also get into the education system we may make a real difference in the long term. It seems to me that the 'control behaviours' that you are talking about are also embedded into so much of that system (not all, there are some inspirational educators but they are not the majority) from preschool to university. Truly worthwhile work is about helping these "managers" and "educators" see what is truly in the mirror, and how to shift that ingrained behaviour.

This is spot-on, Michele. I've been in management for years and found that you don't get anywhere without considering and addressing the needs and motivations of others. It's an interesting relationship as a leader, since most people don't want a top-down approach (nor do I), but they might insist on clear direction in certain things, so it's a challenge to walk that fine line.
I think your article is just as pertinent to people that aren't managers. Employees may come to me with very logical ideas suggesting big changes of some variety, i.e. "Why not make everybody do things this way...". Sometimes I resonate strongly with the logic, but I am all too aware of the human element, that it's not that easy to change what everyone is familiar with, despite the one employee's compelling logic. With ideas and change, I feel that timing and understanding your team trumps blunt logic at every point.
I'm a big fan of SDT, which really suits your topic.

Thanks, everyone, for your great comments!

Glenn-I'll be honest--I'm questioning the idea of "leadership" too. Just posted about it.

Kim--I agree 100% that we have to start with looking at ourselves. I'm really aware of how i try to control people and outcomes in ways that really do not work. I'm trying to explore how I can let go of some of that so that I can be more resilient, rather than more "in control."

Kelly--thinking that maybe we need to get t-shirts printed. :-)

Michelle--I think you're right that the issue of control is inherent in all of our systems, particularly in schools. I actually think it's worse there because we are more overt about our belief that it's our role as "adults" to "manage" students.

And Sean--never heard of SDT, but I'm interested. Any good resources to recommend?

Hi Michele,
Very sorry....I totally thought you were referencing SDT or Self-determination Theory when you wrote, "helping them find autonomy, mastery and purpose in the work that they do." Hope it didn't sound pretentious to "drop an abbreviation" like that with no explanation. Anyhow, it's based on the idea that motivation in a person is increased when they feel autonomy, competence, and "relatedness" (similar to what you wrote). There is a .org website of the same name. Pretty cool stuff, I plan to do some writing on it in a while.

Sean, not pretentious at all! I was actually thinking of Dan Pink's work in Drive, but it sounds like it's very similar to SDT. I will have to check it out as it sounds right up my alley. Thanks for giving me something else to learn about! :-)

I agree that we can't control people. The biggest challenge in leadership is striking that perfect balance between setting a clear direction and giving people room to work. If there is no clear direction, then your team can flounder in the wrong directions or even work against each other. But too often, the leader wants to control how the team gets to the destination rather than stepping back and giving them the space to work. I've seen situations where the leader is to directive and where he does not provide clear direction. Either way is a disaster.

Thanks for commenting, Daniel and agreed that micro-managing and lack of clear direction can both turn into disasters.

I find that one of the things that happens too often is that leaders fail to have important conversations with staff about direction and vision. It seems that these are often communicated as directives, which is another reason people feel like they're being "controlled." Very complicated situation with no easy answers in some cases. . .

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