Learning to Let Go – How not to be a control freak

2013 was my year of learning to let go.  I will admit that it was tough, I was successful some of the time, like a mother hen most of the time, gritting my teeth and trying to decide whether to say something and take over a lot of the time.

What was I learning to let go of?

I have had a serious dose of life lessons at home and at work. At work I decided to move from “entrepreneur” to “employer” and hired a team. My company went from one employee (me) and a team of associates that I directed, to four employees and team that I was both part of and leading.  I had to learn that the “Skye Way” aka “Morag’s Way” was not the only way.  Sometimes hindsight showed that “Morag’s Way” was the way and would be the way going forward. At other times hindsight showed me that a new way was in fact a better way!

At home my sons are now taller than me and continuing to forge their own way in the world.  Most ably demonstrated during a winter skiing holiday (their first time) when two of my three sons (15 & 12 at the time) wanted to ride the gondola and ski down from the top of the mountain unaccompanied on day 2.  I could feel the heart palpitations as I said “yes” my internal voice being that they could walk through a city alone, so why not ski down a mountain – as imagery of broken bones and everything that could go wrong flashed through my mind.  I let them go, and they made it down safely and loving skiing even more.

Learning to let go seems to be something that we all struggle with at different times.  Whether we are parents, leaders or new managers.  The risk is, when we micromanage, when we don’t allow for others to take the reins, we run the risk of stifling creativity, innovation and stamping out the independence and courage that allows a team (or teenager) to thrive.  And worse? We run the risk of being labeled a “control freak” – not a reputation that many of us aspire to, but may have anyway.

How do you know if you might have control freak tendencies?

Think for a moment, have you ever been to heard to say (or found yourself thinking) the following:

“It’s quicker if I do it myself.”
“I’m simply role modeling how to do it so they know what to do next time.”
“I can’t let this project fail, it’s business critical. I need to be involved to protect my team.”
“I am not telling them how to do it, just what they need to do. That way it will be done right first time.”
“It’s mundane stuff, I don’t want to delegate small things otherwise my team will think I am dumping on them.”
The reasons (excuses) for not delegating are many.  I have client organizations where the CEO (in a 10,000 employee company) has to approve every requisition for a new hire.  In another one senior leader approves all new laptop purchases.  While these two leaders are well intentioned, and maybe there was good reason why this process started, that doesn’t apply today.  All that happens is that they slow down decisions, gum up the works and everything grinds to a halt waiting for “approval from the exec”.  An inability to let go impacts organizations and teams of all sizes, from the start up to the Fortune 100 organization.  From the new manager to the most experienced senior executive.
The final unintended consequence is that these senior leaders are the role models that others emulate.  When control is maintained tightly at the top then leaders throughout the organization exhibit similar control tendencies in their areas of focus.  It’s a cascade effect that helps no one.

How do you learn to let go?

As with any engrained habit this will take time and practice.  Here are some tips to help you get underway

  • Ask yourself “Do I really need to be involved in this?” if the answer is “I’m not sure” or “I don’t think so” then back off!
  • Assess the risk.  Letting go doesn’t mean that you have to step back completely, what is at risk if this project does fail?  Discuss with him your concerns and the potential warning signs.
  • Assess the individual. When delegating work take into account the experience and skills of the person to whom you are delegating.  Has she made mistakes in the past?  How can you build her confidence and your trust in her ability to deliver?
  • Set clear expectations. Let him know when to escalate and involve you. Which decisions he can make and which he needs to refer to you.
  • Involve your team.  Let others know that you are trying to let go and get out of the weeds.  Ask the team to tell you if you are getting in too deep and can let go.
Don’t allow the illusion of being in control prevent you from doing the most important task you have as a leader and manager – developing those that report to you.  Build a team that can work independently and interdependently, where trust is explicit and clear communication and accountability is understood by all.  Otherwise you will find yourself with a line of employees at your desk, dependent on you and your input, which will stifle the team’s ability to grow and be competitive, and means you don’t get the time to focus on your priorities!