Fear of Losing Control

Fear of Losing Control

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It is common understanding in business that to stay ahead of the competition, change is necessary. Employees are consistently told they must continue to find new ways to achieve better results. The direction is clear – improve productivity, become more effective, get more done with less, get it right the first time. When groups in the middle or the bottom of an organization begin to change how they do their work, does the rest of the organization give them unqualified support?

“Top-Down” vs. “Bottom-Up” Change
     While much of senior management at large corporations today might claim to want “self-empowered” employees, the opposite would seem to be the rule. Rarely is change initiated from somewhere other than at or from the “top” allowed to significantly alter an organization, unless the higher levels of authority within the organization have envisioned the change or, at a minimum, fully sanctioned the proposal for change. One finding in a recent study surveying 4,300 U.S. companies with 100 or more employees seems to support this perspective as forty percent of hourly employees, versus only sixteen percent of managers, cited a lack of management visibility and support as a major impediment to change. (Zoglio, 1998) Organizational politics, which inevitably makes managers fear losing control more than reaching for success, inevitably lead to the demise of changes originating in other ways within the organization. This move to control people often occurs when these changes are near or at the point of creating significant benefits for the organization.

Organizational Creative Thinking
     In order to have sustainable, ongoing change, the work must be done with full ownership and accountability of those producing the results. The typical scenario, however, is that employees are given direction and complete work as they are told to do so by those in authority. A dependence on authority to create new ideas gets perpetuated. Perhaps those in corporate leadership positions are self-serving and realize that recognition is given most to those who create and implement profitable new ideas.
     Unquestionably, leadership is most capable when it is able to keep work aligned with the strategy and direction of the organization. The best executives today have the ability to ensure the company progresses while challenging thinking. The resulting unspoken message to employees is to be creative, but only within the framework of sanctioned thinking. In other words, employees must follow someone else’s thinking while continuously improving performance.
     The direction and resulting message are in conflict.

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Creative thinking rarely is led, rather, it tends to be the result of ideas that get built one from another in a free flow. The result of this type of idea flow often leads to new approaches to problems and more efficient ways of operating. Again, the fear of losing control on the part of those in positions of authority often gets in the way.
Organizational Risk Taking
     Opportunities for change often originate from new experiences that succeed. Being forced to seek and gain approval before any experiment with change can occur clearly de-motivates the desire to initiate true break-through thoughts and actions. Risk-taking is a large part of the thrill that comes with the discovery process, but can only be experienced in a supportive environment where the attempt is recognized and valued, not merely the efforts resulting in success. The typical situation is that leadership defines what changes will occur and the employee is left to determine how to make the change work. If the process of change starts anywhere else in the organization, it normally gets stopped. There are a number of reasons why this pattern within most organizations exists, but management’s fear of loss of control clearly is at or near the top of the list.
     The reorganizations and downsizing of the last decade have probably reinforced management’s fear. In the traditional, hierarchical organization, the “top” thinks while the rest of the organization does the work. Change from inside the organization, from anywhere but the leadership, challenges this tradition. Today, seemingly more than ever, rather than being challenged to control change, leadership is being challenged to lead change.
Implementing Self-Directed Work Groups at ABC Company
     It is important in the implementation of self-directed work groups that they not only have responsibility for identifying and analyzing problems, but for solving them as well. (Zuidema and Kleiner, October 1994, p. 21) The supervisor’s role is changing with the implementation of self-directed work groups at ABC Company. In this transition, workers begin making decisions previously made by the supervisor. Additionally, subordinates naturally criticize their superiors during this change. How can supervisors support the program knowing they might lose some authority and workers will criticize them?
ABC Company put its supervisors through training to learn how to manage a work group using a participatory style of leadership. They also trained employees about the concepts and merits of self-directed work groups. During the employee training, a common question that arose was why a supervisor was even needed anymore if the employees were going to supervise their own work. Word of this spread amongst the supervisors such that they felt threatened and began to doubt whether they could continue to support the idea of self-supervision without threatening their own authority as supervisors. However, it’s quite natural for employees to criticize their supervisor when in the process of assuming responsibility for their own work – if there was nothing to criticize, they would have nothing for which to take responsibility.
This dilemma is normal in a company with a traditional top-down authority structure. The typical company used the concept of individual accountability to compensate supervisors for the amount of responsibility they had. In a self-directed work group type of structure, a supervisor’s responsibility gets shared with employees who also participate in decisions that had previously been reserved only for the supervisor. During this changeover, the supervisor feels threatened, even disoriented. Upper management expects the supervisor to take responsibility for the work and the employees in the self-directed work group want to divide up and share the responsibilities as they deem appropriate. How can the supervisors at ABC Company avoid this double jeopardy?
One way to address this situation that has proven effective at a number of other companies is to choose a location away from the workplace where employees can relax and voice criticisms in a non-authoritarian environment. Examples might include a dinner for subordinates and spouses, a picnic, team sports, or a party – settings in which there is the opportunity to talk about work, but can include joking and poking fun. Giving this opportunity to vent, while potentially embarrassing supervisors, will avoid the problem of employees playing out other embarrassing scenes at work.
Mutual respect and trust at work often begins with embarrassing conversations away from the workplace, where that criticism is less threatening. An example of this is the frank discussion that typically takes place over drinks after work in which more seems to get accomplished during that time than during the day at work. These frank discussions, often involving humor, help move beyond the traditional work relationship to one of openness that is required in a self-directed work group environment. Constructive humor is clearly different from back-stabbing humor. It is important for the supervisor to be open to the criticism and avoid turning the table onto his supervisor peers. It is also important for everyone to be prepared to laugh at themselves and with each other.
Amick III, Benjamin C. and Smith, Michael J. “Job Control and Worker Health.” New York: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 1989.
Bethke, Art L. and Blue, Thomas R. “Overcoming the Threat of Participation.” SuperVision, March 1988.
Levitan, Sar A. and Werneke, Diane “Worker Participation and Productivity Change.” Monthly Labor Review, September 1984.
Zoglio, Suzanne Willis Ph.D. ”Teams Ride the Waves of Change.“ Quality Digest, February 1998.
Zuidema, Kevin R. and Kleiner, Brian H. “Self-Directed Work Groups Gain Popularity.” Business Credit, October 1994.
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