Control is becoming a scarce resource. Today we live in constant and accelerating change, political upheaval, social revolution and economic turmoil. And technology is gleefully disrupting nearly every aspect of our professional and personal lives.
Our work building employee-centered communications and experiences — an approach we call “change marketing” — takes us into the heart of company culture. We see companies in every category struggling to adapt to a world that’s increasingly unresponsive to the traditional controls they have invested so much in. And employees are increasingly frustrated by the constraints this puts on their ability to think freely and drive change.
In times of uncertainty, there’s a human need to reestablish some sense of control. We don’t need things to stay the same — that’s just the reflex that fires when we feel out of control. We can manage change, even embrace it, as long as it’s change that we’re a part of. Change that is happening with us, not to us.
When change threatens our sense of control, there are two basic responses:
• Authority: Consolidated control of the many by the one or the few
• Opportunity: Renewed and resilient individual control by all
We’ve seen the former resurgent in recent decades. In reaction to this chaotic world, many governments and other power structures have tried to consolidate their control. They tried to take autonomy — understood by leaders as uncertainty — away from the day-to-day lives of individuals.
There’s a similar reflex in the C-suites of the corporate world: specify every step, monitor every action, eliminate frontline choice. This feels like predictability, like stable ground reclaimed in the midst of a churning sea. But it has the paradoxical effect of leaving employees feeling less in control, powerless to the whims of forces outside their influence, and like victims — not agents — of change.
Locating Our Locus Of Control
In times of change and uncertainty, are we helpless and adrift in the current? Or can we steer our own course? Unfair choices, of course. Always a little of this, little of that. But the degree to which we believe we control our own lives shapes our choices and efforts. It profoundly influences our work and life satisfaction.
Research psychologists compared several measures of psychological well-being in two groups of test subjects. One group had a high personal locus of control, believing they were generally in control of their choices and outcomes. The other had a high social locus of control, believing that external forces generally determined their circumstances.
The group with a high personal locus of control “had more life satisfaction, job satisfaction, positive emotions, less negative emotions, also scoring higher in every psychological well-being measure.” These are characteristics of engaged employees who embrace change and take ownership of it.
Don’t Be Fearful Of Freedom
Not all leaders respond to uncertainty with the reflex to centralize authority. Some mavericks of the corporate world have chosen not to fear freedom.
Russ Solomon, founder of Tower Records, passed away last year. In a New York Times obituary, Robert D. McFadden wrote that Solomon’s most important innovation “was hiring a staff so well versed in the local music scene that [each] store could order its own inventory.” Other music chains centralized ordering in their corporate headquarters. But Solomon trusted his local experts to make the best decisions.
In an interview prior to his death, Solomon told the Times, “We wanted people in the store to run the store — they’re your strength.” And on the basis of that strength, he went from handselling used jukebox records to running one of the most influential corporations in the music business that, for four decades, was a global power in the music industry.
This isn’t just operative for macro decisions like franchise strategy or supply chain. For example, GM CEO Mary Barra tackled a seemingly minor issue when appointed VP of Global Human Resources in 2009 — dress code policy. She knew the impact something so seemingly innocent can have on company culture. So she reduced the clunky, verbose 10-page dress code with two words: “Dress appropriately.” She naturally faced resistance, but through transparent communication and empowering managers, the policy stuck and the new cultural tone was set.
Both Tower and GM built their success, in part, on trusting staff to make their own decisions.
Be A Champion Of Opportunity
Responding to uncertainty by consolidating control? It’s a losing strategy. The technological and social democratization of our voices won’t allow it. And in attempting it, you give up the one thing that can help your company succeed in these uncertain times: individual purpose within a shared vision exerted in individual control. Purpose held by every person in your organization. Each has to be an agent — not a victim — of change. Effective leaders are champions of such opportunities. They give their people opportunities to practice.
Do you want employees who are agents of change? Create a fertile environment in which they can develop their autonomy. Give them the time, space and safety to experiment, learn, do, try, fail and eventually succeed. Give your people opportunities to recognize and be recognized. Autonomy is not about toiling away in obscurity. Shine a light on each person’s contributions, victories and valuable lessons learned. And give your people opportunities to connect. An organization is not a hegemonic center orbited by individuals. It is an organic network of microcultures and subcommunities — self-directed pockets of innovation and idea exchange. Effective leaders help this ecosystem find itself.
No one knows what’s coming next. Our best chance to survive and thrive in this world of constant change? Champion opportunity. Mobilize a large group of people, each with unique gifts and motivations. Guide them with your vision. Then, trust them with opportunities to make it real.
These are tumultuous times. Take back control by giving it away.