How to Manage Without Being a Control Freak

“Help!” says a new client, “I recently got promoted to a management position at work. How do I find the balance between leading and being in control, without being a control freak?”

As a former prima donna, I’ve been on both sides of the fence on this issue. When I was a design consultant, many of my clients were dictator/director-style leaders, and I was a bit that way myself. They had to be in control, and I had to control the integrity of my art and design, while still serving their business objectives. You might think this is a bad combination, but I found ways for this to work. (I’m talking about healthy people here, not tyrants and bullies.)

The dictator/director personality style

The dictator/director-style1 leader has favourable qualities which can make them fun to work with:

  • Quick thinking, astute
  • Creative, visionary
  • Decisive, bottom line focused
  • Focused on big picture
  • Strategic
  • Goal/outcome oriented
  • Excellent negotiators
  • Fast paced and want others to be the same

On the downside, they can be miserable to work with if you are not prepared. They can be:

  • Impatient
  • Poor listeners
  • Overly judgmental
  • Overly controlling
  • Mistrusting
  • Lacking in empathy

To survive, I learned to present concepts that appeal to the dictator/director-style personality:

  1. The first rule is to listen carefully to what they want and need.
  2. Present ideas for achieving the goal clearly and concisely, backing creativity with logic. To avert failure, make sure you deliver what they need, as well as what they want. (Needs and wants aren’t always the same thing.)
  3. Always ask for their input, so they feel they have some control and involvement in the process.

Managing Control

As a manager you have a responsibility to deliver the goods, and it’s important to make a distinction between being in control and being controlling. Emergency situations may require command-and-control leadership, but in an economy that demands creativity and innovation, an overly controlling boss risks killing employee engagement and initiative.

So, what can you do to take charge of your inner control freak? The first step might be to review the list above and assess your strengths and weaknesses. Your most important attribute and the key to your success, is your ability to be likeable and have healthy relationships with others.

Tim Sanders, author of Love is the Killer App, and the Likeability Factor says having people want to be around you “is truly the secret of a charmed, happy and profitable life.” He defines likability as “an ability to create positive attitudes in other people through the delivery of emotional and physical benefits.”

The owner of a thriving Canadian retail business recently told me the secret to his success is all about Care. Above all else he cares about his staff and customers and his core value is the nurturing of relationships. He hires competent people in sales and to run the day-to-day operations so he can spend time focusing on the big picture, planning, consulting with his customers and coaching his staff when they need help.

He tells his staff what the company goals are and gives them leeway to figure out for themselves how to achieve those goals. In that way they tap into their creativity and do what is meaningful to them. This is key. Assuming your staff is smart and capable, give them the “what” and let them figure out the “how” even if is different from what you imagined. What’s important is the end result.

For example, Toyota2 has long believed that factory workers can be more than cogs in a manufacturing machine; they can be problem solvers, innovators, and change agents. Toyota gives every employee the skills, the tools, and permission to solve problems as they arise and to prevent new problems from occurring. The result: Toyota consistently outperforms the competition.

Enlightened Managerial Practices 3

  • Provide supervisory and organizational support and  encouragement. People need to feel their work matters
  • Acknowledge ideas even if you don’t use them
  • Persevere through tough problems
  • Mandate information sharing & collaboration
  • Prevent political problems from festering
  • Provide realistic due dates and budgets
  • Give people recognition for a job well done. Say Thank You. Celebrate success in ways that are meaningful to your staff
  • Create opportunities for learning when things go wrong

The purpose of management is not to control, but to help people succeed by removing the barriers that hinder performance.


1: Adapted from PCSI, Coachworks Int’l

2: “Innovation” by Gary Hamel, Harvard Business Review, Feb 2006

3. Adapted from “How to Kill Creativity” by Teresa M. Amabile, Harvard Business Review, Sept-Oct. 1998

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About the Author:

Linda is founder of Creativity at Work and co-author of Orchestrating Collaboration at Work. She helps executives and their teams develop creativity, innovation, and leadership capabilities, through coaching, training and consulting. Linda brings a multi-disciplinary approach to learning and development by leveraging arts-based practices to foster creativity at work, and design thinking as a strategy for innovation.