The Illusion of Control

One of the big “aha” moments for leaders is when they finally realize that they control very little. The sooner they realize this truth, the sooner they can become an effective leader.

Leaders spend so much of their time trying to shape, guide, motivate, incentivize and energize people to go in the direction they want them to. Interestingly enough, when John Kotter wrote his book on Leading Change, he suggested that 70% of change initiatives and programs have failed. He went on to describe a prescription for leading change that seemed to make practical and logical sense. However, with all those efforts, and over 1800 books on the subject later, the results haven’t changed (McKinsey & Company).

The authors of the McKinsey & Company research article, The Inconvenient Truth About Change Management suggest several new approaches to change management that leaders would do well to consider.

The one illustration that stands out in the article is reference to research conducted by Ellen J. Langer. A group of researchers conducted a study in which one group was given lottery tickets with randomly drawn numbers, while the other group was allowed to select their own combination of numbers for their tickets. Prior to drawing the numbers the researchers offered to buy back the tickets. They were trying to find out how much (if any) more they would have to pay someone who wrote their own ticket, compared to those who were given random tickets. As illogical as it may seem to you who are reading this, it took five (5) times as much money to purchase the tickets with the numbers the participants had self-selected, even though the odds of winning were really no different.

This story illustrates that when we chose for ourselves, we are far more committed to the outcome. With this being the case, it is critical for leaders to focus less on telling, rewarding, motivating, incentivizing, and more on asking, listening, and drawing out until people write their own story that engages them in our mutual effort.

I’ll never forget sitting in the office of the CEO of a very successful home builder as we discussed the reason people get up and come to work, i.e. the mission of the company, or the daily marching orders for the employees. As we went back and forth on this, I asked him to invite a random person in from the hall way and listen to them tell their story. It turned out that she was someone’s administrative assistant. I asked her why she worked at the company, or what really got her up and energized about coming to work every day. And in one sentence, she wrote the mission of the company when she said,”I love working here because ‘We provide more people with more home than they ever dreamed possible”.

The reality is that every person in that company has their own reason and story for what energizes them about what they do. These are stories that need to be drawn out and heard. It is these stories that elevate employee engagement and create the competitive advantage of great organizations.

Our job as leaders is to help them tell their story, and embrace it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *