"Who's In Charge Here?"

By Geof Lory

The first time I realized that I really have no control over my children was when my first daughter decided she didn't like strained peas. They ended up everywhere but in her mouth. In spite of all my baby talk, choo-choo train imitations and funny faces, the peas just never made it past those little gums. Welcome to parenting, a state where in spite of your size, power and knowledge, you are helpless to get the simplest things done if your child is an unwilling participant.

It is now a dozen or more years later, and not much has really changed. My daughter still doesn't like peas and I'm still constantly reminded that I can't control her. What has changed is that we have figured out how, in spite of our different interests and my lack of control over her, we can still get things done together. I've learned that to get things done when I'm not in control, it works best when I phrase and present them in a fashion that appeals to her wants, not my need. Then we stand a chance of getting what we both want.

The first project I managed was small, only a few developers and myself. (They were older than my daughters are now, but not by much.) Not only was I in charge of the project, but I was also organizationally their supervisor, certainly an enviable position. I only needed to make decisions and direct their activities through the schedule and everything would work out fine. At least that was how my boss indicated it should happen. Needless to say, while it wasn't as messy as the peas with my daughter, the results were every bit as disastrous. For the record, peas are easier to get off your face than egg.

Where was my control? I had been granted control of them and the project by the organization. Why couldn't they see that and act accordingly? So, on the urging of my manager, I attempted to regain control of the project. I tightened up the reins, held them to my deadlines and we got down to business. Or at least I did. They got down to updating their resume and were gone before the project was in production. I was left to clean up the mess from their last unproductive month.

This was a good lesson for me, and one that has been reinforced many times over by my daughters. People do work, and contrary to our beliefs, you can't truly control people. You can, however, direct them, support them, encourage them and maybe even give the illusion that you are controlling them, but don't kid yourself, you are never really in control. These are people - little or big. Breathing, thinking people, with the ability and right to choose. And everyday, I hope the people on my teams consciously choose to be on the team and do the work that needs to get done. At least then we stand a chance of success.

My daughters are not yet old enough to be on their own, and Dad still has tasks for them to do. Some tasks are things they "have to" do and others are optional. Going to school is not optional, feeding the dog is. Similarly, there are those things that they "want to" do and those they "don't want to" do. In general, they don't want to do Saturday morning chores, but they do want to go to the mall shopping. In Geoffrey Bellman's book, Getting Things Done When You Are Not In Charge, he creates a matrix for how people work, or don't work with you based on these two simple perspectives - want to and have to. It looks like this:

  Don't Have ToHave To
Want ToAttractionAcceptance
Don't Want ToAbsenceReluctance

One look at this matrix and you can probably recall times when team members have been in one quadrant or the other, and the associated challenges and benefits.

Absence: Don't have to and don't want to. This one is actually better than it would appear on the surface. With no need or desire, there will be no action. But at least you will know it, and usually right away.

Reluctance: Have to and don't want to. Here your authority comes not from you, but from your position, and as such work will only get done to the level enforced by the organization and relinquished by the individual. This often leaves both sides feeling unfulfilled or unempowered as they feel choice has been taken away and they are victims of their situation. At best non-productive, at worst counter-productive.

Attraction: Want to and don't have to. These people are engaged because they get something they want out of the relationship. They have made the choice to stay engaged and make a contribution even though it is not required of them.

Acceptance: Want to and have to. The key to maximizing this quadrant is to emphasize the want to over the have to. Leveraging the desire and building on that will eventually create the commitment that will maximize productivity of the individual and team.

I've simplified Bellman's model in the interest of space, but the moral of the story is: The only way to get people to do what they don't want to do is to get them to want to do what they don't want to do. As leaders and as parents, we can be more successful by guiding and supporting than by controlling and dictating.

I say all this as my oldest, Jenna, will begin driver's education in only a few months. Will I be feeling out of control? You bet! When the stakes are low, it may be easy or tolerable to relinquish our sense of control. But as the ante is upped, so goes our need to feel in control. Add to this our belief in our own personal knowledge, skills and abilities on how it should be done or that we can do it better, and we have a recipe for disaster. (I learned this lesson recently when I tried to teach my wife how to golf. Another fine mess I got myself into.)

Ultimately, our long-term effectiveness will come from how well we leverage the skills of those on our team. Just like parenting, our effectiveness is a result of our influence not our position. We may be able to temporarily control behavior, but that does not last long and certainly limits us to our own capabilities. My daughters are growing up fast, and each day they challenge me more on how I can continue to influence their development and maturation. And after all, isn't that our real job? To help others achieve their potential. If I can say I have done that, I will consider my vocations, parent and project manager, successful.

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