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Lucy Ball is a leadership coach and facilitator

Safe Empowerment

Something is going on at the top of organisations that leads to frustration. Many leadership teams behind closed doors talk about how they would like their direct reports to step up and act more like executives – owning and running the business. In another room behind other closed doors these direct reports are feeling they don’t have the clarity from the top team to really get on with their work. And when they do, they get micro-managed or the goal posts shift regularly from above. Frustrating on both sides.

In one client I know well, an exploration of the way we humans tend to think about control has been helpful.   In their case they recognised some polarised thinking about control that was unhelpful. The story they had in their heads was as follows:

Top Team: The opposite of control is out of control

Direct Reports: The opposite of no control is complete control.

The resolution requires a sense of the fuzzy grey area that exists between ‘in control’ and ‘out of control’ and a willingness from both sides to step into it.  New language like supervised empowerment, managed improvisation and safe uncertainty help to describe what lies in that fuzz.

We can then start to get creative about how we work with lack of control and uncertainty. If we can’t have complete control, we need to find ‘enough control’. Can both leaders and direct reports take responsibility to create enough context, clarity of intention and conditions around a challenge for top teams to feel assured and their directs to feel free to get on with things within boundaries? It’s a discipline that takes both good leadership and good followership.

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