Why Is It So Hard to Give up Control?

Over the past year, I had many conversations with individual leaders in business and nonprofits about organizational self-management. They always seem to go the same way. There is a strong appreciation for the benefits that self-management can bring, such as organizational agility, innovation, and increased individual commitment. But when it comes to the possibility of leaders losing their positional power, things start to go adrift. This got me thinking. If the benefits of self-management to the organization are so evident, why is giving up control so hard?

There are lots of ways to answer this, but I think much of it boils down to fear. Many leaders are simply afraid. They feel a huge responsibility for the success of their organizations. If they go in this direction, will it put the business at risk? What, they ask, will my place in it be? How will it affect others?

I very much resonate with these questions because I grappled with them myself. I began my career working in a traditional company. Actually, it was a Japanese company with some definite culture influences of "wait your turn and respect your elders." After a few years, being ready for a change, I moved to an organization I thought I'd never work for, W.L. Gore & Associates. Studying chemical engineering while in college, I had interviewed with Gore but was quickly turned off by their strange management system. How would I move up in a company with no hierarchy? It just didn't make sense and I wasn't going to risk it.

Three years later, a little more mature, I had a change of heart and joined Gore. I was curious but still skeptical. I remembered reading in college that challenging yourself by doing what you're afraid of is a good way to grow. So I decided it risk it and I am so glad I did. Because what I learned about management and leadership at Gore will follow me the rest of my life.

It wasn't easy at first and I can understand the fears of the leaders I've been talking to. With fear, the topic of basic human needs quickly arises. What is fear if not a concern about sustaining oneself and one's personal identity? I lived that fear.

I had to learn a definition of leadership that I had never been taught in school. With a command/control hierarchy, it was always about who the leaders are. Leaders choose leaders. In Gore, I would instead be asked "Who do you follow?" It used to drive me nuts. It wasn't about leaders choosing leaders. I still wondered, how do you move up when there is no clear ladder to climb?

What I discovered over time, which I didn't believe in the beginning, is that it is possible and actually better to have no formal hierarchy. The locus of control in a self-managed organization resides inside each individual. As an associate, you negotiate your own commitments and are expected to keep them. There is far more control in a self-managed organization because it's everywhere with everyone.

I also discovered that the enjoyment and pride attained by people when doing great work simply can't be bought. My former drive for recognition and position was replaced by a much greater need to contribute my talents to the whole. No longer having to substantiate your success because the work itself provides so much joy is something all individuals should experience.

So, why is it so hard to give up control? Unfortunately, you can't know all the benefits that self-management brings until you personally experience it. As a result, many people including leaders remain stuck being afraid. I feel fortunate early in my career that I took the risk and I hope that I can successfully influence many others to do the same.

Kevin O'Brien is an organizational advisor, open-space facilitator, and certified scrum master. A chemical engineer by training, he worked for seven years at W.L. Gore & Associates. He is a partner and consultant with NuFocus Strategic Group. Kevin is also a champion for Great Work Cultures, a movement dedicated to unleashing the power within every human organization. He currently resides in the city of Philadelphia. He can be reached at k.obrien@nufocusgroup.com.