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Brain Circuits

How can leaders engender commitment by letting go of control?

Published 23 December 2022 in Brain Circuits • 3 min read

One of the leadership myths that is being debunked during lockdown times is that the leader must have all the answers. In times of uncertainty, it is natural that we may feel anxious. After all, uncertainty can trigger basic feelings of survival. However, expressing that anxiety through a desire for control is a counterproductive measure that limits the very attributes that are needed: creativity, curiosity and innovation. 

Do you feel the need to exert control over your team? 

Micromanagement communicates a lack of trust and is more about the leader’s insecurities than the employees abilities. The more you feel the need to exert control as a leader the more employees will respond by doing things because you’re the boss. They comply but they feel less engaged. This relates to the commitment-compliance continuum. The more you give explicit instructions and monitor people, the less motivated they feel. Instead, the leader needs to give clear guidance on the desired goal or direction and then encourage people to explore and discover for themselves.   

Imagine taking children out to play. It would be irresponsible to take them to a motorway and say, “Off you go.” Instead, we take the children to a place, a playground, where we can let them explore in safety. Now imagine arriving at the playground and saying, “OK, first you will go to the slide and you have 90 seconds there. Then you must move to the swings and you have two minutes there. Then you can go to the roundabout and spend another two minutes there.” This would be ludicrous. A responsible parent takes children to a safe space and then encourages them to explore as they wish; to enjoy themselves and be playful. It is in this environment that productive energy is unleashed. 

Create the conditions where people can flourish 

To engender commitment, it is important to give people choice, options, and opportunities to step in and feel ownership. This can be scary for leaders. Indeed, when the pandemic first started many of the executives I work with expressed a great deal of anxiety about whether productivity would decline with employees working from home. However, those who showed trust and gave their employees the space to operate realized that many people have actually increased their productivity. Indeed, recent research from McKinsey shows that most C-suite executives report improvements in their organization’s productivity, customer satisfaction, employee engagement, and diversity and inclusion since lockdown.  

As a leader, it is important to create the conditions where people can flourish. This means creating a psychologically-safe space and giving your team members room to explore, make mistakes and learn from them. It is about being a secure base: someone who both cares and dares people to fulfil their potential. Secure base leaders are not climbing the mountain themselves. Instead, they are holding the ropes and encouraging others to climb. They support and stretch themselves and those around them so that people feel treated as equals and can be accountable for their own performance.  Instead of being a controller, the leader becomes a convener; someone who can pull people together to co-create the future together. In the process, leaders liberate themselves and grow as well.  


Susan Goldsworthy

Susan Goldsworthy

Affiliate Professor of Leadership, Communications and Organizational Change at IMD

Susan Goldsworthy OLY is an Affiliate Professor of Leadership, Communications and Organizational Change at IMD. Co-author of three award-winning books, she is also an Olympic swimmer. She is a highly qualified executive coach and is trained in numerous psychometric assessments. She is Director of the IMD Executive Coaching Certificate.


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