Who among us hasn’t fallen into the trap of believing that in order to be worth our salt as managers, we must be omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent on the job? In Truman-esque fashion we declare that the buck stops with us, and confuse taking responsibility for results with being responsible for controlling everything that happens with a project, department, or business unit.
Everyone knows about the bottlenecks that occur when too much information is forced to flow through one pair of hands. Commonly, managers who take responsibility for all of the details spend long hours checking the work of associates (which is often of an administrative nature) while higher level functions, like strategy setting, are neglected.
On the other hand, managers who take responsibility for results are performing a leadership function that involves setting a vision, establishing goals, devising a strategy, and managing resources. Instead of focusing on how each task is done, the process is evaluated. Instead of reviewing everyone’s work, work habits are assessed to make sure that people have the skills and resources they need for high performance.
This distinction is crucial for entrepreneurs, the newly promoted, and the currently overwhelmed. I often find with coaching clients that unreasonable or unrealistic expectations are at the heart of the all-knowing, ever-present, and all-mighty syndrome. Hopefully, you at least smiled when you read the title of this article, because you recognize the impracticality of literally striving to be omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent.
There are a number of reasons that people fall into the control trap. They include anxiety about being held accountable, perfectionism, lack of confidence, and repeating bad habits learned from former bosses. Sometimes, people fall back on skills, such as staying on top of details, that were important in previous jobs, but not in larger roles with management responsibility.
If you find yourself mired in details that drain your energy and keep you from activities that add value to the bottom line, you may be working with unrealistic expectations. Common ones include insisting on one particular outcome, being successful on the first try, or that something happen in a certain way. Others are all or nothing thinking, and treating each setback as a disaster.
The owner of a computer consultancy was having trouble growing the business in part because she made herself responsible for the work of all of her subcontractors. She challenged any of their methods that differed from how she would have performed the work, and frequently had to correct errors made by two inexperienced technicians who she used on smaller jobs because they charged relatively low rates. Meantime, she wasn’t spending enough time bringing in new clients, which raised concerns about billable hours in the coming months. She was exhausting herself trying to wear the hats of company president, director of sales, and chief technology officer.
By choosing to see herself as responsible for managing the growth of her business, not for how individuals performed their jobs, she was able to re-prioritize. She began devoting much more of her energy to revenue-generating activities, and evaluated her subcontractors based on meaningful criteria like the end result and customer satisfaction. And, she developed clear requirements for skill levels and stopped hiring inexperienced people who demanded close supervision that she couldn’t afford to give.
Here are some tips if you find yourself in the “omniscience trap”:
● Create a log of all your daily activities over a one or two week period. Arrange items by category and look for areas where you may be devoting lots of time for little pay-back.
● See if you can recognize any unrealistic expectations, like those mentioned above, that you have of yourself or other people. Viewing ourselves objectively can be tough, so you may want to enlist the help of a coach, mentor, colleague, or friend.
● Try to associate your thoughts to the behavior that you want to change. Let’s say that you’re falling short of a sales target because you’re not making enough cold calls. What’s going through your mind as you’re staring at the telephone? One budding entrepreneur realized that she was associating every “no” from a prospect with an indictment of her product (“It’s not good enough”).
● Reframe your thinking and replace the undesired behavior with one that is more realistic. Your new thought pattern must be one that you truly believe is more effective than the old one. The entrepreneur mentioned above decided to look at cold calling as a process for matching the right customers to the right product.
● Visualize yourself confronting the situation in a new way. Do this in as much detail as possible, imagining how you feel, what you’re doing or saying, and the results you want. Then, practice. Your chances of success increase if you have someone who can observe times when you slip into old patterns, or rehearse new scenarios with you.
Finally, be wary of creating unrealistic expectations for change! Modifying ingrained behaviors takes time, practice, and patience, so start small in one area. A simple, yet often very effective reinforcement is to reward yourself with something meaningful once your goal is achieved.