Who’s spiking balloons in your workplace? On the other end of the spectrum, who’s not paying close enough attention? Whose balloons are popping on the ground?
Where do you fall on the spectrum of control? Are you stressed and uptight, trying too hard, quick to jump in when things aren’t working? Or do you turn a blind eye, pretend not to notice? Are people or tasks falling through the cracks in front of you? In what ways do you tend to steer into the yellow and red zones?
As I noted earlier, Brené Brown’s research shows two patterned ways of managing the anxiety we feel. Over-functioners are quick to offer advice, take charge, micromanage, and get in other people’s business. Under-functioners stop trying all together and grow more unreliable when pressure is applied. Over-functioning and underfunctioning are two sides of the same coin. We might judge the former to be better because we can wear it as a badge of honour, but neither is the pathway to possibility.
Both patterns are natural human responses to risk, uncertainty, and self-doubt. We misdiagnose the problem by making it personal.
Exceptional leaders don’t under- or over-function. They don’t need to. They have systems leadership in place to maintain balance with light taps.
What is your pattern? Get curious and be straight with yourself about what you say and do when you feel your back is against the wall or when you are trying to get someone to do something.
I believe most leaders and business owners respond to emotional tension by “doing.” When we feel uncomfortable, we tend to jump into action. Getting things done is our strength. Action provides a hit of relief, making us feel more in control. From there, it’s a slippery slope to over-functioning and micromanaging regularly.
Owners who acquired their business acumen as hands-on problem solvers and troubleshooters may lack the listening and communication skills needed to get others to step up. High achievers feel powerless when under-achievers fail to respond as hoped. A colleague’s or employee’s under-functioning leads to an achiever’s over-functioning. They take charge of the situation, coming to the rescue, offering unsolicited advice, creating directives, or micromanaging. I know. I’ve been there.
A tight deadline or a project at risk is reason enough for an overfunctioner to step in and take over, often without being asked. We are intrinsically rewarded by casting ourselves in the role of results producer—Superman or Superwoman saves the day! In a sink-or-swim situation, an overfunctioner is determined to swim.
Over-functioning can be an asset during the start-up and early growth stages of a business, when the future is uncertain and there’s lots of work to be done. However, during periods of rapid growth, when new supervisors and managers are hired, or during succession of ownership to the next generation, this pace-setting leadership style is a liability.
Although most self-made business owners tend to be doers and over-functioners, they can be under-functioners, too. Getting caught up in busywork or using social media as an escape from important strategic priorities, like sales, is under-functioning in disguise.
Under-functioning leads to reduced competence and a feeling of powerlessness. The underlying problem has been misdiagnosed (lazy, useless, stupid) by making it personal. The under-functioner’s tendency to withdraw widens the communication and perception gap, and the high achiever’s righteous solutions aren’t solving anything.
A common expression of over-functioning is micromanagement. Micromanaging stifles creativity, initiative, and responsibility in others and trains people to under-function in our presence. I learned the most valuable lesson about the futility of micromanaging at work from a crisis that happened at home.
At age nine, our daughter Kaisha craved independence. Her goal was to take the babysitter training course when she turned eleven. She viewed this course as her ticket to freedom, a tactical move that would enable her to stay at home by herself.
Kaisha hadn’t been feeling well since the death of her grandmother two weeks earlier. We were all reeling, so I attributed her low energy, loss of appetite, and listlessness to grief. I chalked up her hourly trips to the bathroom as anxiety.
On Thursday, March 6, 2003, I took Kaisha to a walk-in clinic. She was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. The blood sugar levels in her urine were so high, the clinic couldn’t get a reading. She was immediately admitted into hospital.
For the next week, Kaisha and I made daily trips to Vancouver to see the endocrinologist at the British Columbia Children’s Hospital, returning to the pediatric ward at Langley Memorial Hospital in time for bed. I’ll never forget the fear and hysteria in her voice during treatments. She cried each time staff pricked her finger or gave her a shot. And we were supposed to carry this on at home? Forever? We were shell shocked.
I devoured information so I could bring Kaisha home. I had to pass a test confirming that I could manage type 1 diabetes before our now insulin-dependent daughter could be released into my care. I had to learn how to draw insulin without trapping air bubbles in the syringe. I had to understand how different types of food break down in the bloodstream. I had to know the impact exercise has on blood sugar and insulin absorption.
Worst of all, I had to absorb a painful new reality. My primary responsibility in life was now to manually do the work of a pancreas while navigating between two impossible goalposts. Low blood sugar is an acute condition. If the insulin plunges Kaisha’s blood sugars too low, she will die. If I try to play it safe and keep her sugars a little higher, her kidneys, eyes, heart, and nerves will suffer long-term devastating effects.
I was overcome by feelings of grief, inadequacy, and isolation. In my mind, I was the only person who could assume full responsibility for Kaisha’s health and safety, and I felt ill-equipped for the job.
Throughout my career I’d kept a wide berth from cooking, sewing, and secretarial work. Avoidance had been my career strategy to ensure no one stereotyped me into a gender role. Instead I’d learned to operate a crane, drive a boat, and mend fishing nets.
A lifetime of avoidance strategies came crashing down on me when I brought Kaisha home from hospital. Instead of being in my comfort zone at work, I stood alone in my kitchen with tears running down my face. My baby’s life was dependent on my ability to cook and do math. Carbohydrate counting, insulin dosing, and blood sugar readings were my new measurements of success. I’ve never felt so heartbroken, alone, and incompetent in my life.
I decided to build structures to keep her safe when she was away from me. I made double-sided wallet cards that pointed out signs and symptoms of low blood sugar on one side and step-by-step instructions on how to treat low blood sugar on the other. I prepared information sheets and emergency kits for daycare and school. I revamped her earthquake preparedness kit at school. I anticipated every situation I could imagine and took steps to reduce Kaisha’s anxiety and risk.
I incessantly fired questions at her. What’s your sugar? When was your last shot? What did you eat? When did you eat it? Did you play outside at school today? Was it light or vigorous activity? Did you change your lancet? Type 1 diabetes management became the family’s focal point.
My inclination to micromanage Kaisha’s health, and the environment surrounding her, drove a wedge in our relationship. She associated me with the burden of diabetes. The fun drained out of our family dynamic with each finger prick and blood sample drawn.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Resistance and avoidance became Kaisha’s strategies of choice. The more she pushed back, the further I leaned in. I felt bad for her, knowing how much she valued her independence, but this was a life or death situation. I righteously justified my obsessive behaviour as being lifesaving and unavoidable.
I tried my hardest to do it “right.” I wanted her blood sugars to be perfect. Despite every effort, they rarely were. As I met other families managing diabetes, I noticed a continuum. Helicopter parents and fearful children lived on one end, the recklessly irresponsible on the other. I didn’t want to be in either of these extremes.
The turning point came in one word—acceptance. I had to accept that, despite my best efforts to plan and protect, our sweet daughter could die. It took me two years to come to terms with it.
I was powerless to control the outcome of our daughter’s life. I could only mitigate risk. Instead of smothering our relationship and dashing her hopes for freedom and independence, I knew I had to relax and let go.
What happened next surprised me. In the void that was created as I stepped back, I watched Kaisha step forward to fill it.
Kaisha hadn’t been able to step up because I had been taking up all the leadership space. She was now eleven and was a certified babysitter. Not only that, she had specialized knowledge and expertise to care for children with type 1 diabetes. From her pain she blossomed.
Ours is a one-day-at-a-time tale of self-awareness and self management. After seeing the micromanagement pattern a few times, I noticed a direct correlation between my desire to “do the right thing” and her resistance to act as I hoped. The interconnectedness and predictability of this dynamic are remarkable. Patterns are not instantly obvious, especially when multiple people are involved in the dynamic. There is a timing delay inherent in every system, which became evident in our family.
I witness owners’ tendencies to micromanage and project concern onto subordinates all the time. The stakes are high when you own a business. Owners feel they are the only ones who truly understand the consequences of quality deficiencies, poor customer service, and failure to follow up. They may be the only ones to know these things intuitively, but this type of knowledge is easily conveyed through effective training and communication.
Business owners have a hard time letting go of the concern that others can’t perform as well as they can. If this is you, you’ve likely amassed mounds of evidence to prove you’re right. Righteously justifying your corrective actions will never give you the level of engagement you want to see in your employees.
In his book The E-Myth, Michael Gerber suggests every business owner has a personal “three-way battle” going on. He asserts that the inner makeup of most business owners is ten percent Entrepreneur, twenty percent Manager, and seventy percent Technician.
I envision these characteristics not as personalities in conflict internally but as systems archetypes that characterize how each of us is hardwired to perform best at work. Just as athletes are recruited to play a certain position in the game (think offence, defence, and centre), the strengths of the Technician, Manager, and Entrepreneur predict the potential for successful on-the-job performance. Players must be well matched to the position they are expected to play, and the team must be well balanced for optimal performance.
Let’s take a short departure from academic education and work experience. I want you to see people for who they are on the inside, how they think and apply themselves, so you can make better connections to the roles and positions people play in your business.
Let’s start with the three systems archetypes.
Archetype 1: The Entrepreneur. The Entrepreneur’s mind is on the future. At early concept stage, some would say Entrepreneurs have their heads in the clouds and are out of touch with reality. They are analyzing problems, thinking strategically, and identifying links.
On the innovation curve, these are the innovators. They are guided by creative vision and enlivened by abstract concepts and unknown variables. Their need for control enables them to forge new futures from a single inspiring idea. Their “why” draws others in.
The Entrepreneur is oriented to look up and out to the horizon.
Archetype 2: The Manager. The Manager craves order and practicality. Managers are hardwired to implement the Entrepreneur’s bold vision and fill in the details: who, what, when, where, how? Where the Entrepreneur sees opportunity, the Manager sees the problems associated with implementation.
Some Managers are great with people; others are better with processes. Their minds are often in the past as they draw from experience to anticipate and overcome probable challenges. Entrepreneurs need competent Managers to fill in the details and build the infrastructure of the business. Managers who fall into the early adopter category are receptive to bold challenges and novel ideas.
The Manager is oriented to look across and to detect movement, inconsistencies, and flow across the organization or department.
Archetype 3: The Technician. The Technician is the maker and the doer. Technicians are sticklers for detail and take pride in quality workmanship. Their mind is in the present. Being in the here and now allows them to do great work.
Unimpressed by lofty Entrepreneur goals that may never materialize, Technicians are often protective of their work. They perceive a Manager’s probing for delivery details as an unwelcome intrusion. Many see automation as the downfall of society (except for all the great tools) and systems as cold and impersonal.
Technicians are oriented to look down, to focus on what’s in front of them. They have an eye for detail like an artist or artisan. Most Technicians trend with the early or late majority.
Systems archetypes are misunderstood. Each offers a completely different perspective and has an important role to play in team performance and systems design. To build a successful business and a highly effective team, people must operate interdependently, with minimal friction between roles. Once you understand archetypes and performance DNA, formulating the right blend for your company need not be a mystery. By understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each archetype, you’ll be in a better position to help staff to resolve interdepartmental and interpersonal conflicts. Let me give you a few examples.
Have you ever promoted a competent and dependable employee (backhoe operator, baker, sales clerk, programmer) to a management position, only to watch that person fail to meet expectations? That person was likely a Technician who achieved a level of mastery performing an indispensable function (looking down at his or her own work). But in a management position, that person is responsible for ensuring all the systems, processes, and people are organized and functioning well together (looking across). Managing all those moving parts—without an understanding of systems leadership and systems design—can be overwhelming.
Too often we “ass-u-me” that a happy and dedicated employee with a track record of success will naturally excel in a management role. This line of thinking forgets that each systems archetype draws on different core competencies. When we deploy people to a role outside their natural systems archetype, we must offer supplemental training to help them adapt to the new point of view and accountabilities.
Archetypes affect owners, too. When we commit to a role outside our natural systems archetype, strengths that served us well in the previous role can become a weakness at the next level. I’ll give you a personal example to illustrate why business owners need to know their own archetype and performance DNA.
I am an Entrepreneur by virtue of conceiving and starting businesses, but my systems archetype is Manager. Said another way, I am a better Manager than I am an Entrepreneur. I possess characteristics that restrict business growth because my inner Manager needs to ensure everything is set up and working properly. I am oriented toward practical workability rather than the Entrepreneur’s drive for growth and ambition.
Knowing this about myself, I perform best when partnered with a dynamic Entrepreneur. I get to set my inner Manager free to focus on doing my best work: building systems and processes to unleash people, performance, and profit within the organization. I attend to business development details that the Entrepreneur, free to be a trailblazer, simply doesn’t want to stand still long enough to look at. Awareness gives us both freedom.
As leaders we need to provide feedback and development opportunities that help people understand their strengths and identify the source of their internal power. Self-awareness equips people to work toward innovation and success as part of a dynamic and cohesive team. Most of us take our strengths for granted. Sometimes we don’t even consider them strengths because we assume there’s nothing special about what comes naturally to us. How unfortunate, because much can be gained by knowing.
Giving people the opportunity to discover how they perform best unleashes countless advantages into the work environment. People enjoy these benefits:
We must learn new approaches to counteract our tendency to heroically save the day. Once we’ve identified our systems archetype, we need to understand how our performance DNA impacts our work and our interactions with others.
Accept that employees who are learning are going to make mistakes. It’s inevitable. When we can accept that, we hold space for them to step into their leadership and give them room to grow.
Technicians and Managers who eventually became high growth Entrepreneurs have confided in me that learning to release responsibility, let go of tasks, and trust others to achieve the outcome was their biggest leadership challenge. Learning to let go and delegate was the pivotal moment in their growth as leaders—and the point at which the growth and profitability of the business skyrocketed.
Remember: Nobody wants to admit when something isn’t working. Yet precisely this silence perpetuates the social structures and power dynamics that create dysfunction, ineffectiveness, and waste. When we acknowledge what we’re doing and admit it’s not working, we have the power to invent new possibilities.