HomeNovember 2012Balancing control and empowerment

Balancing control and empowerment

Getting the balance right between control and empowerment is the ultimate management skill – the skill that is nearer an art than a science, writes Conor Hannaway.

There is a story told of a new conductor who, during his first week in charge of a prominent orchestra, kept beating his baton on the podium much to the annoyance of the distinguished musicians.  “Back to the top” he would direct them.  Eventually, an exasperated tuba player stood up and respectfully addressed the rookie conductor: “Maestro, I must warn you that if you continue beating the podium with your baton, we will start playing the way you are conducting”.

Conor Hannaway
Conor Hannaway

Managing a team of professionals is not easy.  Getting the balance right between control and empowerment is the ultimate management skill – the skill that is nearer an art than a science.  It has unfairly been referred to as trying to herd cats. Like most arts, it cannot be one dimensional but relies on a number of perspectives to guide the way people act and what they will achieve.

Numbers are an essential dimension in managing the performance of professionals.  They can inform us about what needs to be done and can tell us how we have done.  However, surprisingly, numbers do not handle on-going management with the certainty that is often required.  One approach is to increase the frequency of reporting but doing so can be both costly and time-consuming for professional staff.  They react with accusations against bureaucrats and it is a frequent cause of friction between managers and professionals.

A second approach is limit the numeric controls to key variables and identify a number of critical areas which are subject to regular monitoring and review.  These strategic measures are best better discussed than written.  Monthly review meetings are good times to discuss these issues.  Major variances to these critical factors should be reported on a real time basis.  That is, if something ‘big’ comes up, it reported on orally and, in this day and age, electronically. In this way, strategic control is maintained.

For managers who are trying to let go of the reins, a different approach is to manage the boundaries rather than the people.  The idea is to give professionals freedom to operate within certain limits.  Policies, procedures, generally stated budgets and extended approval limits are ways in which this approach is implemented.   The big advantage of this approach from a people management point of view is that it builds motivation and commitment. They can get on with the work without looking over their shoulders.  It also increases accountability by moving decision-making on most issues nearer to the front line.

It has unfairly been referred to as trying to herd cats.

If you can be sure that people will operate within boundaries then dispensing with close supervision is possible. Senior managers can play their part by their leadership. Being explicit about vision, values and expected behaviours helps to build an organisatonal culture in which people intuitively understand the boundaries which operate to guide what they can and cannot do.  Taboos also play their part.  Training, regular communication and sanctions for breaches of boundaries are important.

These four approaches – numerics, strategic control, boundary management and culture building – were first described in an article titled Control in the Age of Empowerment in 1995  when the management of knowledge workers was still emerging as a management science.  They are employed in leading corporations around the world. A distinctive combination of these approaches can contribute significantly to a sophisticated, multi-dimensional model for the management of professionals in the Irish health services.

Conor Hannaway, Director, SHRC Limited