Joao Alves

Engineering Manager at Skyscanner

Leading with Context vs Leading with Control

Posted at — Apr 14, 2021

Netflix’s new book No Rules Rules was quite an interesting listen and opened another topic for me to think about and explore. I wrote last month about Compensation but in this article, I’ll focus on the differences between Leading with Control and Leading with Context.

Trust

I could replace Context with Trust in the article title and all would still make sense so let me start with that. There’s only a possible reason for us to lead with control, and that is if we don’t trust the people around us to be successful at what they do. It’s our job as managers, leaders, mentors, colleagues to set everyone around us for success. How do we do that? By helping them when needed, by giving them all the context they need to do their job well.

But let’s look at the image below and evaluate some of the key differences between both styles. The choice seems pretty obvious, a culture of trust that empowers people to own things and make decisions, where you have self-directed teams is the way to go. In places where such a culture exists, innovation occurs naturally, things move faster, and ultimately people are happier.

image

I hope you’re already convinced on which style we should all follow as managers 🙂, but keep reading as I explore some of those points above in more detail.

Delegation

When transitioning into a leadership position, one of the things we hear about all the time is delegation. We have to master the art of delegation, we need to let go of things and let our team take ownership and deliver themselves. That’s hard enough to do initially, hence so many new managers being so hands-on. But even when we’re past that, a lot of us try to keep control by not doing the work but still defining the solution. Most of us probably even do it unconsciously at this stage but it’s important to be aware of it and stop it before it becomes a strong habit.

Delegation is not the same as sharing a solution with someone and asking them to do it. We should focus on describing the problem, providing guidance and when required (more on this below), share some expectations. People, with the right context, should feel empowered to take any problem and drive it. Will they make mistakes at times? 100%, we all do. A blame-free culture is crucial, it’s important to be there next to them and help them and everyone else learn and grow past those.

Guidance

Some people are not as autonomous and proactive depending on their level, and won’t likely own big tasks to start with. These people will need more guidance and feedback than others and that’s fine. But notice the word I used, guidance and not control. By all means, we should all provide more context and guidance in those cases but still focusing on not sharing solutions and sharing problems and outcomes instead. We should think of it as adopting coaching vs mentoring.

Bonus points here if we delegate that coaching/guidance opportunity for seniors members on the team to take. If we’ve been modelling the right behaviours, that will likely happen naturally even without our involvement.

Feedback

Feedback is crucial when leading with context. It’s important to offer both positive and constructive feedback to people when using this style of management. We’re not offering a solution but that doesn’t mean we should let someone in the blank not knowing if they’re making the right decisions or not, this will have the opposite effect of what we want. Feedback will help people do more of what’s useful and expected and less of the opposite.

When something doesn’t exactly go to plan, and there’s a need to provide extra guidance or constructive feedback, it’s also a good idea to start with a self-assessment on us and the context we shared initially. Why do we need to share this constructive feedback? Did we provide the person with the right amount of context for them to be successful? Maybe we did, and that feedback will be fair, but maybe we didn’t, so it’s important to be aware of that and also work with them and get their feedback.

Invisible Control aka Process-Heavy Environment

This particular section is not as much about a leadership style but I believe it’s worth calling out. A process-heavy environment will indirectly exercise some form of control over things as well. We as managers are responsible for creating and reviewing some of those processes, so we need to keep this in mind and making sure we’re not indirectly leading with control.

Think about how much context vs control a particular process is putting in place. Look for processes that regularly slow a team down, look for improvements. Empower people to do the same.


Since the article was heavily inspired by the book, it makes sense to finish with a great quote from Reed Hastings, Netflix’s CEO on the subject:

The best managers figure out how to get great outcomes by setting the appropriate context, rather than by trying to control their people.

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