Oswald Letter

Hold on loosely!

by Dan Oswald

Being a good manager is a delicate balancing act. You have certain responsibilities, and the buck often stops with you. Assigning tasks, monitoring progress, and measuring results come with the territory. Look “manager” up in the dictionary, and you’ll find it described this way: “a person who has control or direction of an institution, business, etc., or of a part, division, or phase of it.”

There you have it. That dirty little seven-letter word: control. A lot of managers want to control everything that goes on in the department they manage. The thinking goes something like this: “If I’m going to be responsible for the outcome, then I need to control the process.” And at some level, I don’t blame them.

In fact, a certain level of control is necessary to be successful. Pay attention to nothing, hold no one accountable, and things will quickly go awry. That’s where the balancing act comes in. As a manager, you need to exert enough control to ensure people are making real progress on the right priorities, without having to make every decision and affect every outcome.

The words of a .38 Special song from my youth come to mind. The song is “Hold on Loosely,” and the lyrics read, “If you cling too tightly, you’re gonna lose control.” Ah, the wisdom of classic rock!

.38 Special wasn’t singing about management, but the words hold true for us anyway. Managers who hold on too tightly are going to lose control, the one thing they cherish most. All of us must strike a balance between control and delegation. In the words of Ronald Reagan, “Trust, but verify.”

To delegate doesn’t mean you don’t care about the outcome; it’s that you don’t do it for someone else. People want to feel ownership of their job. They want to feel like what they’ve done matters. They want to think for themselves. And if you’ve done your job as a hiring manager, then you should have people you trust—people capable of doing the job, not of letting you do it for them.

Your job as a manager is to provide direction, give advice, and LISTEN—in the inverse order I just listed them. That is, listen first, then give advice, and finally provide direction. All too often you find managers who believe they should do all the talking because they’re in charge. Instead of shutting up and listening to what their people have to say, they are more command and control. It might make them feel great, but the people who work for them, if they’re any good, will quickly come to resent it.

Good people can think for themselves. Let them have their say. If they need some input, provide it. If they don’t, keep your mouth shut and watch them work! And if they’re lost, provide them direction to get them back on track and then get out of the way. It’s not that hard.

If you want to get the most out of your people, you need to give them room. You need to care about them but not care for them. You need to support them but not fix everything that goes wrong. You need to manage them but not control them. The bottom line is that you’re just one person. If you try to involve yourself in everything that goes on, you’ll spread yourself so thin that you won’t pay adequate attention to what’s really important.

Hold on loosely. If you cling too tightly, you’re gonna lose control!