Leading When So Many Factors Are Outside Your Control

Regardless of where you work or what you do, there are so many important factors that are totally out of your control.

No matter where you work, no matter what you do, there are so many factors that really matter and yet are totally out of your control. It feels very much like there is nothing you can do:

Change is a constant, and constant change is the new constant.

Competition for limited resources is a constant, and perpetually constrained resources are the new constant.

Interdependency is a constant and increasingly unavoidable in today’s complex world.

Technology continues to expand the potential boundaries and parameters of management relationships – widening spans of control and making remote management increasingly common.

Globalization and diversity are increasing the instances of working with people of different languages and/or cultures.

Navigating around external factors

No matter what you do, you are not going to eliminate these external factors. You need to navigate through and around these factors and help your direct reports do so as well. Here’s the problem: If you allow yourself to get caught in the wrestling match of trying to eliminate or obviate these unrelenting forces, you get distracted from the one thing you can control: Your one-on-ones with your direct reports. Here’s the irony: The more you try to eliminate or obviate the forces outside your control, the less time you have to spend with your direct reports. In this minefield of complexity, most employees need much more—-not less—- of your guidance, direction, support, and coaching. Yet, the more complex the minefield, the more likely the manager will be drawn away from his direct reports to negotiate with outside players on these external factors.

This is not quite as big a problem for a manager with one or two or three direct reports, especially if they are right there working alongside the manager much of the time. What if you have four, five, six, sixteen, or sixty? You might well have direct reports who are working sometimes or all of the time in a different location from you or on a different schedule. You might have employees who don’t speak the same language as you. or who are accustomed to a different culture. Yet, you are no less likely to have to deal with the vagaries of constant change, constrained resources, and interdependency.

I hope for your case that your situation is nowhere near as complex and difficult to control as that in the story I’m about to tell you:

A senior production manager (I’ll call him “Skipper”) ran a team of production engineers and technicians whose specialty was customizing highly sophisticated navigational systems for vehicles—- mostly for military sea-craft. They had a big order that required review by national security officials because it had military implications.

Skipper explains: “[The] approval process was on again and off again for two years, and it creates havoc for my team. . . Every time we get the green light, we ramp up and try to make progress. Then we get the word that the green light was really a yellow light. I’m trying to handle all this uncertainty and protect my team from it.”

Meanwhile, I should add that Skipper’s team of engineers and technicians was split physically between two production facilities. “Granted, they were only a few miles apart, but it just would have been so much easier for me if everybody was in one place.”

Finally, the project received the necessary government approval to proceed, but the approval was contingent on replacing one of the components in the systems with an alternative component that was “less secret.” This, in turn, caused their customer (the national government of a country in East Asia) to require that they obtain the alternative components from a designated supplier in this East Asian nation.

On top of all that, the language gap required the use of a translator. There were significant delays in getting the alternative components. When the shipment was finally delivered, the components were not right and had to be modified by technicians on Skipper’s team.

Skipper says: “This production manager, through a translator, keeps telling me ‘yes, yes, yes.’ Then he comes right back and tells the guys on my team, ‘no, no, no.’ So I’m back on the phone with him, and he is saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ Then he tells my guys, ‘No, no, no.’”

What was going on?

Skipper explains: “Finally, one of my colleagues who had spent time in this country says to me, ‘You are the boss. This is a very hierarchical seniority-based society. The manager is trying to be polite and proper. It’s not right in his culture for him to say ‘no’ to you because you are senior to him. So he calls your guys, who are on the same level as him, and says, ‘I told your boss ‘yes,’ but really the answer is ‘no.’ When we finally got to communicate about the details, we were able to work it out.”

This went on for several years. What did Skipper learn? He says: “I realized that I had spent a lot of time beating my head against the wall focusing on things that were totally out of my control. In the process, I was neglecting the area where I had the most control, which was keeping my team informed and involved. Most of the engineers and technicians insisted they were fine with all the change and all the hoops they had to jump through. They just hated feeling like they were in the dark a lot of the time. Instead of making them feel protected [and informed], I was unavailable and distracted, and they were left ‘in the dark.’ Once I [got] back in the swing of the regular one-on-ones, our internal communication improved dramatically. After that, they knew what I knew, which put them in a much better position to contribute to the planning and contingency planning. My mantra in those one-on-ones became, ‘Focus on what you can control.’”

Bruce Tulgan
Bruce Tulgan is a best-selling author and CEO of RainmakerThinking, the management research, consulting, and training firm he founded in 1993. All of his work is based on 27 years of intensive workplace interviews and has been featured in thousands of news stories around the world. His newest book, “The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment, and Get the Right Things Done” ( Harvard Business Review Press) is available for purchase from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all major booksellers. Follow Tulgan on Twitter @BruceTulgan or visit his Website at: rainmakerthinking.com.