07/06/18, Cate Nelson-Shaw

What would you recommend?: Giving control to others

Intent-Based Leadership, Leaders at all levels, Giving up control

Imagine the scene, dinner out with family or friends: but instead of excitement and anticipation of choosing your own meal, what if you left the choice up to those who know the menu, the expert waiting staff? Here’s what transpired when a former colleague did just that…

“Could you recommend enough starters and main courses for us, please. A mix of meat and vegetarian, a variety of flavours and textures; and no one has any allergies. Thank you”. You can just about picture the waiting staff’s surprise. They usually expect customers who specify favourites or who are keen to try new flavours, customers who are used to being in control. But what happened to our colleague was a revelation. Starters arrived which would otherwise not have been chosen and that turned out to be sensational…as a result, every plate licked clean and delightfully satisfied customers.

Surely not. Surely we are the experts when it comes to our own taste buds and as customers enjoy making choices based on that?

However, think of it another way…we might know our own culinary preferences and requirements but how well do we really know a menu in a restaurant unless we had tasted every single dish. But, a waiter with their deep understanding of the different flavours and subtleties of the culinary choices available is probably going to be better placed to make that decision for us, allergies notwithstanding.

This has led us to a few simple conclusions: chefs and waiters understand their food available on their menus far better than their customers; menus give us as customers choice yet don’t necessarily encourage us to think differently when ordering as we tend to gravitate towards favourites or known delicacies; most of us are experts on what we like to eat yet probably not experts on the potential of any given dish. But of course, when we are invited to someone else’s house for dinner as guests we buy into the principle they will be choosing what we eat.

Asking a member of the waiting staff to choose your food is an easy way of giving up control to see the potential of another’s expertise; it’s a superb metaphor of how we might find it hard to give up control more generally, even when we might not be best placed to make the decision.

Organisational structures and job profiling embed this problem because they assume decision making and authority is aligned to hierarchy and job roles rather than to experience and knowledge. A waiter taking an order in a restaurant is in essence the same exchange we have when someone at work asks “What should I do?”.

So at work in that circumstance consider this: instead of responding with very specific requirements offer some broad criteria and invite others to use their expertise to make a recommendation. Because giving up control isn’t simply about giving people a sense of ownership, it’s fundamentally about getting a better outcome.

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