top of page

Is Killing People With Kindness the New ‘My Way, or The Highway’? (controlling behaviour)

You should never take tasks from someone, or they’ll never have a chance to grow their skills. Is kindness the new way to control what others do?

Person inside another person's head controlling their brain

I was in one of my CEO network meetings recently, and three people there had the same issue (although they came at it from slightly different perspectives). They all felt like they were too controlling with their employees, or they saw some of their employees or colleagues as being too controlling. However, none of them were controlling in the dictatorial, micromanaging kind of way we have learned is bad. In all cases it was much more subtle. This got me thinking: We have outgrown "my way or the highway", but actually replaced this ethos with one where you kill people with kindness!

The Nature of Control

So, one of us had an employee who was being too controlling. Another admitted they were controlling themselves, something that was limiting their growth. And the third had a fellow founding partner who was being controlling.

What was interesting to me was that, from a historical point of view, being controlling meant you ordered people around; you told them what to do and, in a way, disempowered them. Maybe you made them feel like you were better than them and, because you had the power, you insisted things were done your way. It was, indeed, “your way or the highway”.

Now, this is an ethos (now partially abandoned) we have been fighting in business for a long time. We tried to figure out ways to break out of this dictatorial practice because it led nowhere. But really, the three people I just mentioned had a control issue but one that wasn’t manifesting itself in that old, traditional way. What they were doing instead was killing people with kindness. Which can actually be much worse.

Same Ethos, Different Name

My colleagues weren’t telling people what to do; they weren’t trying to force a specific way of approaching a problem or even suggesting a solution. Instead, they would ask someone to do something, see what that person was doing, and then they would offer to help.

For example, they would ask: “Could you please do this?”, to which they would reply: “I don’t know how to do that”, and rather than saying, “Well, work it out, crack on, I can’t really do it for you” or giving guidance on how to do it, they would say, “Okay, then, I’ll help you out. We can do it this way. I’ll actually take care of this part myself”. They would basically take the job back; go away, and do bits of the job for them.

Whether this is true or not, the person at the top of the company often considers themselves able to do the tasks better than the person to whom they are delegating. But instead of bossing around telling people how to do something, they end up doing it for them. And the person that had been delegated the task, they eventually give in and think: “If they are going to do it for me, what’s the point in learning, anyway?”.

Hands pulling on string attached to a person / puppet

Now, telling someone to figure it out themselves can empower people to learn; to develop new skills and feel proud about what they achieved. Taking the task back from them can be seen as killing them with kindness. They were trying to be helpful (or trying to make sure the job was actually done the way they wanted it to be done!).

In the modern world, it’s not acceptable anymore to say “My way or the highway”. The only way you can achieve that now is to do things for them. The problem is that, by doing their tasks for them, you can destroy those people. You can ruin them because this whole exercise can make them feel completely worthless! They wanted to do a good job but you are not giving them a chance. So, why bother to do a good job at all, if the other person will do it so much better?

So then, these people end up playing along with that. They want to do a job, and the other person says “Well, I don’t think you’ll be better at that than me, why don’t you help me with this other thing instead?”. With good communication, they could actually do a good job. But at some point, they just stop offering because they don’t want to be told not to bother.

Stop Killing People with Kindness

This is a control issue, but you've achieved it by killing people with kindness. You think you’re helping, but you’re having the reverse effect! In my meeting, one person had an employee do this. Another was the killer herself (and knew it), and the third had the business partner doing it. In that last case, we’re talking about an IT person that apparently knew precisely how to do everything, and as soon as they’d give a job to someone, they’d immediately take it back because they felt the person wasn’t able to do it. This pair had six people working for them, none of them was busy, and they didn’t do the tasks. Everything was taken back.

Now, just because you’re being nice, it doesn't mean you’re not controlling. And it doesn’t mean you’re not harming your employees’ development.

So, what should you do instead? Well, first of all, let them do the job. Support them, but let them fail, too. Allow them to try to do it, give them all the necessary tools, but let them find their way. See what happens. Gradually, they should learn how to do the job and get better at it. The task might not be done as well as if you’d done it, it might not be done as quickly (because “I’m brilliant at this job”), but you can’t do everything.

You need to let that person learn for themselves. You should not try to do everything for them, or they will never develop those skills themselves. Next time you want something done, give the task to the person and tell them (and yourself) “I don’t have the time, you’ll need to have a crack at it”. See what they do.

What you might find over time is that, actually, some of the things a more junior person does is interesting or new. Because they can see things in a different way, they have another perspective. Then, you can get the best of both worlds! You can then tell them you’re impressed, you’re proud of what they have done, and they get a fantastic sense of fulfilment from it.


bottom of page