Tip Sheet: Build a Great Team by Relinquishing Control

For decades, our industry has been built on the backs of intelligent, hard-working PR pros who have exacting standards. You know who you are— type A people who not only demand control, but crave it.

Recent developments in how we communicate have caused us to realize that control—of message, of outlet, of timing and more—is fast eroding. In turn, we’ve shifted our thoughts and actions more toward growing influence.

Yet many PR professionals are still exerting excessive control in another area—the managing of their teams.

“Giving up control of a project or task can be the most challenging aspect of my profession. It seems easier at times to just do it yourself, to be sure it’s done properly,” said Karen Braden, owner of video production firm Mikaren Media Inc. “But I push myself not to do that. How will my employees or associates develop the necessary skills without experiencing that trial and error?”

We’ve all had that controlling boss at one time or another. The micro-manager. The discontent. The “just do as I say” supervisor. It’s inevitable. But it doesn’t have to be you.


Today’s workforce is more empowered than any who came before them—a fact even more apparent among colleagues just a few years out of college. Their ability to receive and process immense volumes of information is staggering. An answer is only a tap of a smartphone away. Autonomy is an expectation, not a reward. So when faced with a controlling manager, their recoil mechanism is wound tight.

At the same time, it’s critical to look to a portion of your employee base that may be craving direction, especially if they have been used to that paradigm for much of their career. Giving them the same degree of freedom that your Gen Y staff demands may, in fact, lead to even greater stress and performance declines.


A reformed command-and-control practitioner myself, I’ve experienced the benefits of loosening the reins firsthand: The Australian team that morphed a solid but conservative global strategy into a buzz-generating local campaign; the new manager who dove headlong into a critical corporate project, applying fresh thinking and earning praise from across the organization; or the client who said, “We trust you, and know you have our best interests in mind. Don’t let us hold you back.”

But how do you get there? Start by applying these best practices to your organization:

Assess what’s possible and what’s desired. Achieving a balance between the needs of your staff, your executive teams, industry norms and even compliance expectations is critical. Realize that making a shift to greater autonomy is an evolutionary process, and will take some time.

Create the environment for change. Be clear with team members about the end goal, the steps you envision and how they can contribute.

Incorporate formal training. Strengthen skill sets among team members that may have lapsed or been nonexistent in a controlling structure. Don’t assume that teams and individuals will simply learn through experience.

Establish checkpoints to maintain quality standards. Mistakes are OK—they’re opportunities to learn—yet must also be resolved in order to ensure that your internal and external customers remain satisfied.

Have the life preserver ready. Leading your high-potential people into deep water can be a good idea, but be ready to pull them out. A little struggle can build knowledge and character, but allowing them to drown will sink your broader efforts.

Be ready to learn yourself. Realize there may be multiple pathways to success. Approach greater team autonomy with eyes wide open, embracing unique, creative ideas that could lead to your own growth.

Celebrate new approaches and teach from failure. Encourage your colleagues to share what worked well, and what didn’t. Make post-mortem reviews something to which teams want to attend, in the interest of becoming even stronger when faced with similar scenario in the future.

• Stick with it. Changing processes and culture doesn’t happen overnight, so resist the urge to take back control. Avoid a yo-yo effect, which will only serve to confuse and frustrate the very teams you’re working to motivate.

Build your team. Lose control.


Mike McDougall, APR, is a member of the PR News Advisory Board, and a communication consultant for businesses worldwide. You can reach him at mlmcdougall@gmail.com.