Get Beyond the Illusion of Control

If you live long enough, you realize that so much of what happens in life is out of your control, but how you respond to it is in your control.Hillary Clinton


To make sure we’re discussing the same term, let me offer definition one from Merriman-Webster.  “Control – to direct the behavior of a person, to cause a person to do what you want.”  I define it with a bit more color as the ability to get people to do what you want, when and how you want – and to act like they want it too.  As the above title suggests, I believe that control is an illusion, a dangerous self-deception that is driven by fear.


It is possible to coerce behavior?  The answer to that question is a definite maybe, assuming that force against interest is strong enough, the person has the capability to perform, AND you don’t push him beyond a boundary.  But, coercion isn’t control, because you can’t make people pretend to like it, you can’t compel performance without capability, and performance won’t continue once the coercion stops.  Simply, I believe that I can’t make people do something they don’t understand, can’t do, or don’t value.


So, why do people cling to the illusion of control?

1 – Belief in “self-reliance” – Most people have been conditioned to believe that, if you work hard enough, you can accomplish anything.  This belief often leads people to the point where it’s not just about controlling yourself but also about controlling other people or even circumstances.

2 – Fear of failure due to dependence – Even worse, most important goals require coordination with others.  We all rely someone – for help, support, resources, something.  If you fail because you didn’t work hard enough, then you get what you deserve, but failing because some one else didn’t deliver feels somehow unjust.

3 – Desire to realize your own viewpoint – Don’t just bring me a problem, bring me a solution – that’s a common refrain among the masters of the universe.  The challenge is that, when you craft your solution, you must first satisfy yourself that the solution is a “good” one, that it will please important people and solve the problem.  So, once you decided that your solution IS good, your goal then becomes getting it implemented without any changes.


But, what’s the problem with living the illusion?  The main problem is that you can put your own purpose and goals at risk.  People who feel controlled may not speak up, even when they don’t understand something or lack some needed skill.  In fear, they still might attempt to perform, but then actually create more problems than value.  Without true commitment, you probably won’t get someone’s best thinking or greatest effort.  Finally, if a person feels truly coerced, he might seek to evade that coercion, or even react by undermining your efforts.


So, how can a person give up the illusion of control yet still get their needs met?

  • Recognize where you do have control – You can control your own choices, and also how you react to others’ choices.  You can separate emotional reactions from the decisions and actions you take.  You can decide when and where and how to engage others.
  • Ask directly for others’ commitment – My favorite question is “will you do this?”  I never ask can you do it or how would you do it, unless I am trying to coach someone.  If I want to test commitment, I ask a yes/no question about commitment.
  • Confront collaboratively when people don’t keep commitments – Confronting here simply means to engage the off-track performance – you’re getting something different from what you expected.  Collaborative here is about your style – it must be direct, descriptive, but non-judgmental.  The opening line is “I expected this (result or action) , but I got this other (result or action).  Can you help me understand why?
  • Diagnose causes of off-track performance – Did the person not have the same picture of what you expected?  Did they hit roadblocks – problem or conflict – which they couldn’t resolve?  Did they lack skills needed to perform?  If they tried, did they get punished in some way?  If so, then you’ve learned the true reasons for off-track performance – despite any effort to “control.”
  • Implement valid remedies – If unclear expectations, then clarify or model or coach.  If roadblocks, then move the block AND coach problem solving or conflict resolution.  If another skill gap, then train or coach.  If people are getting punished for doing what you want (or rewarded more for doing something else) then work to change those outcomes.
  • Don’t encourage dependence on your “control” – In your desire to control, if you “fix” every problem, then I will guarantee that you will have an endless supply of others’ problems.  If you want others to perform, you have to manage expectations and capability and natural consequences – not fix everyone’s problems.