Hello, Control! Are you there?

Hello, Control!  Are you there? 

Many people are obsessed with the idea of CONTROL.  Since this is my fourth effort to write this article, I suspect I might be one.

Control is natural, just as having a temperature is natural, so long as that temperature is somewhere around 98.6F.  When your body temperature exceeds 98.6F, then you have a fever, a headache and a problem.   The same is true of control.

Within limits, control is a good thing.  The only person you can control is yourself.  Natural ‘self-regulation’ or ‘self-mastery’ insists that you are responsible for yourself.  So, if during a hunting party, you lose control of your temper and start swearing at the bear you are tracking (let’s say), don’t be surprised when a) the others in your hunting party desert you and b) the bear eats you.

I confess strongly biased views regarding the control of others.  In this I certainly am NOT alone.  Very worthwhile social projects have been hindered, even ruined, because an agency insisted on trying to control, regulate and direct the professional environment, going so far as to tell unrelated agencies what they could and could not do.   A friend was denied a very promising career in medicine because her father insisted she work in his business.  There was no second choice.  (Control always limits options.)  More than one person has been institutionalized because no one thought a physically disabled person could live independently in the community.  (They have been proven wrong many times.)

Despite my bias, I believe that some control is natural and necessary.  Control is understood in relationships in which each party has a role to play.  The supervisor is the captain of the ship; that parent makes the decisions; the kid with the ball plays, or takes his ball and goes home. 

Control is also a function of ability—you speak French much better than I, we’re in Paris, you order dinner for us both.  The captain of the ship defers to the navigator, whose job it is to know how to get from place A to place B.

The abuse of control stems from distrust of others, lack of confidence in their abilities/integrity/character, and is a reaction to feelings of vulnerability.  When one feels out of control, the inclination is to try and control everything else, often with destructive and even self-destructive results. 

Many years ago I had a Board President who couldn’t control a cough, let alone a Board of Directors.  When she was unsure of her facts, she made them up.  She made demands that could not be fulfilled, and flouted organizational philosophy when it suited her.  The more she ‘controlled’, the less capable she was, and the less effective the rest of us were.

Some types of control are very obvious.  The man with the badge tells you ‘no’, and you have no choice.  That is a principle feature of control—your choices are limited or eliminated.  If you don’t let kid with the ball in the game, he will take his ball and go home, and you will have no game.  The other kids may resent you for it, too.  You can be managed by your fear of ostracism.  However you respond, you are responsible for the outcome.

Judgement and criticism are means of controlling others.  A psychologist once opined that many ‘authority figures’ (he was talking about parents) do this to express caring, because they want the best for their children, employees, etc.  But a child who grows up thinking s/he isn’t good enough becomes an adult who thinks s/he isn’t good enough.  The supervisor who never is satisfied with the work of the team ends up with a depressed and defeated team.  What intrigues me is that, in my experience, the judgemental and critical person generally is uninformed on the subject. The idea seems to be, ‘We will hire experts so we can ignore them.’

One of the subtlest forms of abuse of control is Indecision.  I had a supervisor whose standard response was a variation of ‘Well, I’m not sure about that’, sometimes with comical results.  In meetings, little was accomplished because we ended without a sense of finality—he wasn’t sure, or didn’t know, and because of this, we moved on with difficulty or not at all.  There was also a colleague who, to make us think he was smarter than we, liked to respond ‘Not necessarily!’ to everything we said.  Because they would not take a stand, no one else could take a stand either.  We were manipulated by their indecision.

If control is about limiting options of others and forcing outcomes, control also requires taking responsibility for limiting options.  Persuasion requires confidence and trust in others, and allows the relinquishing of responsibility to those better equipped to handle it.  Some of the most persuasive discussions I’ve ever heard never ended, ‘this is what you must do,’ but left the decision to the listener.  The persuasion was in the content.  The persuader trusted the listener’s judgement.

When others are encouraged to see your point of view, acknowledge your need(s), and ultimately choose to do what you have requested, your trust and confidence in them are implied.  We do this every time we go to a restaurant, take our automobiles for servicing, or hire someone to build us something.  The results are more positive and satisfactory.

Control or persuasion?

We may convince others by our arguments; but we can only persuade them by their own.                                      

  Joseph Joubert: Pensées

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