Imagine yourself riding a motorcycle in a high-speed race. You are at full throttle going round the final bend. Only a delicate balance between gravity and centrifugal forces are preventing you from flying off the track. At that moment, are you in control of your bike, or are you out of control? The answer is you are ‘right on the edge’. Too much ‘in control’ and you probably aren’t taking enough risk, and are unlikely to win the race. Too much ‘out of control’ and the likelihood is you are in for a very painful crash.
In your life, are you in control or out of control? Or, have you found the right balance – not just for you, but for your teams, your colleagues, and for your organisation? Are you pushing the limits constantly, in order to win the race, and, as a result, are you in danger of spinning out of control? Or, are you driving a safe race, within the pack, within your comfort zone, making sure you finish, but never in danger of winning? What about the people you see around you? Do you recognise the cruisers and the risk takers?
The reality of course is that people vary across time and situation. No-one can sustain flat-out, full-throttle, in what they do, without crashing sooner or later (probably sooner!). Everyone needs time for recovery and regeneration, and cruise time (or even pit stop) is a sensible way to achieve that. There will of course be times when the prize is considered worth it, when the risks are deemed to be in your favour, and you decide to go for it. The skill is in the judgement of picking your moment, selecting when best to make your move, and being aware of what you can influence.
Control, is one of the most regular themes that I find crops up when coaching clients.
Some people report that they feel they have no control. They may be in a job where they are not given the responsibility they feel they deserve, they are not involved in making decisions, they believe they are unable to challenge authority. They feel they have more to offer, but don’t seem to be able to get their voice heard. They have a sense of being trapped and helpless.
Others feel out of control. Things are moving too fast, they are expected to make the key decisions, they don’t feel they have the support around them to share the burden, they are in authority and therefore ‘expected’ to be able to handle the pace and responsibility.
Yet others, may have moved beyond a simple wish for control, to a state of not being able to “let go” of control. They retain a tight grasp on the tiller, perhaps fearing that their very identity and existence depends on maintaining this position. Any suggestion of circumstances changing can cause panic, resulting in them tightening their control even more.
The reality is, control is illusory. We believe we can control more of our lives than we actually can. Sandra Sanger’s short article “The Illusion of Control” is worth a read on this subject.
Excessive control can cause damage to both individuals and to organisations. Control stifles creative thinking and innovation (for a balanced argument on this point see the linked article by Cristiano Busco on Control vs Creativity). It diminishes trust and openness, conditions required for healthy workplace engagement.
The irony is that there may actually be more “control” enjoyed in adopting a “flexible” position than working constantly at keeping everything just so. Adopting this stance, will of course call for many people to re-frame their concept of “control”. Those of you who play sports, such as golf or tennis, know this intuitively. Smooth and ‘controlled’ golf swings and tennis strokes, rarely occur as a result of intense concentration on every minutiae of the grip, stance and swing. A relaxed, flexible and natural approach is more likely to produce successful outcomes – resulting in greater ‘overall control’ of your golf or tennis game.
Four great questions to ask clients (or yourself)……
- What don’t you control?
- What have you been trying to control?
- What could you influence that you have not been?
- What actually happens when you give up control?
Recognising how little we actually do control in our lives is a great starting point to allow us to re-appraise our relationship with control. Be selective with the energy expenditure on those areas where it is really worth pushing to the edge. Be flexible, and get to know the areas that you really can influence.
If you feel that you or members of you team would benefit from exploring areas that can make substantial improvements to your effectiveness and productivity, please do get in touch. Simply submit your contact details on the Contact Us page and I will be delighted to get in touch with you for an informal initial chat.
I find when you work to control less, so many more possibilities emerge… outcomes that you would miss if you actually had been able to control and get what you thought you wanted.
oh yes….the ‘art of possibility’ definitely does not come from tying things down – it comes from a freedom of expression and thinking. Thanks for your great comment.
Hi Louis – it was really spooky that I was speaking to people about the illusion of control at a national conference I was co-facilitating yesterday and then I read your blog this morning. Excellent points made … and great stuff for personal reflection!
wow! spooky indeed. Is some telepathy going in here? Thanks for your kind words.
Hi Louis, another interesting and thought provoking article!
It is interesting to think of ‘control’ in the way of riding a motor cycle – in doing two thoughts popped into my head over and above the elements you then went on to review around control in the body of the article…
Firstly, don’d expect to jump of a big powerful racing bike and expect to control it straight out. Here my thoughts were that like an athlete or any professional racer you need to build up actual hands-on experience in order to be able to cope with controlling more ‘flexible’ and ‘faster’ situations.
In this sense, ‘control’ is something that we can learn to better control – we can be clear about what to control and what not to control and how to best get to ‘the line’ in any given situation. In bike terms – we can better command different power bikes (from off-roaders to racing bikes) to get the best out of them and deliver the fastest lap time in different terrains.
In this way, control is put firmly within the context of our own capabilities within a situation. I often find that control is seen as something internal that is somehow separate to what people are trying to deal with.
Secondly, and in agreement with your sense that control does not necessitate rigidity, that control has some element of fear involved, or at least mastery of this fear – one that is again mastered over time by practice. If anyone but a bike racer woke up to finding themselves tearing around a race track at 200 mph they would have a definitely physiological reaction.
It is this physical sense of control that people often struggle with – they have not developed either the skills to manage the external environment (as per the first point) or they have not mastered an internal control of how they respond to the situation. In this sense, one person is able to deal with more stress, pressure than another, or remain focused and deliver at a higher pace than another because of the coping mechanisms they have developed internally.
In terms of your business example – people may well have no control in their working environment and will suffer because they feel the emotional and psychological impact of this without understanding why. Or, they understand it but they have not developed the coping mechanisms to deal with this is a proactive way.
Just a couple of thoughts….
I love the bike comparison and will use this to help explain ‘control’ going forward.
Really glad you found it useful Craig. Thanks for the additional comments too. You can always be relied on to contribute a deeper perspective that adds richness to the discussion.
Good stuff again. My experience has been that fear lies just under the surface when the word control is mentioned. The counter balance, I suspect, is Trust. So if I stop worrying about things I can’t control and build up trust in myself then life looks a whole lot easier. I put this quote out last year:
” The greatest human disease is control, If we controlled less and allowed more – who knows what we could achieve”