Control is never perfect and it is never free

Our need to control things reflects our need for certainty. It has notable downsides like added workload, reduced capacity, less trusting relationships, and solving problems when others only wish to be heard.

When we control, we adopt other peoples’ monkeys. We decide that rather than risk disappointing anyone, we will do it ourselves. It is a classic defense mechanism that inherently limits our ability to influence and lead.

A search for perfect control always ends in disappointment because our world is too volatile, chaotic and uncertain. 

In companies, it often shows up in decision-making processes. Multiple people in a room with varying opinions on the right way forward watch as the control guys battle it out to emerge with the winning answer. It wears everyone out.

During my Big 8 (now Final 4) accounting career, a staffer from another office told a story about a client who kept a loaded revolver on his desk during their audit. They named him the Out-of-Controller. While an extreme example, it represents a person who wanted 100% control of his environment. The gun gave him certainty and significance. My guess is he was rewarded daily with fear, vicious compliance, and derision from his people.

Controlling behavior is not victimless. It creates learned helplessness in our teams when we do not provide the occasion to practice decision-making skills. Also, if our people don’t develop that muscle, they will not be strong enough to take the reins when it’s necessary for them to step into their next role to help profitably scale the business.

For those working with a controlling boss, here is something to remember—he doesn’t control because of egomania, but because he is seeking certainty and a way to overcome the feeling that he is not enough for the moment. It may feel as if that behavior is a direct attack on your trustworthiness, but the boss doesn’t trust himself. So, he grasps the decision or problem and holds on for dear life. You happen to be control-adjacent collateral damage.

Control is never perfect, and it’s never free. When we decide that we are accountable for results and responsible for most decisions, we surrender our present and future to past ghosts and B.S. stories that we aren’t enough.

Maximum effectiveness requires us to be vulnerable enough to share the work with our teams—it strengthens them and sustains us.