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Ten Reasons "Controllers"* Don't Recognize their self-defeating patterns

You've seen it. The person who tries to control a situation when they ought to just leave it alone. The guy or gal who can't see that their actions are causing more harm than good. Why do they do it? Why can't they recognize their own fear? Is it "poor insight?" A lack of psychological sophistication? Poor people skills? A bad childhood? Perhaps. But here are some more pragmatic ways to look at it . . . 

  1. It has become a habit. Controlling people control. In their minds, they are helping and often they are. So, the success of "making things happen" creates a Pavlovian-conditioned state (perhaps more Skinnerian) where the behavior is likely to reoccur.
  2. Other people respond to it.  Face it. A lot of people don't want to be in control. They don't want the responsibility for the outcomes and they are happy to give up that role to someone willing to step in and take it. 
  3. It masquerades as knowledge and wisdom.  Confidence, assertiveness, bold initiatives often give the impression that the person "must know" what they are talking about. Right or wrong the controller often is, defacto, given some credit for knowledge or wisdom by reason of their action.
  4. Controlling prevents facing internal pain.  Control is a way of avoiding uncertainty, inefficiency, judgement . . . a host of states that may cause the controller to feel ways they do not want to feel. "Taking the reins" for the sake of preventing these bad outcomes is often done "for others" but really is the controllers way to avoid these emotional states themselves.
  5. It looks like confidence and leadership. Since controlling is an active process, others have to secumb or fight to take an opposing point of view. Controllers, over time, tend to win by attrition as others "give up the field" and simply choose not to fight. The controller "gains ground" simply be their natural tendency toward being on the offensive.
  6. Negative consequences are not immediate. The consequences of the controlling behavior is often accommodated, tolerated, or dismissed . . . in the early stages, especially if the desired outcomes are positive. The organization is growing, the business is making money, or the family is thriving. However, over time the impact of the control implodes. People begin to react to the control. As outcomes diminish people begin to question the controllers behavior, motives, and vision.
  7. It is often disguised in humility and openness. Controllers who don't have good people skills are simply bullies. Those who do have these skills often cloak their control in positive ways. "I only want to help." or "You can, of course, do whatever you want to do. But, I think . . ." implying often that their answer is best.  One CEO, dealing with a benevolent controlling consultant told me, "She's so nice you almost don't mind the way she pushes you around."
  8. Criticism is not allowed.  By "criticism" I mean the critical process of examining ideas thoroughly.  Many controllers are good at making logically sound, quick decisions. They may under-value the process of allowing others to evaluate the decision-making process. This leads to unilateral decisions. Not fully getting other's on board and committed and when the outcomes turn negative leading to blaming the controller for their decisions and behavior.
  9. The motivation is to help. Hard as it may be to believe, one of the reasons controllers don't see themselves clearly is because when they look inwards they know that their motivation is good. They want to help. They clear away the confusion. They prevent inefficiency that is frustrating or hindering others. They get things done.
  10. It works. Bottom line. Controllers control because it works. It achieves the short-term needs of the individual, the team, or the organization. The question controllers fail to ask themselves however is, "Yes, it works, but at what cost?" Often it is at the cost of developing the leadership skills of people working for them, developing an achilles heel of a single vision, or in family business, trampling on relationships. Long-term what works maybe be antithetical to what works in the immediate moment.

Leaders, who tend toward control, need to find ways to check their natural instinct. This does not mean downplaying their strengths or abdicating the need for "controls" in their leadership. It means having good "checks and balances" on their natural tendency.  Develop ways to get feedback from other team members, take time to get an outside perspective, create habits to incorporate others into the decision-making process. See yourself as a resource, an encourager, an enabler . . . and less of a director, tactician or decision-maker. Recognize the leadership need others have for inclusion, affection, and their own control as you lead. Long-term the likelihood of success is greater.

Others working with controlling leaders need to firmly assert the need for the leader to develop a more rounded way of leading. This may not be easy for all the reasons cited above.  The controlling leader is not likely to "see" the need for changes. The appeal is often best couched in terms of the needs of the team or the organization. "We know that you have a lot of strengths. We need to you continue to build on those strengths to meet the future demands," is one way to approach this conversation. Don't wait for the crisis, where the deteriorating conditions force this leader to "admit" that something is wrong. Challenge them to grow and demonstrate a willingness to lead in a way that is often uncomfortable for them but of great value to those they are leading.


* "Controllers" in this context means, "minimally well-adjusted, mentally healthy" people who value control. Controllers here does describe sociopath control issues who control out of a need to dominate others, create win-lose scenarios, and/or who are mentally unhealthy.

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Engaging Your Team: A framework for leading "difficult" people.

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