How To Controlling People

It was a very sobering idea for me to discover that I was a controlling person. I didn’t like the idea at all. In fact, I’d been working very hard, for as long as I could remember, to be a noncontrolling person. I wanted to embody a “live and let live” philosophy.

I’d experienced ultra-controlling people throughout my life and, no sir! There was no way I was going to be like that. I’d burned sandalwood incense sticks, taken long walks along the beach, and listened to peaceful music. I did all the right things to get in the zone of being a noncontrolling person.

Even in my professional life I thought I’d found a way to be noncontrolling. While I was training to be a teacher I had been introduced to the idea that “The job of a teacher is to teach their students to get along without the teacher”. That attitude resonated strongly with my “live and let live” perspective and I embraced it. Later, when I became a parent I applied the same idea to parenting – the job of a parent is to teach their children to get along without the parents. As a psychologist I think that the job of a therapist is to teach their clients to get along without the therapist. Is the job of a manager to teach their staff to get along without the manager?

It was all going along so swimmingly until I discovered an explanation of control known as Perceptual Control Theory (PCT; www.iapct.org; www.pctweb.org). Initially, this theory really did my head in. PCT explains that everyone is a controlling person. What the?! That must mean everyone except me. Uh-ah … me too.

Early on in my learning of PCT I discovered that there’s nowhere to hide when it comes to control. Even being noncontrolling is control. Paradoxically, subscribing to a “live and let live” mandate is a control process. I like to see myself as a “live and let live” type of guy. When it seems I’m not behaving in a live and let live kind of way, that bothers me and I do things to correct it. Correcting things so they stay more like the way you want them to be is control in a nutshell.

Teaching other people to get along without me – whether it’s my students, my son, my clients, or my staff – is a control process. I have things I like to see and hear that give me the sense that other people are depending on me less and less. I really like it, for example, when other people figure out solutions to a problem they’re experiencing and share their solutions with me. I become somewhat perturbed, however, when other people come to me with problems accompanied by expectations that I will fix the problem.

When clients I’m working with want me to provide them with strategies, or when staff I’m managing want me to solve problems they’ve encountered, I get uneasy. This is not what I want to be seeing and hearing. In these situations, I do what I can to once again experience people solving their own problems. Doing things to experience what you want to experience is control.

Working hard to not control others is, ultimately, controlling. It took me a while to reconcile the idea that my “teach the staff to get along without the manager” mindset, was just as controlling as the micro-managers I like to avoid. It turns out that we’re all “control freaks”.

You can tell something is a control process by what happens when things do not go as planned. When I’m working with staff who like to solve their own problems, things just hum along peacefully and productively. If I encounter, however, a staff member who has an expectation that managers solve problems for them, then ripples begin to appear on the mill pond.

The hypothetical interaction might go like this: the staff member comes to me with a problem; I reflect the problem back to the staff member (and become aware that I’m feeling a little bit frustrated at spending my time this way); the staff member seems a little irritated and asks me what I would suggest; I begin to feel pressured to come up with an ideal solution and I offer some tentative and feeble questions about possible avenues to explore (with an inward sigh and a growing sense of backing up into a corner); the staff member feels fobbed off (yet again) and more urgently presses for an answer; I’m becoming crushed by the weight of the responsibility to produce the perfect, satisfactory solution, so I offer a few more inadequate strategies; the staff member, who knows very well all the complexities of the problem, immediately sees the holes in my ideas and explains curtly why they won’t work; and on it goes with both my staff member and me becoming increasingly dissatisfied.

In this instance, neither my approach nor the staff member’s approach is right or wrong. They are just different. And because we are both controllers, we have a recipe for turmoil when we share the same environment. I’ll be doing things to experience the workplace the way I want to experience it and the staff member will be doing the same thing. Since I am in the staff member’s environment and the staff member is in mine, we will both be doing things to each other to make our environments be right (from our different points of view). The problem isn’t with either one of us. The problem is with both of us. We want our shared environment to be in different states at the same time.

Recognising people as controllers is very helpful for understanding and improving interactions. I can still maintain the attitude that I’m doing a good job when other people I’m working with are learning to get along without me and, at the same time, I can accept that there will be speed bumps to negotiate whenever I work with a person who has a different expectation of my role. The speed bumps don’t arise because there’s something wrong either one of us. We’re both just controllers who want a shared space to be in different states at the same time.
So don’t avoid control, embrace it. Learn about it and appreciate it. Thinking of people as controllers will provide you and everyone who is caught up in your web of control with the best knowledge possible to calm the waters and set out on a lifetime of smoother sailing.