Who’s the control freak in your business?

watch-icon April 12, 2021

Who’s the control freak in your business?

If you can’t think of a person in your business that is the control freak… then it’s probably you!  

I’m kidding of course, but it’s true that there is generally at least one manager or employee who struggles with the concept of control.  

Control, or lack of control, is a hot topic for leaders in business when we are discussing their culture and business effectiveness.  

Locus of control was developed as a principle by Julian Rotter in 1954. Locus of control considers people’s tendency to believe that control either resides within themselves or it is external to themselves. For example, if I believe that I can control the weather, then I have an internal locus of control. If I believe that the environment controls the weather, then I have an external locus of control. 

Now that’s a bit silly because we can’t control the weather. Let’s bring it to a more realistic example. If I believe that my reaction to my employee’s behaviour is controlled by me, then I have an internal locus of control. If I believe that my employee’s behaviour is annoying, and I can’t control by behaviour, then I have an external locus of control. Like most things, there is a spectrum of internal and external. 

Let’s consider an example. Let’s say that someone has just taken the last tea bag, and you’re desperate for a cup of tea. If you have an internal locus of control, you will see that the missing tea bag has created a sense of loss and longing within yourself. You will also recognize that you have the power to determine whether you allow this loss and longing to affect your day. You also believe that you have the power to find an alternative, such as going to a local coffee shop and asking them to make you a cup of tea. If you have an external locus of control, then you will be upset at the person who took the last teabag. You will say that person is selfish and disrespectful of others because of their actions. You may even believe that they did it on purpose. You will stomp around moaning about how you’re the only one who ever fills up the tea bags. The language that you use is “they have made me angry.” This is an external locus of control behaviour. When you come at it from an internal locus of control, it won’t matter even if they did do it on purpose; you can still control how it makes you feel.

Now let’s pull this back to culture. What does this actually mean? Well, if you have an internal locus of control primarily, then when things happen in the business that frustrates you, you will look within yourself to decide what you can do to change it or how you can accept it. You’ll look within yourself to see how you can modify your reaction to it. You can check in with your own behaviour and determine how you’re contributing. When you have an external locus of control and something in your environment is frustrating you, you will look for somebody else to create the change that you require. You will look to someone else to allocate blame. It was the leader’s fault for making that decision and that’s why I got frustrated. It’s the procedure that we’ve got in place that creates my frustration and I can’t do anything about it. It’s the employee’s fault because they just ‘don’t get on with it after the change.

Having a truly external locus of control within culture actually breeds a sense of victim. It is important to examine this within yourself. When you have an external locus of control, you are handing over your power and control to the outside world. Why would you want that?

Individually when you think about control, we have to think about what we can control and what we can’t control. There are things that we cannot control. We cannot control the weather. We cannot control some else’s behaviour. What we can control, however, is ourselves – our own behaviour and our reactions to other things such as the external influences. Therefore an internal locus of control is preferred and is an indicator of a person’s success potential.

When looking at control in a workplace, there is a tendency to believe (or behave) that managers must have full control over the work of their team. When this thought is allowed to foster, you end up in with a micromanagement situation, which is not good for anyone. The manager will end up burned out from trying to be everything to everyone, and the employee will be completely disengaged. This isn’t just a phenomenon of managers. A person who is the holder of a processes, for example, a risk auditor, may believe that they have to have full control over the process to enable it to happen in the right way. 

This is an ineffective way of behaving because everyone’s performance is compromised. 

Unfortunately, what happens in workplaces is that when we start talking about culture and creating a new way of working that is more collaborative and constructive, the pendulum swings dramatically in the opposite direction. The person may go from ‘full control’ to ‘no control’, and back again. This usually occurs when the person decides that they need to change, but don’t have the mature skills or support to do so. 

They want to appear to be a ‘collaborative leader’ and therefore hand over control to their people. Some of their people go yay and get on with their work. Others head into a fear of failure and don’t know what to do. So the manager then takes back control because the person has not done their job. After a while, the manager realised that they can’t do everything and hand the control back to the people, and again the fear returns. The manager doesn’t know what is going on, and neither do the people. Swing that pendulum back and forth. 

No wonder people get confused, and productivity decreases. This is the “all or nothing” approach to life that is all too common in business.

A better position is understanding that reasonable controls are important to produce high-quality outcomes, while still ensuring that the employee is completely responsible and accountable for the outcomes.

Control is not a dirty word. It’s not an all or nothing concept. There is a middle ground to control.

Setting and maintaining boundaries actually makes people feel safe. You can give them free range to be who they need to be and figure out new ways of working, within the boundaries. Autonomy does mean every person is allowed to do whatever they want. You’ll have a very unruly business if that’s the model you adopt. Setting clear expectations and boundaries allows for a better method of control.

Through conversation, collaboration (the real kind), plans, systems and accountability you can create an environment where controls are in place and people have the autonomy to get on with their job.

There’s no need to be a control (or lack of control) freak in business. There are systems and methods that once deployed allow you and your people to deliver great results and enjoy the work you do.

Michelle Holland