Losing your issues with control is different than “losing control” — although in the beginning it may easily feel that way. The fact is learning to lose your control issues can be done in a gradual and more or less controlled way, by making your fears of its loss more conscious and therefore more amenable to reflection, understanding, and constructive action.
How would you do this?
If you have control issues, what you also likely have are emotional reactions or over-reactions. These reactions are an effort to get things back in control as quickly as possible. I react with anger in order to restore the sense of safety and stability my control brings. I hold a grudge in order to avoid the unknown risks of trusting you again. I turn my back on you in order to regain the relationship the way it was or to end the relationship while protecting my version of events. I console myself by reminding myself how smart or right I am. Reactions are a way of holding onto what was, even if that always was a fantasy or an illusion — about our relationship, my power, my stature, my brand, my dream of who I want myself to be.
In the workplace, and especially with leaders, the common sentiment is to deplore individuals with control issues while continuing to promote them for their temperament. Corporations, since legally they are people, want to be in control, too. My point is that shifting away from being a leader with control issues is a matter of both individual change and corporate culture change — and we generally have a hard time with both.
A first step to keep in mind is that the opposite of “control” is “sharing” and how these two things are different. Control is a form of psychological stiffness, rightness, and fundamentalism. Sharing, by comparison implies vulnerability, openness, trust, listening, curiosity, mutual exploration, ownership and decision-making.
A second step is noticing the patterns of emotional reaction that arise in you when your sense of control is violated — frustration, anger, disappointment, betrayal, embarrassment, humiliation, being dominated, etc. Noticing and naming these emotions is vital, even if they are playing themselves out subtly. When you notice them, you have a chance to ask yourself if they are really appropriate to the situation or whether you’ve added something into it that doesn’t need to be there. You have a chance to interrupt your sense of threat and let it dissipate naturally.
A third step is learning to do one thing extremely well: apologize. Why? Because learning to lose your control issues means learning through the “mistakes” you are making with others you are attempting to control.
Now, apologies are not the only thing to do, but they are a perfectly wonderful leverage point. They are, if sincere, little points of risk, little entry points to vulnerability. When you find yourself over-reacting, you can learn to apologize.
If you find yourself holding a grudge, you can apologize and drop the grudge. If you don’t listen to another’s ideas, you can apologize and ask again what those ideas are. If you take work away from someone, you can apologize and give it back with your blessing.
I guarantee, if you do these apologies consciously, slowly, and consistently, over time you’ll still feel the bump of your anxiety but you’ll learn to surrender more to what is real rather than trying to maintain the taxing illusion of control you are holding onto.
Some questions usually arise when I’m working with someone with control issues.
How do you know when you’ve made one of these “mistakes?” You don’t even have to call them mistakes — just notice the emotions and what you did next. You don’t have to apologize for the feeling (although you can). The important thing is to apologize for what you did to regain control that was driven by the reaction or over-reaction. Then, correct the situation, in the direction of sharing.
What if the problem has gone on for a very long time? Go slowly, taking the risk to notice all the emotional reactions and the beliefs that go with them. A belief might be, “He’s incompetent” or “She doesn’t share the same values” or “He’s dishonest” or “She doesn’t respect me.” Notice all of these stories you are prone to tell yourself. Some of these can sound quite convincing (“Yes, but what if it’s true?”) but usually the beliefs are extreme positions and not the complete truth. Then take the risk to approach the other person. Own and apologize for your stories about him or her.
Don’t do it because you are looking for some kind of special response in return. Instead, do it to affirm your true Self, the bigger, better person that you are. Do it because you are sick and tired of the isolating illusions you’ve held onto too long and lived with in order to stay in control.
Here’s the kicker. If you do this well as an organizational leader, focusing on your own development, you’ll soon likely see patterns in how the corporation wants to stay in control, too; how top leadership, for example, can hold a grudge against the employees and vice versa, how people don’t listen to each other in order to be right in their own worlds, how individuals don’t share in the real, emotional work of the corporation in order to make sure practices don’t change. You’ll see how this is part of the heritage and culture of the place as much as any failing of human nature. You’ll wake up to find yourself in a system of control, and you’ll see exactly how self-defeating and mission-defeating that really is.
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