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It may seem and feel like controlling personalities are inherently bad, but they aren’t.
In fact, you might be surprised by how much you depend on controlling people to protect you from harm or failure. The roads you drive on, the bridges you cross, and the workplace policies that ensure your safety are heavily controlled by individuals whose responsibility it is to protect you.
The head coach of your favorite college or professional sports team is probably a chronic controller because the stakes are so high. You and countless other fans demand that your team wins and you expect that the search for a new head coach will begin immediately if they don’t.
As a head coach, why would you want your own personal and professional wellbeing to be in anyone else’s hands? You wouldn’t. And so you assume control over how your team plays and how it is managed. In other words, it is not your personality that is controlling; it is the circumstances that invite you to assume control and keep it – at all costs.
It’s when YOU are the one being controlled, of course, that the pain and frustration begin to set in. So it’s important to understand when it’s happening, why it’s happening, and how to deal with it.
When Control Goes Bad
The primary challenge with being in control in a high-stakes, high-pressure situation is that being in control is often its own reward, regardless of what outcomes it produces.
It is the feeling of being in control that is so intoxicating because control assuages the natural anxieties that come from uncertainty, unpredictability, and fear of failure. To let go of this control means to make it available to someone else, someone who won’t be as committed to what the chronic controller perceives as being her best interests.
But when the chronic controller is in control, she knows that the one person who cares most about her own success is calling the shots, and that feels much better than the alternative. She believes in herself and her ability to sail her ship, and she would rather sink at the helm than sail from the comfort of the sundeck.
Control becomes pathological, however, when it begins to erode the contributions of others.
There is a delicate and often elusive balance that must be struck between being in control and giving others the opportunity to enjoy their own relevance and autonomy.
Research I discussed in my 2022 book, The New Superior, explains how controlling or dominating personalities deflate the enthusiasm of those they hold in their control. The reason is because talented, capable people don’t like being controlled to the extent that it makes them feel like spectators in their own lives and careers.
People thrive on feeling relevant and autonomous. And when they feel that way, they usually put forth their best effort and do so quite reliably.
This effort is far more predictive of a team’s success than the control of a single personality who can’t bring himself to give people the space and latitude they require to do what they do best.
The Confidence Threat
Few things may spark the anxiety of a chronic controller more than the confidence of other people.
It sort of makes sense when you think about it. Confident people have more energy, are more decisive, are more creative, and are therefore more willing to take a few risks here and there. So we can expect confident people to be a little more unpredictable and surprising than those who aren’t.
Chronic controllers of the pathological sort can’t stomach the confidence of others and may go to dangerous lengths to deflate that confidence and maintain the necessary feeling of control.
There are three levers that the chronic controller will use to down-regulate the confidence of those around them: chaos, criticism, and confinement. Let’s take a look at each one individually so that we can recognize and understand them when we experience them.
Chaos – You may have encountered individuals who seem to have a knack for destabilizing even the most neutral or relaxed of moments. They become dramatic and theatrical for no apparent reason and you wonder why. Well I can tell you why: They see how comfortable you feel and interpret it as confidence. To destroy this confidence, they put on a show of manufactured panic to make you doubt your own sense of perception. As your confidence deflates, you are perceived as being more in control, which is when the drama stops. But as soon as you gain back your sense of situational comfort, the drama will start up again. This cycle will repeated itself until the chronic controller believes that you are perpetually off balance or that your comfort and confidence are neutralized for good.
Criticism – It is almost impossible to remain confident when your flaws are relentlessly exposed or brought to your attention. Especially when those criticisms come from a loved one or a person in a position of authority, they can feel humiliating and demoralizing. All of us have flaws and are prone to making mistakes or doing things in a “less than optimal” manner. Criticism, which can present itself in many forms, is a convenient strategy for chronic controllers to tamp down the confidence of those in their charge.
Confinement – Confinement can be literal or figurative, but always means the same thing nonetheless. To confine someone is to separate them from the resources they need to thrive. Chronic controllers know that conversation and collaboration are empowering to the members of a team. So is accurate information. If you can deprive someone of information and impair their ability to interact and collaborate with others, you essentially destroy them. The very worst of the chronic controllers in our society and places of work have become so addicted to their sense of control that they’ll go so far as to ruin the lives and careers of very honest, hardworking people who don’t deserve it.
Coping With Chronic Control
In reading this article, I hope you can begin to recognize the pathway that will lead you from the unhealthy grips of chronic controllers. And if YOU are the chronic controller, I hope this article may help you recognize any serious damage you may be causing yourself or your team.
Priority #1: Recognize when the strategies of chaos, criticism, and confinement are being used to control you. Only by recognizing them can you be more effective in dealing with them. Meet with a qualified coach or therapist, or consider writing a journal of what’s happening. Describe the behavior and label it as chaos, criticism, or confinement. Watch for the patterns that emerge and see if you can pinpoint the controlling intentions behind the behaviors that trouble you.
Priority #2: Hold on tight to your confidence. Don’t let anyone take it away. This is not to say that you should be arrogant or cocky; continuous improvement should always be a top priority. But having basic human flaws should never be a reason for you to doubt yourself or your future. Everyone has them, including chronic controllers. Your humanity is what makes you imperfect, but it’s also what makes you a force to be reckoned with. Use that force within you to do great things and never forfeit the confidence that you deserve to have. It belongs to you and no one else.
Priority #3: If appropriate, demonstrate your genuine respect for what’s important to the chronic controller. In most professional places of work, and even within families and communities, chronic controllers usually have honorable intentions but have lost their sense of balance. They are now causing damage to themselves and others, often not realizing what they are doing. Express your appreciation for what the chronic controller does well, assuming you can do so honestly and in alignment with your own system of values. If you can, then look for opportunities to validate the legitimate efforts that the chronic controller is putting forth to protect someone or something. When he knows you appreciate what he is trying to do, he will feel less threatened by you and less motivated to control you.
Life is challenging. It is uncertain, unpredictable, and full of surprises. Maintaining control of ourselves and our lives is what we do to cope with the challenges of it all. But when we are entrusted with great responsibilities, we have to recognize when we reach that critical event horizon where our need to feel in control begins to cause damage.
As a general rule when collaborating with capable people – the damage we are vulnerable to causing ourselves by exerting control over them is far greater than any damage we might cause by simply trusting them.
As a long-term policy of personal and collective effectiveness, trust reigns supreme over control and always will.
John M. Collins is an executive leadership coach at Critical Victories in Southfield, Michigan. He specializes in supporting clients in high-stakes occupations requiring high levels of expertise to earn and retain the trust of the public or other consequential stakeholders. John shares some of his unique philosophies and insights on high-stakes leadership in his 2022 book, THE NEW SUPERIOR – A BETTER WAY TO BE THE ONE IN CHARGE (www.thenewsuperior.com), available in hardcover and audio.
John works with people, teams, and organizations across the United States and oversees. If you are serious about expanding your leadership effectiveness, click below to request a free client strategy call: