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The insatiable desire to control

4 min read


It’s mythical and alluring, that thing that you may secretly desire. It surfaces slowly and silently unseen, unheard and often unrecognized. It hides within the facade of your ego, growing larger with time while blinding you to its presence.

Make no mistake. It will destroy you and your organization even while it parasitizes your values and harms the spirits of those who once willingly followed you, but who now trudge along like sheep going to slaughter.

“Why aren’t our employees more innovative?” you exclaim, and the question “Why must I carry the burden of being all things to all people?” is keeping you up at night.

You’re blind to it when it surfaces, this thing named control. Yet it makes you feel powerful. The desire to control will surface throughout your leadership career. The trick to keeping control at bay is be aware when it surfaces and to let go of it (this is the hard part) when it’s appropriate. It will go back into hiding, but, trust me, it will come back later.

Watch for it to show its ugly head, because it can be an organization-killer. It silences the very people who need to come forward with their best. It buries creativity and innovation. And it requires a burden of you that nobody should have to carry; one that in reality, is an illusion because there are actually very few things you can control — especially people.

People are messy and imperfect. They do their best work when you let go, allowing them the freedom to do things their way and encourage their risk-taking. You will be the kind of leader who gets incredible results when you release the control burden you’ve carried.

Recognize the signs of your need to control as it surfaces:

Perfectionism in what and how you expect others to do the work; you’re explicit in your directions. You chastise your employees for mistakes and don’t allow deviance from the way things must be done (note: this is most often “your way”).

Conformance among your employees. Nobody dares to stray from “the way things are done” according to you. You keep telling them to be creative while expecting them to do exactly as you’ve instructed. Creativity is killed and your rising frustration and impatience with those who “don’t get it” only makes things worse.

Silence when you ask for input on how the work should be done. Honestly, why should they bother? Whenever your employees suggested trying something different, your need to invoke control showed in your resistance. So now you hear nothing from them (further fueling your frustrations).

Churn as your best and brightest leave the organization for places where they can learn, grow and use their talents. The best employees want freedom, so they’ll only stay in your organization long enough to find another place where they can learn.

Control just doesn’t work anymore. When employees aren’t allowed to exercise their free will, they’ll either stay and become automatons or they leave for an organization where their skills, abilities, and talent are welcomed.

I know it’s difficult to let go, but your need to control others may be hampering your employees’ willingness to be at their best and your organization’s ability to thrive. When you let go of your need to control, you’ll feel a burden lift. You no longer have to be the center of your employees’ world, and they become free to use their strengths and to be at their best.

Mary Jo Asmus is an executive coach and a recovering corporate executive who has spent the past 12 years as president of Aspire Collaborative Services, an executive-coaching firm that manages Fortune 500 corporate-coaching initiatives and coaches leaders to prepare them for bigger and better things.