You've lost your sense of control. Now what? - SmartBrief

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You’ve lost your sense of control. Now what?

When you lose a sense of control, how can you react? Here are the options, and why creating choice is your best bet.

5 min read


You've lost your sense of control. Now what?


Your sense of control as a leader is in jeopardy these days. How can you feel in control faced with the uncertainties of a global pandemic, racial upheaval, epic environmental events, impending (or current) economic disaster, limited resources and a workforce living in fear and confusion?

Losing your sense of control is understandable. But you need it: Feeling in control is essential for your own well-being, but most importantly for the creativity, innovation and resilience to be the leader your people deserve.

You can seek your lost sense of control in three ways.

Option No. 1: Do nothing

You become a victim when your sense of control is undermined by circumstances, and you don’t act to regain it. Warning signs that you’ve become a victim of circumstance:

  • You shrug problems off with an “It is what it is” attitude.
  • You suffer the consequences of powerlessness: depleted physical energy, a lack of vitality, sporadic depression, frustration, fear and rage.

These symptoms aren’t healthy for anyone, but especially not for a leader in charge of strategic planning or day-to-day operations.

Option No. 2: Create choice

A group of participants in a recent experiment was asked to read about and relate to a person with high position power (a boss). Another group was asked to read and relate to a person with low position power (an employee). The participants relating to the boss felt powerful; the participants relating to the employee felt powerless.

All participants were then told they could buy eyeglasses or ice cream from two different stores. The participants who felt powerless were willing to drive farther and wait longer to shop at the store with more eyeglasses and ice cream choices. Their powerlessness and limited sense of control made them thirsty for choice.

Discovering that people without a sense of control makes them thirsty for choice isn’t surprising. Choice is one of three psychological nutriments required for you to thrive. (You can learn more about choice, connection and competence in this short video.)

You can find your lost sense of control through choice, but to sustain it requires choices that are meaningful (connection) and enable you to manage everyday challenges more effectively (competence). When you quench your thirst for all three psychological nutriments — for choice, connection and competence — you experience a sense of control and maintain it over time.

Option No. 3: Seek power

A common belief is that power and a sense of control go hand in hand. Power is defined as having relative control over other individuals or valued resources in social relationships. But your own anecdotal experience tells you something different: You are a leader, and yet, despite your position power, circumstances have managed to diminish your sense of control. That’s because, ironically, power erodes the psychological nutriments you need for feeling a sense of control!

Power is an external form of motivation. When your leadership is based on this type of suboptimal extrinsic motivation, you compromise the very nutriments of choice, connection and competence required for the optimal motivation you need to lead people through challenging times.

Empirical evidence is clear: Power over people and resources will never help you satisfy the psychological needs that give you a sense of control. You will only find your lost sense of control by gaining power over your own actions.

Beware the power traps

To find your lost sense of control, beware of these five power traps. Then focus on leadership that creates choice, connection and competence.

  1. Beware micromanaging people and resources to feel in control. Focus on empathetically listening to people’s stories, emotional needs and ideas.
  2. Beware telling people what to do because you are the boss (parent, teacher). Focus on providing a meaningful rationale for what you’re asking people to do. When there’s time and opportunity, brainstorm legitimate options within boundaries. 
  3. Beware blaming people and circumstances for your inability to influence outcomes. Focus on engaging in collaboration and community problem-solving.
  4. Beware acting as if you know it all and are above further leadership development. Focus on continuous learning. Show up for training classes and webinars (don’t just introduce a session, then leave, pretending to have mastered it all). Be a role model for becoming a better leader. Reinforce through your actions that improving your leadership is a worthy pursuit.
  5. Beware depending on your position for power. Focus on using your position to empower others.

Power traps prevent you from feeling in control. But by creating choice, connection and competence, you will find your lost sense of control — and help those you lead find theirs.


Susan Fowler is on a mission to help you learn the skill of motivation. In her latest book, “Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals,” she presents an evolutionary idea: motivation is a skill. Providing real-world examples and empirical evidence, Fowler teaches you how to achieve your goals and flourish as you succeed. She is also the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research, and eight books, including the best-selling “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard and “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing.” Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs. For more information, visit

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