Swapping Control for Influence

It seems these days that you don’t have to look too far to find frustrated leaders. They’re easy to spot by the cloud hanging over their heads. Nothing is going right and no one is doing enough of what they should be doing. Several quickly come to mind for me. In fact, I used to be one myself.

Maybe you recognize some of the traits. You think you need to control projects, machines and people. Perhaps, you feel that if you were clever enough you could have some control over your customers and competition. But this kind of thinking is doomed to frustration. No matter how hard you try to control things, it seems the people or systems are pushing back, which only emboldens an even stronger need to get control of the situation. It’s a never ending problem and one that can physically and emotionally wear you down. I can relate to the experience. It all got better for me when I gave up trying to control my environment and started influencing it to get the results I needed.

Control and influence are much different. Leadership seeks to influence while management seeks to control. Leadership influences for change. Management controls for a predictable outcome.

People are most often the target of our control efforts. People by their very nature resist control. Trying to control people is maddening if not impossible. It’s nothing short of manipulation when threat or coercion are necessary, and it never works. You might get compliance for a while but that’s it. People don’t like being manipulated. Even if you do succeed, eventually they’ll even the score, often in subtle but effective ways. Control asks them to comply with your goal. Influence helps them to accomplish their own goal with your help.

Sometimes a picture helps to illustrate the point. When an individual seeks to control another, most of their combined energy is lost in pushing back on one another. Ultimately, the one with the greater energy wins. Contrast that to influence. Here, instead of pushing head-on, the two come alongside each other and with their energies combined, accomplish much more.

Control also limits ideas. When I seek to control a situation I’m doing so to produce a specific outcome. In some situations that’s necessary. But in most cases what I really want is the contribution of others to find the best solution. That contribution and creativity is lost when I control. It’s nurtured when I influence.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when it comes to control.

  1. Do you have a control issue? Recurring frustration is the control freak in you screaming to win. Most leaders have some control freak within them. That’s OK. Ask yourself though if it’s a problem for you or those you lead. One way is to monitor your frustration level. How often do you smile or laugh?
  2. Does the situation require control? Can there be some flexibility with the outcome. Just because your boss is controlling, do you need to be the same?
  3. Can you actually get control of the situation? Decide what you can control and what you can’t. It’s OK to have high expectations but remember that some things, no matter your expectation, are still going to be out of your control. You can’t control everything and despite the temptation, you certainly can’t do everything. One of the great liberations of life is choosing to focus your energy on things within your control and letting go of the rest.
  4. Is the situation worth your emotional energy to gain control? Pick your battles and stay out of the others. Decide what’s really necessary to get right and what can be left as just OK.

Beyond that, practice transparency and honesty in your communication. Show confidence in and affirm others. Show respect for others and listen to them. It’s hard to control in an environment of engagement, empowerment and delegation. Those attributes can only exist with influence.

Believe it or not, the people around you usually want the same things you do; to be part of a successful company, to take pride in their work and to contribute in a meaningful way to achieving the goals of the organization. All too often, by trying to control the means and the outcome we deny them the joy and satisfaction of work and we deny ourselves the contribution they’re capable of making.

It can seem counter intuitive, but if you’re frustrated with not being able to better control outcomes, it might be time to consider a change in thinking. Think influence, not control.

If you’d like to learn more about how to give up some control to gain influence, reach out to me through our website or the “contact us” tab on this page.

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