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15 November 2019

Trapped by control: When our instinct to grab control robs us of our influence to make things happen

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

Control is a mindtrap because, like the others, it leads us in exactly the wrong direction in complex and fast-moving times. And unfortunately, it isn’t that we can hold on to control for the really important things and release control for the unimportant things; it is often the most important things in our lives that are the most impossible to control.

There’s a way we know this. We know that holding too tightly when we cannot be in control actually makes things worse. And yet our bodies are wired to encourage our desire for control. In fact, our happiness itself is connected to being in control of our lives. Our desire for control is unlikely to ever change, but we can shape how we make sense of what it means to have control in the first place.

Instead of craving control, in complexity we have to shift to thinking about influence. We will not be able to make things happen, but we can be thoughtful about how we support the emergence of the things we want. One of the ways to move towards this way of thinking is by having a direction rather than a narrow destination. Having a direction increases our options even as it relinquishes our (false) sense of control over exactly how it will all turn out. Asking: What can I help enable? shifts your thinking and expands your view.

You can also direct this question at yourself. What would enable you to have the life you most want? You might have an image of a particular destination in mind (“I just want to live in one of those beautiful houses on the river.”). You can notice the craving for a destination that you think you should be able to control and see if you can create a direction instead (“I want to spend more of my time surrounded by nature.”) Then you can ask questions about what might enable that for you.

There is lots of writing these days about being more experimental so that we can innovate our way to a better product/ service/ mate/ future. Let’s face it, many of our “experiments” are kind of like the ones we do in high school science. We believe that we can tell beforehand just what’s going to happen as an outcome, and if we don’t achieve that outcome, we figure we did it wrong.

Really escaping the mindtrap of control means watching the ways we wish we had control and knowing that in a complex world, it’s all an illusion. What do you do that helps you learn to enable rather than control?

See more (including the other four mindtraps and ways to escape them) in my Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: How to Thrive in Complexity

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