The Illusion of Control

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 16, Issue No. 7a
November 1, 2017

By Dan Coughlin


For the past 20 years I’ve been an advisor to executives and entrepreneurs. Many times I’ve heard comments from my clients about wanting greater authority and control. They sound like this:

  • “If I had more control over people, I could get so much more done.”
  • “If I could be put in charge of that department (or that division or that product launch) and had people reporting to me directly, I could solve the problems pretty quickly.”
  • “If I just started up my own business, I would be able to build the culture the way I want it to be and could make decisions and get the results I want.”

Many times the person does get more authority, and then he or she explains to me that it’s not as easy to get things done and achieve the desired results as he or she thought it was going to be originally.

What is Always Out of Our Control?

Here’s a quick overview from the macro to the micro of what is out of our control?

Natural Disasters

Just recently in Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico, and California we were all reminded again that natural disasters do strike very hard and in very real ways. Homes were washed and burned away in just a few hours.

Evil in the World

The horrors in Las Vegas and Hollywood reminded us again that evil is still alive and well, and can strike when and where we least expect it.

The Economy

We can invest in our businesses based on a strong economy today only to find out it has collapsed a few months later. Remember 2008.

Industry Trends

Things shift that are outside of our control. Think of the social media platforms that have come and gone over the past fifteen years. We barely knew some of them before they left us.

Personal Crises

Disease, death, and divorce can turn a person’s life upside down. If it happens to us or to an employee, it can affect our ability to get things done on the timeline we had planned.

Mistakes in the Workplace

We thought we had everything under control. We planned everything out. Everyone did what we told them to do. And then bang, a human error. Something we could not control happens. And there goes the control we thought we had.

Disgruntled Employees, Suppliers, and Customers

This is the one that we can count on throwing off our plans more than anything else. An employee takes a “personal day” during an important project because he or she is ticked off at what is happening in the organization. We tried to tell people what to do so often that they decided to go work somewhere else. Customers got tired of feeling helpless, and they just left. Or they left for a better financial deal. Same with suppliers. The “control” we thought we had is an illusion.

Influence Others, Don’t Control Them

Here’s the great irony I’ve learned in 20 years of working with senior-level executives and entrepreneurs. They don’t really control all that much. Their success depends enormously on the decisions and behaviors of other people. Specifically the people who are responsible for doing specific tasks in the organization.

You can’t control those people. They are not robots. They are humans. The key is to focus on trying to influence how they think so they make decisions that improve results in a sustainable way. That is leadership. That is the one thing you can provide. It doesn’t mean that other people will always do exactly what you want them to do the way you want them to do it, but it is the one ability you can develop and deliver that might improve results in a sustainable way.

Here are some ways to influence how other people think:

Tell a story. Share statistics. Ask questions, listen carefully, share what you’ve heard, combine ideas to make better ideas, and guide the group to develop and execute a decision. Consistently share a point of view. Develop empathy for the other person in order to understand what he or she is thinking and feeling. Make a decision and see who will follow through and execute it. Provide autonomy. Talk with people about their purpose at work. Provide training to help people to master the work they do. Provide positive and negative consequences for the decisions, behaviors, and results that other people create. Then those people can decide how to respond to those consequences. Hire people very carefully, and fire people when you think it’s necessary.

There’s a lot you can do to improve performance and results, but controlling people and other factors is really not one of them.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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