I wrote this piece as part of my partnership with People & Transformational HR. A business headed by Perry Timms whose mission is to develop an ecosystem of strong supportive partner relationships, toward the collective pursuit of achieving better business for a better world. Perry and I first met 7 years ago when I was considering leaving corporate and I love that our work has reconnected in this now.
So are you too controlling too?
I always had a hunch I was controlling but, in the early days, it never seemed to be too much of a problem. Back then it was just called ‘organised’ and it seemed like it was appreciated. I was the one to arrive on time, the one who knew where that document was saved, the one who could create brilliant shared-drive filing systems, organise meetings and remember the decision we made last time.
Then, over time, my career progressed and some evidence started to pop up that there was something behind it – a need to control. I remember a boss getting frustrated as I finished her sentences – trying to control the pace of the conversation. Meetings feeling stressful as I looked at the agenda and the time and thought how on earth will we get through all this, why are people prattling on, we’ve got loads to do!
And then first baby! Wow – what a huge wake-up call to the controlled way I’d been living. This small creature could not give two hoots about what time I thought things should happen, or how long they should take.
On my return to work from my first mat leave I was definitely softened around the controlling edges, bringing more capacity for things not going to (my!) plan; but still it came up. Particularly the frustration of people not doing things how I thought they should be done. Inevitably this meant the reins were held onto while giving the impression of ‘empowering others’. One leader I worked with called it out – if you really want her to be on this team you’re going to have to give her space to figure it out, make mistakes and do it her way. I remember the words but I’m not sure they really sank in at the time.
Then the low point came…
Years later I was working with someone who seemed really frustrating. A dynamic was playing out between us that was sending us both into extremes of behaviour – me increasingly controlling, her increasingly childlike and non-compliant.
The kick-in-the-guts low point came when we had some joint coaching and I recognised I was being the micromanaging, controlling person that I spent my days coaching and training leaders not to be! Urgh. I was mortified. Gutted. Horrified!
How could I have been doing self-development for so long – for myself and with others – and be in this place??
It came to me during that session that I needed to purposefully spot the times I was making mistakes, getting things wrong or being late. And it helped! In recognising when there was a ‘me too’ experience of mistake-making, more compassion, more balance and more connection returned to our relationship.
Huh! This wasn’t ever mentioned as a development tactic before! You don’t hear inspirational leadership gurus talking about ‘spot the bad stuff’.
So what was going on?
Through life we’ve collected programming, or conditioning, like an AI robot that begins with essential programming and which then adds, refines and adjusts as it goes along.
We each seem to arrive designed to collect certain experiences to add into our programming. I have no idea where my idea of ‘I need to be in control’ came from. I can’t pinpoint an experience in life and, thankfully, we don’t need to. Even if we did there’s enough evidence to suggest that it’s more than just ‘this childhood experience caused it’.
Programming in and of itself isn’t a problem, it’s actually necessary for us to move around in the world. Without any programming we wouldn’t even be able to discern between objects so it’s kinda useful! The problem comes when our creative, conceptual mind conjures up an ‘idea of self’ – an idea of who I think I am – which sticks itself to ideas of ‘I’m only OK if…’.
These ideas absorb into the program and create solidity, like glue getting into the in-built mechanism for learning and change that otherwise happens naturally and easily.
So whenever we’ve tried to make behaviour or thoughts change, and it’s not worked, it’s because there’s some sticky self-referential glue around the mechanism and we’ve tried to go in with more thought-glue in the form of tactics and strategies, but which are continuing to work at the same level of thinking that created the situation in the first place.
We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.
Einstein (or entirely possibly this quote is not by him, but it still rings true)
The coaching I discovered a few years ago is the coaching that lifts us into a different realm of thinking. It takes us out of the content of the problem and out of the programming that’s creating it, to see that none of it is true – not 100% categorical, which is the definition of true here.
It’s not true that I was always in control. My experiment of spotting mistakes proved that. And by spotting those mistakes the judging ‘idea of self’, which previously only allowed in evidence that confirmed its story, started to look less convincing.
Now, in the presence of seeing that what was imagined to be true isn’t so, the glue begins to dissolve. Naturally. We don’t need to get in there with fancy glue-dissolving tools, it just happens.
It’s the same mechanism that’s been in play every time behaviour change has happened. We might have attributed the change to the technique the coach used, or the question, or the repetition of a habit, but it’s always an insightful realisation that does it. It’s simply seeing what’s playing out for what it is that allows it to lose its grip on creating our otherwise-repetitive experience.
The idea of ‘I need to be in control’ has gone.
Now, because our essence is compassion, connection and curiosity, these appear as a natural by-product of the sticky thought-glue-of-self dissolving. The definiteness of the old program stops being compelling and we naturally have more connected conversations with our teams and colleagues, we naturally absorb new information that adjusts and refines the programming, we naturally understand when things don’t go to plan, and we naturally call things back in line when needed – it’s just that now all of this is done without any desperate ideas behind it of ‘necessary in order to be OK’. The idea of ‘I need to be in control’ has gone.
As we look now at a world full of separation, confusion and anxiety in the apparent absence of control, we see reflected back the fears that lie here, with us; necessary to be surfaced if we’re to take our next steps as a species. If ever there was a time to begin the essential inner work that returns us to connection, it’s now.
So notice what you see in your experience. What looks like a truth? What are the repeating patterns that aren’t going or are maybe even getting worse? Start to notice that what you believe is definite, isn’t. Broaden your viewfinder to include more of what’s actually going on – and (no self-criticism needed) see what happens.
With love, Helen