4 Practices to Shift from Controlling to Empowering Others

Todd Hall
November 2, 2015

Sometimes things happen in our work environment that cause pain and confusion. When this happens our first instinct is to take control. Awhile back, I was working with a team on a project. When something didn't go the way I wanted it to, my natural inclination was to try to control the situation. I’ve worked with many leaders who have struggled with this as well. Take Jim, for example. Jim’s supervisor left the company, vacating the position. Jim was one of a handful of contenders for the position. In the hopes of gaining this position, he worked hard to collaborate and contribute, and generally gain recognition from his peers. When he was passed over for the position, he began to take control as much as he could in the context of his current position. He withheld information, shared a different picture of the situation with different peers, depending what made him look best, and generally resisted collaborating. 

Control. It's something we all want. It's part of our human nature to protect ourselves from pain and sometimes that means having control over our environment, relationships, and emotions. I know. I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to be in control. When my mom left the family when I was 9 years old, my world was shattered. From that point on, I spent a lot of energy trying to maintain control over my relationships, emotions, and environment to protect myself from pain. Although I’ve grown, this still crops up when trials strike and when my work projects don’t support my subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) agenda to bolster my ego.

Control protects us from pain, but it also blocks us from the very thing that heals the pain and promotes healthy organizations: relational connections.

In our quest for what could be (a life without pain), we keep ourselves stuck in what is (disconnection). How does this work? When we become focused on control and avoiding emotional pain, we become focused on ourselves. The moment that happens we create a negative cycle that narrows our focus and tears down our well being.

It's the opposite of the broaden-and-build virtuous cycle that comes from positive emotions and loving others (see Barbara Frederickson's broaden-and-build theory). We stop contributing value to our co-workers and organizations. We hunker down, stop truly listening to others, hold back information, resist or sabotage collaboration, and stop seeking to promote the well being of others and our organization as a whole. This is what Jim did, and this is exactly what I did on this team project. I stopped listening to others' perspectives. I stopped caring about a goal bigger than myself and became focused on what I was contributing and what I was getting (and not getting) out of the project. Why?

All to avoid pain. The pain of failure. The pain of not being recognized in the way I wanted to be. And quite possibly, I was protecting against a deeper pain of not being accepted for who I truly am. Protecting ourselves from pain is understandable, but it's also self-defeating. We all do this and we all need others to help us through to the other side of pain. Lurking behind the scenes of politics, turf wars, and organizational dysfunction lies a deep root that's part of the human condition: avoiding emotional pain. If we could calculate the financial cost of leaders avoiding pain, I bet it would be in the billions.

The antidote to experiencing pain is not to avoid pain; it's to connect with others in the midst of our pain.

This is how you accept pain, which paradoxically heals it over time. And it’s the hidden X factor in creating a connection culture that sustains high performance. Show me a healthy organization, and I will show you leaders who face their own pain, and as a result empower others, even when trials come their way.

Fred Kiel's study of Virtuoso leaders in his book, Return on Character, supports this idea. In interviews with exemplary “Virtuoso" leaders, he found that they were able to tell a coherent life story. They "recognized the threads that they had woven together to create their life story, and how their principles and beliefs were reflected in their actions and decisions.” (p. 55). [1]  They were able to construct and tell a coherent story about their lives partly because they had faced, accepted, and integrated painful experiences in their lives.

One CEO talked about struggling with relationships and feeling rejected in his early adulthood. Over time, he grew through these experiences, and later reported, “I realized . . . that I could get beyond those difficult years and make something of myself” (p. 56). Virtuoso CEOs also sought and accepted help from numerous supportive adults, and proactively developed relationships with one or more mentors. Support from and connection with family, friends and mentors likely played a major role in these leaders facing and accepting their pain.

Facing their pain enabled these Virtuoso leaders to focus on others, in contrast to the weak leaders in the study, who were appropriately labeled “self-focused” leaders. So, if you want to contribute to a connection culture, you can’t just avoid emotional pain through control. You’ve got to move toward accepting and healing pain through relational connections, thereby freeing you up to focus on and empower others.

Here are 4 practices that will help you do this.

1. Cultivate awareness of when you are trying to control. The first step is to notice and become aware of when you are clamping down and trying to control people or complex outcomes that are beyond your control. If you don’t notice, you can’t reflect on why you’re doing this and change your approach. So make it a regular practice to take inventory of what areas you're trying to control. Write them down and label them. That will help you see them more clearly. In the team project I mentioned, I became aware that I was focused on myself and that I wasn’t freely collaborating because I was trying to control the outcome.

2. Identify the underlying emotional pain. The key here is to get to the meaning of the pain for you. What does it mean to you that this decision didn’t go your way? Or that a given event occurred at work? What does it tap into in terms of your identity? In the context of our work, there are some common areas of emotional pain such as fear of failure, feeling incompetent, feeling unrecognized for your contributions, and feeling like you don’t belong. Think about these common types of emotional pain, and dig more deeply into how the event and pain tie into key experiences in your life. In my example, the underlying emotional pain was about not feeling recognized for my contributions. Sometimes something like recognition covers most of what’s going on for you. Other times, the need for recognition may tap into a “false self” constructed to protect against more significant emotional pain such as disconnection. Like Shrek, we all have layers.

3. Shift your mindset from control to acceptance. Once you grasp the underlying emotional pain that is causing you to attempt to control, the task now is to begin the process of letting go of control and accepting what is. This is a process, so it won’t happen overnight. Jim and I worked together to help him accept the pain of getting passed over for promotion. This meant sitting with the pain for a time and discerning the meaning of this for him. You can’t leave someplace until you arrive there. Jim had to arrive at the sadness and pain before he could accept what happened and move on. For Jim, it tied into growing up with a mostly absent and alcoholic father who never recognized or celebrated the good in Jim. As he processed this more, he was able to see more clearly why he was passed up for promotion; the ways he was trying to control people and how this was detrimental to the organization. This helped him to accept the reality of the situation. Eventually he came to some sense of peace with being passed up for promotion. This was the result of deeper self-awareness and empathy for himself, which gave him greater capacity to empathize with others. Over time, he no longer needed the promotion to avoid pain. And when that shift took place, Jim became an outstanding leader.

4. Seek out mentors. As we saw from Kiel's study, a critical factor in all three steps above is to have mentors in your life to help you identify when you are trying to control things and avoid pain. You must seek these relationships out and open yourself to their input. You have to be vulnerable and develop a meaningful connection. That’s hard and scary, but a caring mentor can help you see your controlling behavior when you’re missing it, and guide you on the path toward acceptance of the pain your trying to avoid.  When you no longer need to avoid the pain, you'll be more freed up to empower others. I hope these practices help you to connect, accept your pain, and empower others in your organization. 

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[1] Fred Kiel. Return on Character: The Real Reason Leaders and Their Companies Win. (Harvard Business Review, Boston, MA, 2002).