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The Illusion of Control

I’ve noticed that many of the times when I’m feeling most stressed are ones when I think life is out of control. Something inside me wants everything to be in order, just so – well perfect, if I’m honest.

But I’m coming to realise that I’m setting myself up for a fall if I think this way. The truth is, we can’t control everything.

If we think about conscious business, leaders and managers who act with both the belief that they can and the desire to create a culture of control will produce an organisation that has a tendency towards fear, rigidity, narrowness, and stagnation. Those they lead will not be encouraged to think, innovate, and express their concerns and hopes.

On the other hand, if everyone understands that there are limits to how much life can be under control, we shall see a more flexible, agile, and organic atmosphere pervading the entire organisation.

Now as an accountant, I’m not giving up on the place for appropriate controls. Good systems have their place but I’ve yet to see perfect ones. An awareness of their limitations will mean we are mentally better prepared to deal with the problems that inevitably arise from time to time.

Here are some thoughts I have had on how to cope with the impossibility and undesirability of control:

1. Think humbly – if we don’t chose to be humble, we may end up humiliated.

2. Accept uncertainty.

3. Concentrate on ‘right inputs’ if you can’t control ‘guaranteed outputs.’

When I deal with issues, particularly people ones, I’m learning to make the comments I feel appropriate (which may need to gestate for a while) rather than thinking I have to resolve everything immediately.

4. Have the mentality, “I’m trying to help people, rather than be perfect.” (My thanks to Paul Hopwood for that one.)

5. Be open – to input from others, to new ideas.

And I know I can’t control what you think about this. But perhaps as long as we are thinking a bit more, that’s better than living under an illusion of control.

 

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Do you think that this is a good question?

In times of uncertainty, many people long for definite answers and clear leadership.

There are times when such an approach is warranted, but history has shown that all too often after short-term gains, long-term oppression and regression arise.

If business is to become more conscious, it cannot be forced but must be evoked from within people. Pull not push. And if we believe that humans are both limited and ‘built for growth,’ we have to consider how these factors shape our approach to increasing such consciousness.

I think that key to this is the use of questions rather than the provision of answers. By adopting this method, we are helping each other think more. Hard work at times, but in the long term I’m convinced it will produce better results.

So a key issue is to learn to ask not just questions but the right questions. To do this, we must apply the ‘questions are more important than answers’ approach to ourselves. It doesn’t matter how good an ‘answer’ is, if it is an answer to the wrong question it is at best useless, and at worst regressive.

Let’s ask ourselves what evidence we have that asking questions is such a good way to encourage growth. Here are some reasons:

1 Coaching – the best coaching I have received has been when I have been asked questions. My initial reaction was, “Hm, I paid for answers to my issues not questions!” But as the wise coach persisted with questions, my own ability to think about possible solutions developed, and most importantly, my belief grew that I could think differently, take action and see some change in my situation and that of my business.

2 Knowledge v Wisdom. – we seem to live in a society that is rich in knowledge but poor in wisdom. I think that in good measure knowledge comes from an ‘answers’ approach, wisdom from a ‘questions’ one.

3 Socrates – one of the founders of Western philosophy, a major contribution of his was the Socratic Method, whereby a series of questions are asked not only to draw individual answers, but also to encourage fundamental insight into the issue at hand. This is shown (at length…) in Plato’s Republic, where Socrates is the questioning mouthpiece for the message of that work.

4 Jesus – Christians claim that Jesus was God himself. So surely, he would have the ‘answers’ and would give them to us. Well, he certainly did give some very clear answers, but the Bible records him asking people nearly 300 questions. If such an approach was good enough for him, …

5 Pascal – a great quote from him: “All of man’s problems stem from his inability to sit quietly in a room.” We want noise and answers, rather than quiet and questions.

6 Delegation – if done properly, this costs in the short-term, but pays dividends in the long-term. I have found Ken Blanchard’s situational leadership model helpful in thinking about management and delegation, and the use of questions is a key part of this approach, particularly at the later stages of development.

Apart from the Situational Leadership model, I have also found the following helpful in trying to become someone who leads more with questions:

1 Kipling’s six honest serving men.

2 Covey’s seek first to understand.

3 Read, read, read.

4 Expose yourself to new ideas by developing weak as well as strong links.

By continually adopting a ‘questions’ approach, we shall develop our own and other people’s thinking ‘muscles.’ It is harder work in the short-term, but will produce better results in the long run. It can also help us all break out of stuck thinking.

As Steve McDermott has said in one of my very favourite books (How to be a Complete and Utter Failure in Life, Work and Everything: 44 ½ Steps to Lasting Underachievement), the quality of our life will be in direct proportion to the quality and depth of questions we ask ourselves on a regular basis.

What do you think?