The Illusion of Control

Written by lewsauder

November 4, 2013

illusion of control

Illusion of control

I live what I believe to be a typical existence of a family man in the suburbs.  On a typical weekend, I’ll get together with friends, drink a few beers, and discuss the trials and tribulations of raising kids, saving for college and the latest issues on the school district.  It’s pretty uneventful and predictable – until the Irish neighbor down the street shows up with a bottle of Jameson.

An observation I’ve made when we talk about our kids is the illusion of control parents think they have over them.  Some parents talk about making them do their homework.  I suppose we have the power to make them complete an assignment, but we have little control over getting them to learn.

Still other parents talk about restricting their teenager’s freedom to the point that they can’t possibly get in trouble. While I’m not an advocate of kids getting in trouble, if we don’t let them make a few mistakes as teenagers, they’re bound to make some major blunders in college.

Raising our kids is something we have less control over than many of us would like to think.  And some parents never learn. If you’re on your third teenage child and you still think you can control their behavior, you’re really more of a fool.

The truth is, you’ve got to raise your children with the appropriate values and lead by example.  That’s as much control as you’ll have in the long term. Punishing people into submission is a recipe for long-term failure.

Illusion of control at work

I’ve seen the same issues in the work world.  Micromanagers feel the need to control and manipulate conversations to keep people from having input.  They may try to manipulate how information is disseminated and who is privy to it.

But just as parents, they overestimate their control.  It doesn’t take a genius in human nature to know that very few people willingly do what they’re told to do. Even fewer do what they’re told NOT to do.

But people in positions of authority feel that that authority puts them in control.  Instead, authority at best puts them in a position of influence.  A parent can influence learning if they convince their child of the benefits of doing their homework.  It’s not the homework that’s important.  It’s the learning that they should get as a result.  Simply finishing the assignment is what they were forced to do, but it’s immaterial.

See my related post: The Need for Control

When a manager tries to force someone to perform a task, that’s the minimum result they will probably get.   But if the manager influences her team member, explaining the benefits the team, department and organization will reap from the completion of that task, the employee is not only more likely to complete it, but to do it with more meaning and greater quality than they otherwise would have.

It’s one of the big differences between management and leadership.  Managers get minimal results by wielding control.  Leaders get much better results through influence.

If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.

Lew’s Books at Amazon:

Project Management 101
Consulting 101
The Reluctant Mentor

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