You Can Get Control by Giving It Up

People need a sense of control. Understanding this fact helps you make better management decisions, career choices and products. So many fraught circumstances can be explained or understood by the human need for control.

Why do supervisors micromanage? And why do the people being micromanaged hate it so much? In both cases, the culprit is control.

When tasks are assigned or delegated to a subordinate, the manager feels a loss of control. This out-of-control feeling is interpreted as, “They can’t do it as well as I can.” Or “They’ll get the credit for this instead of me.” Or “I don’t understand what’s happening with the project.” So they try to regain a sense of control through micromanaging.

Meanwhile, the victim of this micromanagement feels like control is being torn away by the supervising manager. That causes all kinds of negative feelings, including stress, anger and anxiety.

Why did Microsoft choose to have Windows 10 install without user consent? And why did Windows 7 and 8 users become so fearful about the possibility of a forced upgrade that many turned off Windows updates, which left them vulnerable to malware infections?

Again, it’s a matter of control. Microsoft couldn’t bring itself to put the decision to upgrade fully in the hands of users. And many users hated the idea of an upgrade without controlling the decision to upgrade and the process itself.

Why do Google Glass users love wearing a camera on their face, but everyone else hates it? Why do Google and Facebook track every move we make online even though users complain about it?

It’s all about control. Whoever controls the recording or the data feels good about the whole process, trusts themselves to handle it responsibly and believes that no harm will result. But users get queasy knowing they’ve been tracked, recorded and surveilled. Who knows what “they” are doing with that information?

So many conflicts, so many disagreements and so many problems arise because people are blind to the need for control in themselves and in others. The irony is that all this grasping for control usually ends up preventing people from reaching their goals.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Why Trying to Take Control Often Fails

The first point to understand is that whenever you take away a person’s sense of control, you’re creating a problem.

Employees who feel like they’re not given ownership or control over their work may become bitter, stressed, disgruntled and unproductive. Procrastination is often driven by a sense that current tasks or projects are just too big to tackle. So employees wander over to Facebook or YouTube or to a game where a sense of control is easy to come by.

Customers who feel that your product doesn’t give them enough control will be frustrated with it, and they won’t always know why. Often that lack of user or customer control is the result of a design intended to simplify, automate or provide ease of use.

The perception that control is being given up is one reason why so many consumers and employees resist innovations like cloud computing, self-driving cars and artificial intelligence. Benefits like reliability, safety and efficiency are being weighed against a feeling that control is being taken away, and, in many cases, the innovation doesn’t feel worth it to some people.