Who’s controlling who? - Michelle Gibbings

A colourful image of puppets in a market stall

Control. It’s a powerful word.

Control is a concept that exists across the spectrum of our personal and professional lives. We love to feel like we are in control of what we do, who we are, why we do something and where we are heading.

Feeling in control, feels good, comforting even.

Given that our brain likes certainty – likes to know what to do and craves stability and predictability – it’s not surprising that we want to be in control and feel like we are always in the driver’s seat.

Constant control is an illusion
Control, as comforting as it may seem, is illusionary. Life is full of unexpected twists and turns, and no matter how much you plan or prepare, there will always be factors beyond your control.

When you fixate on controlling everything, you risk becoming a micromanager, overly perfectionistic, stifling team creativity and innovation, and being difficult to work with.

It can also affect your health and well-being, leading to stress and burnout because this myopic focus invites more anxiety into your daily routine.

Some researchers even suggest that free will, the ultimate element of control, doesn’t exist. One such proponent is Standford professor Robert Sapolsky. He argues that much of what we do is based on “cumulative biological and environmental luck”, as reported in this article in Nautilus, because we are shaped and influenced by the culture and environment in which we are raised. Yes, we are born with a personality, but socialised throughout our life into a way of feeling, thinking and acting.

No matter what side of the ‘free will’ debate you sit on, what’s accepted is that there is much in the world we can’t control.

This fact doesn’t mean you throw your hands up in despair.

Shift your locus of control
In the late 1970s, Dr Suzanne Kobasa from the University of Chicago found that executives who handled stress had a ‘hardiness‘, underscored by three characteristics (what I call the 3Cs) – commitment, control and challenge. These traits decreased their risk of developing stress-related health problems by fifty per cent.

Her study involved 200 executives from a US company, Bell Telephone, that was undergoing radical restructuring. She found that having these personality traits didn’t mean the executives didn’t experience stress but could deal with it.

Commitment – having a clear purpose, feeling good about your life and being involved in activities that give you connection and meaning.

Control – this is all about how much control you ‘feel’ you have. The more perceived control, the greater the ability to cope with the stress. Part of this depends on where your locus of control is: internally or externally driven. People with an external locus believe they have little or no control over their lives and what happens to them. They are the ‘fatalists’ or people who think it’s ‘all down to fate’.

In contrast, when you have an internal locus of control, you know you can’t control external events or other people and that what you can control is your reaction. Having an internal locus best helps you manage stress so you respond wisely.

Challenge – whether you view change as a positive challenge and an opportunity to learn, grow and develop. If you view change as a danger or threat, you are more likely to experience stress.

Go for growth
What underpins this approach is a growth mindset (which I have written about before).

A growth mindset is the belief that abilities can be developed and outcomes can be achieved through focus and effort. This mindset shift fosters a sense of curiosity and resilience, encouraging you to view setbacks not as failures but as opportunities to learn.

It’s searching for the meaning and learnings amongst the uncertainty.

It’s accepting that hardiness isn’t something you are born with but rather a skill that can be developed and strengthened over time. It involves cultivating a positive mindset, maintaining a solid support network, and caring for your physical health.

Move to wise response mode
We cannot control everything in our lives, but we can control how we respond to these events.

As Stephen Covey wrote in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (still one of the best self-development books ever written), you are far better off focusing your energy on those matters you can influence.

However, we often spend energy on things we are concerned about and have zip, zero, nada ability to change or influence.

You can’t control your boss or colleagues, just as you can’t control the curve balls life throws you. What you can control is the meaning you put on that curve ball and how you respond. It’s deciding to notice and accept your emotions and then moving from reaction to wise response mode.

Recognising and accepting the difference is crucial in behaving and leading positively, productively and sustainably.

Make self-care matter
It’s easier to do this with a self-care plan based on healthy habits, core rituals that nourish your body and soul, and activities to keep you in the best physical, mental and spiritual shape.

When your energy is positively charged, you are grateful for what you have. You are generous to others and focus on sharing and supporting those around you.

Remember, no one can navigate the complexities of the working world alone. So, cultivate a circle of supportive colleagues, mentors, and friends who provide a support system during challenging times. These people are with you during the good times and the tough times.

Together, these elements help ensure you are better equipped to face the uncertainties of the working world.

Challenge yourself
Challenge yourself and consider:

  • Where are you focusing your attention – on things you can control or influence or elements outside your control?
  • Is your locus of control internally or externally focused?
  • Which unproductive work habits are impeding your progress and depleting your energy?
  • Are you grateful for what you have or always focusing on what you don’t have?
  • Do you regularly play the comparison game and compare yourself to others?
  • Who is in your support circle, and are they there to help when you need it? Likewise, are you available to help them when they need support? It works both ways.

By letting go of the need to control every aspect of your life, you open yourself up to a world of possibilities and growth. Ultimately, it’s not about controlling the storm but learning to dance in the rain.

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