Few people like being treated like puppets, controlled by an outside authority. Yet, I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t want to feel more in control of their circumstances and as a result, try to control others to some degree. Some more than others, and in different ways. Which brings up the question – What is the relationship between trust and control?

When we feel in control of our lives we feel strong, powerful, and relaxed. The predictability that control brings is comforting. Intentional control and manipulation are coping mechanisms that keep us from gaining true control. It is an indication that we lack trust. We don’t believe others will take our best interest at heart, so we have to intervene to ensure the outcome we want. Control, however, is an illusion.

It is only when we let go of the need to control that oddly, you have more control over the outcomes of the situation.

“So often it is when we let go of the need to control that we gain control.” – Sir John Whitmore, Coaching for Performance.

Whether you realize it or not, when you attempt to control the situations and people in your life, you are not looking at the reality of the situation.  You view life through an overlay.  You might think people respect you, but in fact, they resent you and might believe people like you, when in fact they feel obliged to comply. They will rarely admit this though, in fear of the repercussions. The illusion continues to live on, like a story in a fantasy novel.

Letting Go of Control

I never believed I could afford a Mercedes Benz. For years I would joke and secretly fantasize about driving my own C-series. But I never imagined I could own or be the custodian of one. Even when I was given a healthy budget to configure a car of my choice at a company I worked at, I opted for the more believable Toyota.

After weeks of choosing the configurations I wanted, I finally put in my order. A week later, however, the facilities manager called me in. The model I chose was discontinued. I had to choose something else. Disappointed, I started the long and rather complex process again, trying to control the outcome. But alas, a week or two after placing the order, I was told there was a problem with this model too. Not having the energy to go through the process again, I finally gave up my need to control the outcome. I went to the facilities manager and asked him whether there were any cars available.

He handed me the keys to a C-series Mercedes Benz.

This experience taught me a valuable lesson about control and its relationship with trust. When you get out of the way and stop trying to force life the way you think it should be, magical things happen. Controlling the outcome doesn’t give you what you truly want, it only gives you what you believe is true. When, however, you trust you get what you truly want. Or better.

Letting go of control isn’t always as easy as choosing a car though. More often than not, the stakes are much higher. To let go of the control you first need to understand why you want to control in the first place.

Why We Want Control

Underneath our desire to control is always an unfulfilled, underlying need. The different control strategies might give you the perception that you are in control, yet, it doesn’t fulfil the underlying need. It is rather like putting a band-aid over a big, gaping wound. No matter how much you control, it will never be enough until you acknowledge the underlying need and what you really want.

You might want to control people around you in order to feel safe. Or you might want to control to gain respect and admiration from your followers. Or maybe you want to satisfy an act of deep revenge as a result of being controlled yourself, thus flipping the coin but continuing the cycle. Whatever the underlying need, control is always an overlay that avoids the pain beneath the surface. It can never satisfy.

Whatever your unique need for control, it always boils down to one issue. We control because there’s a lack of trust. The less trust, the more a desire for control. It’s two parts of the same coin that can’t coincide. Either you trust, or you want to control.

The Control-Trust Scale

In an organizational setting, there are different styles of control. In his excellent book Coaching for Performance, Sir John Whitmore succinctly describes the different styles of control as a dynamic relationship between the boss and employee experience. Below is a summary of each and how trust and control dynamics change when you apply different control styles within an organization.

no Trust – Dictator

The first and most natural form of management is when the manager tells everyone what to do.  It is also the style most difficult for managers to admit they use as it has such a negative connotation. Yet, most first-time managers fall into this category as it remains the predominant management role model available to us. It is also a style that totally destroys any trust in the leader.

The dictator style is where the manager has an illusion of full control. It is deeply ingrained in our culture, starting early in childhood when the parent as an authority figure tells you what to do, what to wear, what to eat and even who you can be friends with. The child learns that being an authority means telling people what to do, which is further reinforced when the child goes to school and the teacher now tells them what to do. As an adult, the authority becomes a boss and the government dictates what is acceptable and not.

When you finally get into a position of authority, you tend to slip into this style, modelled to you for so long by telling people what to do. You believe asking for input is a sign of weakness.

Although this style is quick and easy for the manager to get the results he wants, it gives a false perception of control and is the least effective way of teaching. Research shows that recall drops to 10% after as little as 3 months when people are told what to do. It also upsets and demotivates staff as it takes away their autonomy. They don’t, however, say anything afraid of negative repercussions if they do.

People are subservient yet resentful of the dictator’s presence, and passive-aggressively do something else the moment he’s not around. For more about this read Why Teams Don’t Change.

False Trust – Persuader

The next style of management and control is when the boss presents his grand plan to the team and attempts to convince everyone how great it is. This might sound more inclusive than the dictator style, but in reality, there is little difference. There is a false sense of trust created which on the surface looks like participation. Underneath, however, there is little to no trust.

The employees know there is no point in challenging the boss and oblige. Like with the dictator, there is no ownership. People still blindly do as they are told while the boss falsely believes he has gained buy-in. In reality, however, people don’t believe they have a choice. They comply to get out of long discussions and meetings.

Like dictator style, employees do what they’re told while the boss is around while doing something else when he isn’t. The only difference is that the boss invests more time and effort into enforcing his ideas and doesn’t have the quick and easy results of the dictator.

Some Trust – Debater

In this style, both the boss and the employees feel more involved, but progress is slow and trust is conditional. In contrast to the previous two styles, the debater truly cares about the input from the people. The boss will even be willing to pursue an avenue other than his first choice, provided it is going in the right direction.

When he or she sees a majority choosing a different direction than his or her own, the boss will allow it. He or she realizes that as the project progresses they or will discover that the choice was perhaps not the best. It’s always a possibility, however, to change direction later on or even find a better, third alternative.

With this type of management, everyone moves forward together and is fully committed. Trust is actively invested in, but not ingrained. Although this is clearly a better management style than the previous ones, it can be very slow and result in indecision.

Partial Trust – Abdicater

The next natural evolution in the trust-control scale is for the manager to let go of all control and gives employees total freedom.

This approach, while sounding an empowering option, is risky for both and rarely results in a good performance. While employees might initially enjoy the freedom, they soon feel unsupported and abandoned. Trust is damaged on both sides.

Even though it might be well-intentioned, the employee feels obliged to comply, and personal ownership remains low.

Trust is partial. The boss trusts fully at first, only to be disappointed. The employees’ confidence and trust are damaged when they feel unsupported and set up for failure.

mutual Trust – Coach

Finally, in a coaching management style, the boss remains in control, while the employee chooses to take on more responsibility, increasing ownership. The boss is far more in control than in any of the other styles. Through continued conversations, the manager is more informed about the plan and how to do it, as well as aware of the thinking that went into the plan. Whenever they see correction is needed, they intervene in a non-threatening and motivating way.

There is a healthy trust relationship between both boss and employee. The boss gives adequate guidance and support, while the employee has adequate freedom to perform the task.

When a manager asks questions, the person becomes more aware of what needs to be done and the impact. Ownership increases as they’re able to troubleshoot and come up with a unique solution. This clarity and autonomy enable the employee to feel more confident. When they can see the possibility of success, they will be more motivated to take responsibility and fully own the task.

As coaching questions are non-threatening and supportive, there is no behaviour change when the manager is not around, as in the case of the dictator and persuader styles.

Coaching provides the boss with real, not illusionary control, while actively growing a mutually trusting relationship.

If trust is an issue in your team, or if you want more control but less responsibility, try to manage as a coach.

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With more than 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate better and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.