Control is not an asset

December 16, 2009

You don’t really control anything. And if you’re a person that badly needs to control things then you have a very frustrating life. Unless you’re very good at deluding yourself.

The world is a scary place. There are sharks. Tornadoes. Worms in apples. It is profoundly uncomfortable for most people to feel entirely at the whim of unseen forces. So most people create a story in their minds of how they are in control over various aspects of their environment.

I understand the whole control thing. (And I really have to stop overusing the word “thing.” It does have its uses but I clearly have overdone it in this post.) It provides the force for our productive activities. After all, why do anything if you have no control? Yet I think most people create the wrong illusion of control in their lives. They turn this illusory control into an asset. They consider it something they have. It’s a…well, thing.

Here’s the problem with things: they can be lost. And we humans do not like to lose what we have. There is a lot of psychological research (in the school of Kahneman and Tversky) that shows the inflated value that people place on what is in their possession. The mere fact that an object enters our possession causes us to value it more. Which means that we feel excessive pain when we lose something.┬áThe anticipation of losing control causes fear of loss. So we try and avoid losing control. We behave cautiously. We avoid risk.

Playing it safe is risky in its own right, but we tend not to see that risk when faced with the loss of our control – which we perceive to be an asset in our possession.

I’d like to propose that those who need this illusion of control at least frame it as a process rather than an asset. Control is not something you have, it’s something you do. It is a never-ending series of behaviors designed to optimize (for you) the effects (i.e., what happens to you) based on the causes (i.e., what you do).

The benefit of this frame is that you literally have nothing to lose. You will more accurately assess risk and the expected utility of various courses of action because your assessment will not include a hyper-inflated sense of control. The only way to gain more control (or, really, perceived control) within this frame is to do the best you can to understand cause and effect and make sure that your actions are those most likely to cause the effects you seek. All of the irrational barriers to positive change and innovation melt away here. So many of the reasons why people do not pursue good ideas are entirely external to the objectives and even to the true workings of the world. They may be political reasons. Or historical reasons. But if they do not reflect cause and effect in the world then they only take you further away from control.

I hope this mental frame helps managers get over some of the difficulty they have with trying new things.

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: