Updated: Dec 29, 2019
A question I receive often is how to work with a seemingly impossible group of people, whether that be at the management level, on your team, or with a handful of subordinates. A shocking number of people express an utter lack of control over their environment, especially at work. I hear a lot of, “Well, they won’t let me…,” or “We can’t do that…,” or “We don’t have that….” You’re looking at the absolute worst offender right here, someone who always sees the roadblocks, the obstacles, the insurmountables. Even operating my own business, I can assure you I feel the pain of lack of control over particularly painful aspects of business management.
I’m reading Boundaries for Leaders at the moment, and I have to share an exercise contained in the book. Every one of us is at the mercy of the choices of other people at any given moment, people we do not influence. We don’t control the other drivers on the road, we cannot advise our government in any appreciable way, our financial security is largely dependent on market fluctuations. My anxiety can’t handle facing how little control I have over my own life, so I choose not to consume most media sources.
Without realizing it, I naturally refocus on the portions of my life and business that I can control. The mind is desperate for this sense of power and ability to reestablish safety. Learned helplessness is a real issue both personally and professionally, and it occurs when we do not take the initiative to recognize how we can influence outcomes in our lives. Sadly, many of the people I speak with have reached this point and do not even consider searching for alternatives when they encounter friction.
The exercise is comically simple: on a sheet of paper, create two columns. In one column, list all of your annoyances that you cannot control. Linger, ponder them for a while, and better yet, reflect on them with your team. Lament over how terrible they are, and how much brighter everything would be if you could change them somehow. Next, perform the opposite: list all of the aspects in life that you do control. Underline, retrace, circle those that you especially enjoy impacting.
I would advise keeping this list in a very conspicuous place, maybe in your office, setting room, bedroom, or the entrance to your kitchen. Take stock of all the items in the ‘can’t control’ column and quarantine them. Don’t waste another second thinking about them, pining over them, and being frustrated with them. Refocus daily on the things you can control, and exercise it. Get creative and, if you’re doing this with your team, help lead and refocus their attention as necessary too. Capitalize on the areas in which you can make the greatest impact as opposed to fighting a losing battle.