Stop Trying to Control People

Stop Trying to Control People

I recently received an email from a colleague I’ve known for nearly 20 years. It started with this line:

“You should be speaking here…”

I flagged it as junk and blocked my colleague. Which may seem like a dramatic overreaction. I felt triggered and controlled by the word “should”.

You see, when people use the word “should” or offer unsolicited advice, they are making a judgment. That judgment is that they know what you should do and that you don’t. They know better and they want to impose their will on you. It is a form of control.

And it is selfish. Unsolicited advice is more for the benefit of the person giving it than for the person receiving it. The giver needs it so that they can feel better about themselves. Most individuals who try to control others suffer from some sort of anxiety. They attempt to relieve their anxiety by controlling others.

Offering unsolicited advice is just one way to control people and it is generally pretty benign. In hindsight, I probably overreacted to that email above. Here are some other examples of control that are potentially harmful.

Controlling Employees

Most organizations have a set of policies and procedures about what employees can and cannot do. Some of these are put in place for legal reasons or to create a harmonious workplace like those intended to prevent harassment or regarding alcohol or drug use.

Others seem to be written to address the edge cases and areas where we don’t trust in adult behavior. This includes things like hours worked per day, dress codes, employee spending limits, email and internet usage, and vacation and time-off policies.

Under COVID, many of the rules around the workday had to be loosened. Managers couldn’t simply walk around the office to see who is in or what people are working on. While some organizations had “core hours” when people needed to be online and working, most found that employees were online more hours than ever before. And dress codes were completely thrown out the window for remote workers – no one even remembers those.

But with most businesses making plans for a return to the workplace, we will see how these rules fly.

There are some innovative companies that strove to eliminate as many of these rules regarding employee behavior. I recently wrote about Netflix and how the HR department strove to eliminate rules as much as possible including:

  • time and expense reporting
  • dress codes
  • work hours

Patty McCord, former head of HR at Netflix explained it as follows:

You should operate with the leanest possible set of policies, procedures, rules, and approvals, because most of these top-down mandates hamper speed and agility. Discover how lean you can go by steadily experimenting. If it turns out a policy or procedure was needed, reinstate it.
— Patty McCord, Powerful; Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility
Other organizations have gone further by making meetings optional, allowing people to work wherever and whenever they want, and relaxing controls on individual spending.

Trying to Make Others Comply

I  recently spoke at an event for the Project Management Institute (PMI). If anyone knows anything about control, it is those people charged with on-time and on-budget delivery of large teams. I would contend that the group of people tasked with controlling the outcome of projects (which are not always controllable) are more likely to be control freaks.

At the PMI event, I spoke on the topic of improving your retrospectives. Some of the questions I got before and during the session reflected this desire to control others:

  1. How do you hold people accountable for completing follow-up actions from the retrospective?
  2. What are some ideas on engaging a team in a retrospective session after a bad/rough sprint so that it doesn’t just become a rant?
  3. How do you encourage team members who rarely provide feedback in retrospectives?
  4. How do you engage the team to make contemporaneous notes for later reference?
  5. What are some suggestions you’ve tried to make everyone participate in the discussions?
  6. How to encourage team members to provide candid feedback?
  7. How can I make sure that other people in the organization use the lessons learned repository?

While mostly innocuous, the questions revealed a desire to control the behavior of others. And it was an interesting perspective that these project managers tended to take. It felt like it was less about inviting people to participate and more about forcing others to comply and do what YOU want them to do.

Why We Should Not Control People

One of the things we have learned from Daniel Pink and Frederick Herzberg is that people are intrinsically motivated based on autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy is the opposite of control. Autonomy is having agency over yourself and your actions.

Agile teams have autonomy over how they will accomplish their work. In some cases, they are also given autonomy over who they work with or what projects or products they work on. Higher levels of autonomy lead to higher levels of motivation and engagement.

If we want to kill motivation and engagement, we simply need to micromanage others. Rather than let them choose how to work, we can spoon-feed them tasks and check up on them frequently.

Do You Try to Control Others?

Do you have any idea about your own tendency to control others? In my book, Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers, I included the following short command and control litmus test. Take a look to see which statements are true for you in most circumstances:

  1. Do you feel that you need to monitor your team members so that they don’t slack off?
  2. Do you believe that you generally know what is best, and willingly offer solutions and advice?
  3. Do you tend to interject yourself into problem-solving, even when you are not invited to get involved?
  4. Do you try to make the results conform to your idea of what the results should be?
  5. Do you feel uncomfortable when others are in control, and you are not?
  6. Do you feel uneasy by the idea that your employees or team may operate fine without you?
  7. Do you feel the need to be involved in the details and decisions to reduce the risk of something failing or having a misstep?
  8. Do you feel solely and personally responsible for the success and failure of the people you lead?
  9. Do you tend to step in or override others to protect them from possible mistakes or the consequences of their decisions?

The more of the statements above that are ‘true’ for you, the more likely you are to be trying to control others.

What to Do Instead

First, just recognize your desire to control. Most people don’t even want to see that. You can get some perspective by checking with trusted colleagues, loved ones, and friends.

It is also worth exploring where your desire to control comes from. Oftentimes, controlling behavior is a coping mechanism we adopted to manage anxiety or help us get through a difficult time. Some of us grew up in chaotic or dysfunctional homes which did not provide safety and security. Talking to a good therapist can help unpack your control issues – it helped me immensely.

As an alternative to offering unsolicited advice, consider inviting people. That is, move from telling people what to do toward inviting them to join you. Success is attractive. Invite people to join your agile experiment. Invite people to join you at a speaking engagement. If you take a risk and step forward and lead, others may feel the desire to join you. That is a much different approach than simply trying to get people to comply.

Another alternative to telling people what to do is to ask questions. There is a practice called Powerful Questions that helps you frame questions in ways that promote introspection, innovation and helps people to solve their own problems.

What do you think? What is your experience with controlling others or being controlled by others?

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By Anthony Mersino

Anthony Mersino is the founder of Vitality Chicago, an Agile Training and Coaching firm devoted to helping Teams THRIVE and Organizations TRANSFORM. He is also the author of two books, Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.


  1. Yes, I’ve definitely fallen into these patterns in both my professional and personal life. I actually have a great photo my mother took of me at age 8 with a big frowny face. I was clearly annoyed that my little sister and her friends didn’t want to follow my agenda for the game I planned for my sister’s birthday party. Even at 8 I wanted everyone to follow my plan because I assumed I knew best (I mean, my sister and her friends were only 5 so what did they know about having fun. I obviously knew how to have fun better than them. 🙂 ). I appreciate the tips on how to switch around my language and communication style. Often that’s the trap I fall into. Using language that borders on passing judgement. That’s not what the teams needs from me. Thanks for this post.

    1. Great to hear from you Holly and a great story! Controlling behavior sort of works if we want to achieve a specific outcome but if fails if we want to engage everyone and invite them to share their passions and great ideas.
      Thanks for joining the discussion!

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