The Illusion of Control

While attending a 4H fair with my family, I had the opportunity to watch an owl show. Harry Potter aside, owls are not exactly the best of pets. Owls, even small ones, are birds of prey. The trainer commented at one point that the owl he was holding was biting his thumb with around 200 pounds of pressure, quite painful even through the thick leather gloves he was wearing!

What was particularly interesting was watching just how little the trainer actually did. It often seemed as though the less he did, the greater his control over the birds. Speaking with him afterward, I found that this was, indeed, the case. If he tries to force the bird to do anything, the bird expresses its opinion in an unmistakable fashion, generally involving three inch long razor sharp talons. Listening to his explanation, I was reminded of jujitsu training: beginners seek to control their partners through brute force and the application of painful techniques. The more force the beginner applies, the more their partner instinctively resists. When the beginner manages a successful throw, both partners are left sweaty and gasping for breath.

By comparison, when the master executes the same technique, she often seems to barely touch her partner. The partner punches, and almost magically flies through the air. Where the beginner struggles for control, the master effortlessly leads their partner around and around until directing them into the floor, the wall, or another attacker. The only benefit the beginner gets is that they don’t need to go out running or lifting weights in order to get a good workout!

Like the trainer and the owls, the more force the beginner applies, the less control they actually have. Conversely, the less force the master applies, the more control they actually have. Much of jujitsu training is learning to overcome that almost instinctive response to use increasing amounts of force to overcome opposition and learn to apply technique instead.

What is particularly interesting in considering these examples is that owls and people react the same way to attempts to compel them to act in a certain way. Even in a friendly training environment, the use of force causes someone who wants to cooperate to fight instead.

The same thing happens in business: far too often, I’ve seen people transformed from enthusiastic and motivated to oppositional and unmotivated by managers who felt a need to focus on the consequences of “not measuring up,” instead of building on the excitement and then getting out of the way.

At one large computer hardware company, a certain VP of Engineering kept complaining that his department refused to step up. The less they did, the more draconian he became; the more draconian he became, the less they did. This could have ended very badly, with people quitting or being fired, neither of which would have been good for the company’s product cycle. Both the VP and the department needed help learning to stop fighting with one another. Helping them rebuild trust wasn’t easy, and it required the VP to have faith that his department would perform if he just gave them the chance. Instead of threats and sanctions, he had to learn to think, and communicate, strategically: instead of focusing on the consequences of failure, he enabled the department to see how their contributions fit into the long-term strategic goals of the company.

The department, on the other hand, needed to be brought to the point where they were willing to give the VP another chance. This, too, was not easy, as the habits of conflict had started to set in and several senior employees were already starting to hunt for new jobs. Fortunately, it was possible to reframe the conflict to the point where the department was willing to listen to what the VP had to say, and have faith that he really meant it.

The more the VP was able to stop trying to control his department, the more productive they became. The more the members of the department were able to accept that his attempts a over-control were mistakes, the more they were able to give him feedback in ways that didn’t threaten his authority. The net result was that performance increased sharply, product quality improved, and customers took notice. This led to a substantial revenue increase for the company.

Letting go of control is not easy: all too often it feels unnatural or premature. When our own reputation or job is on the line, it is even harder to not attempt to control every detail and every person. The more control we attempt, the less effective it is; paradoxically, though, this only convinces us to attempt to impose ever greater levels of control. When dealing with owls, you get very rapid feedback when you’re attempting too much control. It’s a bit less obvious in jujitsu, and hence harder to break the cycle. The most skilled jujitsu masters can throw an opponent often without touching him, but it takes a leap of faith to abandon the use of force and develop that level of skill. The business environment is, fundamentally, no different.

What’s stopping you?