The Importance of Giving Others a Sense of Control
Many years ago when I was an IT manager, I had a customer, Frank, a division manager for whom my department was developing a major system. Frank distrusted IT because a previous IT group had botched a project for his division. I knew we wouldn’t do the same: My developers were sharp, motivated, competent professionals. But Frank’s career was riding on the success of this system, and his distrust persisted.
When it came time to design one chunk of the system, my team decided to come up with three possible approaches and a list of the pluses and minuses of each. The plan was to let Frank select the approach he preferred in hopes that he’d gain more trust in us as a result. Too many choices can overwhelm a person, at least sometimes, but we were only going to offer three choices.
We invited Frank to a meeting to discuss the approaches. As soon as I said, “We’ve come up with three options for you to consider,” Frank jumped up, shouted, “How dare you develop options without my input!” and marched out of the room.
At the time I was flummoxed, but I now believe that given how dependent Frank was on people he distrusted and technology he didn’t understand, he felt an overwhelming lack of control. Feeling a sense of control is a very deep need, yet it’s difficult to feel that sense of control without being able to influence how things are happening.
In everyday life, we’re all sometimes on the receiving end of technology designed to give us a feeling of control. For example, some crosswalk buttons we press in order to bring on the walk signal are merely mechanical placebos. They don’t actually do anything; the signal comes on when it’s set to do so. The same applies to some older elevators, in which pressing the door-close button may offer the illusion of control, but in fact, it doesn’t hasten the door closing.
In reflecting on this matter of control, I can now speculate about how our offer of options might have seemed to Frank. Instead of his seeing the options as giving him a say in our efforts, he may have seen us as preventing his input into the very idea of options. We saw ourselves giving him some control. He may have seen us as taking it away.
Despite the challenges Frank posed for us (and we posed for him), we completed the system on time and it worked as it was supposed to. And I learned the importance of giving people some sense of control over their circumstances, especially during times of stress.