How to Maximize Control in One Easy Step

On Soap, Pie, Mr. Robot, Unicorns, & Rainbows

The television drama Mr. Robot requires one to follow plot threads and characters that have been filtered through the mind of Elliot Alderson, played by Rami Malek, a man who is, on his best day, wildly delusional. The plot consists of misdirection, hallucinations, time jumps, multiple identities, and deception, so I naturally find it extremely engaging and compelling. It is just my sort of narrative. In addition, the dialogue frequently drops shards of wisdom, for instance when season-two character, Ray, played by Craig Robinson, lays this insight on Elliot: "Control is about as real as a one-legged unicorn taking a leak at the end of a double rainbow."

Truth.

What is it about control? I suppose it is only natural that we want control in our lives. Otherwise, our existence would spin into chaos. But moment-to-moment, day-to-day, week-to-week control is enticingly ever-elusive. It is a bar of wet soap in your hand. The harder you squeeze the more likely the bar will shoot away. Yet, many of us persist in seeking to maximize control over every aspect of our lives and the lives of others. In the workplace, many bosses assume that it is their sacred duty to control every employee and every aspect of the job. If you have ever worked for one of these control-freak bosses, you know what a miserable disaster that can be. Most often their behavior takes the form of micromanagement or perfectionism. Whatever the case, the controlling boss eventually finds it maddening as full control slips out of grasp over and over, and, all too often, instead of adjusting to failure and choosing a different strategy, the boss tries to squeeze each bar of soap all the harder with the predictable outcome. If you have a boss who regularly says something along the lines of “we should do the same thing but just more of it,” you know you are in deep trouble.

I accept chaos. I'm not sure whether it accepts me. - Bob Dylan

I am not suggesting that bosses should cede authority or give into chaos, of course. Instead, wise bosses recognize and embrace the limits of control and learn to manage in the rough and tumble of daily existence and even in the midst of chaos, which we all inescapably must confront. In contrast, those who resist chaos the most zealously fare the worst in the end.

In fact, there is a paradox at work: the more one tries to control, the less one controls, and, by extension, those who most think they are in control are the least in control. You can never really grip the wet soap. You can only clasp it gently, but not too gingerly. You don’t want it to slip through your fingers and land on the shower floor. You can exert your will over it, but only with care.

Okay, enough of the soap analogy. If you are stuck on it, go buy a bottle of body wash or a good ol' soap-on-a-rope.

​Exerting just the right amount of control requires constant appraisal and adjustment, which is why it is so tempting just to squeeze harder and pretend that you will retain your grip (sorry). Some people, particularly some bosses, feel the need to get involved in everything in order “to make sure it is done right.” To shift my metaphor once and for all away from bathing products, they want to stick their thumb in every pie. But, it is axiomatic that if you stick your thumb in every pie, all you end up with is a bunch of ruined pies. It’s a simple formula, really. If you feel obligated to get involved in everything, you only guarantee that you will wreck almost everything. If you are such a boss, it is also axiomatic that your employees will find your interference demoralizing and will react accordingly.

Years ago, my wife, who is an attorney, had a boss who was precisely this kind of control freak. Stephen felt that if he did not insert himself into every detail of their work, his staff would screw it up. He fancied himself the ultimate in quality control, I suppose. Stephen was a good guy outside of work and wasn’t a tyrant otherwise in the office, but morale was abysmal. For some reason, he was particularly proud of his writing ability, which indulged in florid language and 50-cent words even when he was writing to their clients, many of whom were victims of inadequate education. Whenever my wife wrote anything at all, Stephen had to see it before it went out. As it goes, that is not a bad idea. Writing is best when you can get as many eyes as possible on it, and a good boss will check important written matter for tone or quality before it leaves the office. Still, Stephen thought he wasn’t doing his job unless he was revising heavily. No matter how polished my wife’s writing, Stephen would liberally replace lucid phrasing with tangled wording, alter punctuation, and rearrange sentence structure. My wife complained to me bitterly about it.

At her first annual evaluation with Stephen, he took her to task specifically for her writing. He chose one piece she had submitted to him, and he humiliated her by reviewing all the alterations he had made. If that were not enough, at the end of their meeting, he told her that she should take a writing class at the local community college.

Let’s put this in perspective. My wife is, in fact, a community college graduate who went on to earn a JD from a respected law school. Furthermore, she won her law school graduation award for the quality of her writing, and by the time she met Stephen, she was no novice. She was a lawyer with years of experience. Imagine someone like her being told she would have to go back to her beginnings.

As luck would have it, though, her husband had some knowledge of just what she would learn in that community college writing course, given that I had started my career in academia tutoring and teaching writing at just such a school. She asked me to look over the piece that Stephen had viciously critiqued. No surprise, aside from two small typos, her original was clear and impeccable. On the other hand, Stephen’s attempt at revising it resulted in several sentence-structure errors, distorted diction, and misused punctuation. In short, Stephen, despite a formidable lexicon, was a lousy writer, a really lousy writer. His revisions betrayed no mastery of the basics of grammar and mechanics. Simply put, he would have benefited greatly from my beginning composition course.

My wife, though, concluded that she could not win with him. While she neglected to follow up on his suggestion that she go back to school, she also stopped revising her writing. Instead, she just submitted slap-dash first drafts to Stephen, reasoning that, since he would tear apart anything she gave him, her time could be better spent on other aspects of her job. Of course, having to review her slipshod work only further convinced Stephen of her ineptitude. Demoralizing.

I tell this true story because I enjoy its irony, certainly, but also because it is a great example of the inherent failure of control-freakdom in the workplace. Stephen wanted to minutely control all the material produced by his office and did not realize or accept the fact that my wife was (by far) the superior writer. Instead of trusting in her skills, which she had developed over years, he flattered himself that he was the better wordsmith and went on to ruin her perfectly fluent documents. He just had to go and stick his thumb in that delicious pie. Worst still, certainly without intending to, he belittled my wife and thus encouraged her to submit shoddy work, which only resulted in more effort from him.

To control is stupid, to manage divine.

The deeper insight here is that the need to exert excess control is very often (maybe always) the result of ego run amok. It suggests that oneself is exceptional and that others are inferior. The truth is, though, that everyone is superior, inferior, and equal in a variety of ways. Workplaces that feature healthy teams acknowledge this fact and use it to their advantage. They encourage team members to share their abilities with one another and offset their shortcomings in order to achieve collective success. The leader of a team is not necessarily the most skilled at any, let alone all, of the team’s tasks. The team leader should be the one who is most skilled at bringing out the best in the team by striking the right balance. In other words, the team leader should simply be the one who is most adept at leading.

Now, in all honesty, I can certainly conceive of the existence of some sort of genius who is superior to everyone in everything. I can also recognize how such an extraordinary individual would be best left to perform in his or her preferred manner. This brainiac would be a paragon of efficiency, a one-person productivity machine, and must have as much leeway to perform at his or her top capacity to be as effective as possible.

Of course, my ability to conjure such a mastermind is entirely the result of an exertion of my imagination. The human imagination is a wonderfully versatile tool and allows me to envision a host of scenarios that are as equally outlandish as the existence of a supergenius master of all trades, a boss who can and should have total control. For example, I can also just as readily imagine a one-legged unicorn taking a leak at the end of a double rainbow.

Can you?

So, I promised in my title to let you know how to maximize control in one easy step.