Are You A Controlling Leader? Of Course You’re Not?

Some leaders get an awful lot of work done.

These leaders are highly competent, have expert knowledge and are known for producing work of a high standard which is undertaken meticulously.

They have a reputation for getting results and a track record for getting the job done on time, every time.

Sounds good, yes?

Perhaps you are reading this article and are thinking these leaders sound pretty good, maybe I want to be one of these leaders?

Spoiler alert, sometimes there’s a big downside to becoming one of these leaders.

Some, not all of these leaders have one fundamental behaviour in common.

They are highly controlling leaders and they can achieve results, but it comes with a cost.

Read on to understand what that cost is.

Learning about controlling leadership

In this article we will be addressing three critical leadership questions:

  1. What are the origins of controlling leadership?
  2. What are the effects of controlling leadership on leadership careers teams and organisations?
  3. How can controlling leaders kick the control habit?

You will note the sarcasm in the title of this article as nearly all controlling leaders are unable to admit they are controlling leaders.

The list of excuses that defend their controlling behaviour and why it’s needed to get the job done seems almost endless.

Origins of control

Controlling behaviour is rooted in a leader’s view of the world and how they believe they need to be in that world to survive and be successful.

Control is central to the leader’s sense of identity and the world is viewed as a place where you win, or you lose.

Control is about winning and not losing.

Loosing is a sign of weakness and weakness makes us vulnerable and most controlling leaders loathe the idea of being vulnerable.

Vulnerability is a sign of weakness and controlling leaders cannot be seen to be weak.

Any sign of weakness is a sign of potential future demise and cannot be tolerated, it’s is a threat to who they are in the world.

Controlling leaders have a need to feel safe, they meet this need by getting things done.

However, things don’t just get done, they must be done perfectly.

Controlling leaders are addicted to perfection and tasks must be completed in the way they like them to done.

Again, perfection is a way of winning and feeling safe. For a controlling leader the task reflects who they are, it is not separate to the sense of self.

When I’m in control I feel safe, things get done and I can feel good about myself.

I do this by taking charge of situations and exercising my will over others.

Makes sense, yes?

Ask yourself, am I a controlling leader?

Here’s a quick Litmus test for you to see if you’re a controlling leader.

How often do you ‘tell’ rather than ‘ask’?

If you tell more than you ask, you may leverage control more than you should.

To dig deeper, you can talk with us about getting 360 feedback on your leadership and this can provide you with some great insights

The Impact on leadership careers
If you are a controlling leader it is highly unlikely you will achieve the success you crave. Control is opposite


The effects of controlling leadership on teams

To understand the impact of controlling behaviour on teams we first need to understand its impact on human motivation.

To do this, we need an empirically researched theory that will help us understand the consequences of controlling leadership over others.

Self Determination Theory, SDT (Deci and Ryan, 1985) is a well understood and empirically researched theory that helps us to understand the effects of controlling leadership on human motivation.

The theory posits we all possess innate tendencies towards growing and mastering new difficult tasks and situations in life. We then integrate these into a cohesive version of ourselves.

Simply put, we become an updated version of ourselves as we experience the world and master new ways of doing things.

Hopefully a smarter and wiser version!

SDT states that we all have three innate psychological needs that must be met if we are to thrive and be successful in our work and lives.


These three innate needs are –

Autonomy – To have agency/control over your own life. To act in accordance with our own sense of self. Note, this does not mean to the exclusion of other people.

Competence – To have the opportunity to take part in work that leverages our strengths and talents, to develop mastery in our chosen work/pursuits.

Relatedness – The innate drive to form positive meaningful and caring relationships and connect with others.

Do you recall the last time you experienced someone who tried to control you?

How did that feel?

How do we experience this?

For most of us having someone exerting control over us gives range to a plethora of negative emotions. Anger resent, frustration and above all a loss of power over our own destiny.

Strike one, your autonomy just went up in smoke.

Someone else is now directing your life, they have taken the reins from you and they now hold them in their hands.

How does that feel?

Now that they hold the reins, they have decided that the way you do things is not the way they want things to be done.

The way you would approach the task is wrong, as their preferred method is the only and right way things should be done.

How does this feel?

You now begin to question your own competence.

Because you no longer receive positive feedback about your work, you start to ask your controlling leader how to proceed with the assigned task.

This makes you feel inadequate, it also widens the power differential between you the follower and them, the leader.

The controlling leader takes this as a confirming message that their involvement with the task at hand is for everyone’s benefit, including yours!

You now check in with your leader more frequently than you usually would or fear of displeasing them or moving forward with work under your own volition without their permission, as you may take the job in a direction they would not approve of.

Strike two, there goes your feeling of competence up in flames, slightly fanned by your own hand.

These are the chains you unwittingly you helped your controlling leader to forge.

How’s that sense of autonomy going now?

Not a good time to talk?

What happens next?

Any positive feelings you held towards your controlling leader now take a downward spiral as any interaction feels like you need to explain that you are not stupid, but you now think this is the view they hold of you.

Controlling leaders tend not to provide positive feedback.

Instead, they tend to manage by exception.

This means they interact with you only when you fail or make a mistake and they are more interested in blame than developing people.

Strike three, relatedness.

Because controlling leaders lack connectedness with their team, they miss the opportunity to coach and develop their people and get the best from them.

Coaching is a way to grow and build autonomycompetence and relatedness, this leads to increased performance and innovation.

Controlling leadership is the road in the opposite direction and why would you take this road?

The path to short term gain and long-term failure?

Controlling leadership behaviour is the fire extinguisher of innovation and continuous improvement.

Team members do not want to be blamed for ideas that did not take flight or new ways of doing things that don’t work out.

Hence when asking teams for new ideas, controlling leaders tend not to see a room full of hands in the air.

This provides a confirming message to the leader they know best and controlling leaders are not too fond of other people’s ideas.

Controlling leaders may view their own team members as competition and need to keep them in their place to ‘stay safe’.

And more often than not, controlling leaders are unlikely to employ great talent as this new talent may question the status quo and the way the team is being led.

Kicking the control addiction

If you are a leader who overplays control, and someone comes along and suggests that you be less controlling what do you think the likelihood of their success would be.

That’s right, about zero on a good day.

Imagine walking up to a group of people smoking outside an office building and preaching the ills of smoking and the health benefits of giving up.

How many do you think will give up due to your well-intentioned but misguided action?

Again, likely none.

Controlling behaviour meets a deep inner need to stay safe and to survive.

Leaders who overplay control usually receive feedback that rewards their controlling ways.

Controlling leaders thrive in areas where controlling behaviour may be rewarded. Examples include operational divisions of a business or highly task orientated teams.

Why do we need to kick the control habit?

Our workplaces become more complex as each day passes.

Simply put, control narrows our focus to smaller outcomes and things like, ‘What time Jane started work?’, ‘How many calls has Peter made this morning?’, ‘Did Maria complete her monthly figures?’.

Control narrows are focus to the exclusion of more significant drivers of performance.

By making the smaller things more critical, we miss the focus on the larger world view.

This is not to say that the detail is irrelevant, but it’s part of the picture and not the whole picture. Control diminishes are ability influence what actually matters. It is the mirage of an oasis in the desert of complexity

When we feel out of control, we grab the air for the small things we can control.

The size of the font in this article, my intentional typo in the second paragraph.

Our grab for control when we feel out of control diminishes the very things we wish to control.

We lose influence over what we seek to control, our people.

How do we kick the habit?

To kick the habit of control leaders, need to learn new ways to get results and this is not a usual process, and it means exposure to potential failure.

Coaching controlling leaders is an effective way to change these entrenched behaviours. Stop talking about holding people to account

Start talking about how to support people to deliver the outcomes the business requires.

The key behavioural shift for controlling leaders to make is beginning to support their people to deliver outcomes. Kicking control is about achieving outcomes through others, not yourself.

Consider the difference in how you feel when a leader tells you they will support you as opposed to holding to account.

One is a veiled threat with consequences the other an offer to collaborate.

You may think the subtle language nuance pedantic. But its powerfully important.

When controlling leaders begin to generate outcomes without control, they may be able to let go of long-held behaviours.

It is not an easy behaviour to change, but it’s worth changing.

What got you here won’t get you there

In measured amounts, control has a place.

Delivered with the right intensity in a given context, control can be the correct response at that time.

Think of control like chilli powder, a little sprinkle gives a dish mouth-watering appeal. Being heavy handed and we are all running for the cold tap.

Controlling leadership may have been the tide your leadership rose on to date.

However, it won’t serve as the vehicle to get you to your next senior appointment.

What got you here, won’t get you there.

Contact is today to kick your control habit.

It’s something you’ll be happy you did in the end, so go on, live a little! What do you have to loose? Control?

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