By Allcorn, Seth
Supervisory Management , Vol. 10, No. 2
People Who Need to Control
We all know people who need to be in control. Sometimes it is obvious. The person says, "I am not going to do it, no matter what." Or, "Go ahead, I don't feel like it." Sometimes the need to control is less obvious. "Remember, the last time you had an idea of your own--I had to bail you out. Are you sure you want to try it again?" Or, "That's not a bad idea but your first idea was better; why don't we go with it?"
Control is, of course, not always a bad thing. Without control, cars could not pass safely at intersections, and children would be less likely to reach adulthood. Tasks at work and people in organizations must be controlled to ensure coordination. Control in this sense is an explicit and hopefully rational effort to limit and structure actions for the common good.
Some control, however, has as its source the feeling that one must control others and events or be faced with a larger problem--feeling out of control, anxious, and threatened. This type of control in organizations is an adaptive response to uncertainty.
Origins of compulsive
Most people grow up in settings that more or less facilitate their developing adequate self-esteem and self-integration. Self-integration refers to the degree people are in touch with all parts of their personality. To the extent they react in ways inconsistent with the circumstances, they may be out of touch with parts of their personality that would have permitted a more balanced response. For example, an employee who discovers a problem with operations may, upon telling the supervisor, be blamed for the problem and threatened with termination. The supervisor's irritable, scapegoating reaction is an unbalanced response to the threatening news that his or her control has slipped.
Certainly, a nurturing family is a prerequisite to adequate self-esteem. Individuals who do not have adequate nurturing and grow up in an uncaring and unpredictable setting come to have fragile self-esteem, a self-concept where one sees one's self as vulnerable. Self-integration is lacking. Parts of one's personality that increase vulnerability, such as caring about others, may be suppressed. Control like this ensures distressing experiences of earlier life are not reenacted. Regrettably, an unnurturing and abusive upbringing has lasting effects that can dominate interpersonal relations in the workplace and throughout life.
The nature of control
Painful early life experiences lead to a person scanning the actions and thoughts of others (including one's own) for threats to personal security. In interpersonal relations, control is exerted over who has access, the timing and circumstances of that access, and what that person should think and do. A script of interpersonal control is created that must be faithfully acted out.
A second form of control is exerted by using such common psychological defenses as denial, rationalization, selective inattention, and suppression in dealing with the actions of others. For example, an employee may rationalize criticism from a supervisor by thinking: The supervisor probably criticized everyone and it was important for him not to approve of me and make everyone else envious. Or perhaps the supervisor is just having a bad day or is mean-spirited, and, therefore, what more could one expect than criticism? In other words, the employee psychologically denies that a distressing action happened or that it had any effect.
Taking control of others and situations at work is usually desirable, especially for supervisors. …