The use and abuse of power at work – Control (2/21)

The first form of power that I want to acknowledge is control. Most people seem to be aware of the problems caused by excessive control, and it is a form of power that few people will say they use even though there are plenty of examples of it being legitimised.

As a form of power, control can range from the micro-management tendencies of an individual to the introduction of open plan offices by a company. It may be made to appear acceptable through the use of terms like “compliance”, “governance” and “best practice” but essentially all control is concerned with maintaining the status quo – preventing others from doing things without the approval of its perpetrator.

“Health and Safety” is another example of the ‘legitimised’ application of control which has become so enshrined in work-related jargon, that almost anyone can ‘quote’ it as a way of stopping people from doing something.

Only yesterday, the UK-based, soft-right think tank, Policy Exchange, published a report damning Health and Safety for becoming a ‘ritual excuse’ not to do anything (

Control is usually exerted through mechanisms that involve knowing, supervising, checking up and, more subtly, by creating loyalty. The popularity of loyalty schemes among retailers is nothing to do with rewarding customers, but about diminishing the likelihood of them taking their custom elsewhere. Loyalty becomes a crucial quality for those who seek to use control as a power mechanism. Those in leadership roles may experience staff leaving them as a personal hurt.

It is founded on paranoid traits, an enduring distrust of others with no evidence to justify it, culminating in a conviction that those others are deliberately trying to demean or to cause harm to them. Often the fantasy of what would happen if things were ‘out of control’ is melodramatic, hysterical, and frenzied.

A fascinating insight into the behaviour of the control-oriented manager can be found in Steve Ballmer of Microsoft, who said the following in a company interview a couple of years ago:

  • “My natural personality is more the hands-on operator than — I just love, you know, give me details, give me things to handle, handle, handle. I mean, rrrrrrr. (Laughter.) And it’s different. It doesn’t make it better or worse; it makes it different. So, really I think if you talk to folks, they wouldn’t exactly use the word micromanager, but I like detail. (Laughter.)
  • Now watch this video…

    In 2005, Mark Lucovsky alleged in a sworn statement to a Washington state court that Ballmer became highly enraged upon hearing that he was about to leave Microsoft for Google, picked up his chair, and threw it across his office. Referring to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Ballmer allegedly said, “I’m going to fucking kill Google,” then resumed trying to persuade Lucovsky to stay at Microsoft. Ballmer has described the incident as a “gross exaggeration of what actually took place.” It would seem that Lucovsky’s loyalty to Ballmer had been compromised and, whether exaggerated or not, Ballmer took it far too personally.

    In an interview in Belgium in 2009, Ballmer quoted a line from a Woody Allen movie (Annie Hall) where someone says: “Relationships are like sharks. They either move forward or die”. It’s an interesting perspective, especially as many people with paranoid tendencies report a fragility or volatility of the relationship between their parents and it is this that most psychologists would point towards as the root of the controller mentality – seeking to take control to limit the scope of others to behave in unpredictable ways.

    Ironically, control weakens power by limiting what other forms of power can do. Ultimately, therefore, in order to express power, the controller needs to relax their control. They have to learn to trust people, and to interpret their behaviour differently, often for the first time in their lives. The tendency emerges in early adulthood, few people who have it will seek help changing it and, even if they do, they are likely to stop trying when the person working with them begins to challenge their thought patterns. It’s a difficult conundrum, but one that anyone who works with people of power has to be prepared to address.

    I am happy to comment, or deliver keynote sessions, on any of the topics that I post about.
    For media and speaking enquiries, please call me, Graham Wilson, on 07785 222380.

    Best wishes

    Behind the scenes, helping those of power see themselves, other people and situations differently

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