The Avoid & Control Trap

Mar 28, 2018

The Avoid & Control Trap

My colleague, Al, recently wrote about the persistent leadership challenges organizations face and the frustration so many of us feel trying to make a dent in them. Like him, I’ve been working with companies on leadership development for a long time. One of the biggest problems people run into is the tremendous complexity of the task. Any attempt to define leadership ends up with a giant basket of qualities and capabilities, as well as a host of factors that influence how they get exercised.

We get it. Our team has seen that complexity up close and personal as we’ve documented and coached tens of thousands of leaders through their specific challenges. You’d probably recognize some of them:

A major new initiative is being announced at a meeting. The project owner is avoiding a critical issue by sticking tightly to his agenda. Anyone who tries to go off track gets the death stare, or marginalized to the “parking lot”, and learns to shut up. The meeting ends with polite head nods, while half the room is silently thinking that the plan will never work. Months later things go off the rails in spite of all the detailed project plans and the lengthy PowerPoint decks.

A manager is having a conversation with an employee about a performance issue. She asks a few questions, hoping he’ll ‘get it’. The subject changes a few times. Finally, some next steps are agreed to. Later that day, the manager realizes she didn’t actually say what she wanted to. She’s convinced nothing is going to change and she’s frustrated.

The people in two departments just can’t seem to work together. They’ve each developed a series of work-arounds, so they don’t have to collaborate on projects. When they absolutely have to combine their efforts, they can’t agree on approach or priorities. Decisions are escalated to senior leaders, who are forced to referee. They’re not happy about it.

We’ve seen these and other scenarios in company after company. The great thing about large data-sets is that they help you see the patterns. As much as these leaders’ challenges vary in their specifics, the vast majority of organizational dysfunction comes back to one simple dynamic:

In approaching every situation, we each have a choice to avoid, control, or engage:

Again and again, leaders choose to avoid and control.
And it’s no wonder! People have the same fundamental drives. We’re all wired to avoid risk, conflict, and uncertainty. We’d all like to get what we want by controlling outcomes, processes, and perceptions. These basic strategies of Avoid & Control become our automatic response, because their pull is really strong:

  • There’s a logic to them
  • There’s an emotional payoff
  • And they even work sometimes

Unfortunately, they also let us down – in big ways:

  • They drive bad habits that backfire on us
  • They result in bigger problems down the road
  • And they prevent us from engaging what really matters

Even at their best, Avoid & Control are only about maintaining the status quo. If all you have are routine or trivial issues to manage, you just might get by. But it’s not going to help you push change. It’s not going to help you tackle the big issues. It’s not going to raise your people’s performance. And it’s not going to help you build better relationships.

People get stuck in an endless cycle of trying to avoid and control. It drives themselves and others nuts, and it prevents them from leading at a higher level. That’s the Avoid & Control Trap.

Stay tuned. We’ll be sharing stories of how the Avoid & Control Trap plays out in everyday situations and how people can break out of it and choose to engage.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you:

  • What dysfunctional patterns do you see in your workplace?
  • How do your leaders get stuck in the Avoid & Control Trap?
  • What’s the cost to your organization when real issues go unaddressed?

Email me at sean@cambridgeleadership.com


-Sean Kennedy, Senior Vice President, Cambridge Leadership Group