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  • Jo Chapman

The Illusion of control

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

Mike Tyson

I’ve been mulling over this topic for a while…. wondering where to start with it. It’s a phrase I used A LOT in my previous roles and more recently with clients.

What is it?

The illusion of control was first evidenced by Ellen Langer, a researcher from UCLA in the 1970’s. It’s described as… “the tendency for people to overestimate their ability to control events; for example, it occurs when someone feels a sense of control over outcomes that they demonstrably do not influence.” (1)

What does this mean for organisations’ culture and leadership?

I use the term the Illusion of control in the context of planning and measuring. So often in large organisations significant time is spent planning, then re-doing plans, then re-planning. I’ve even been told that we’re doing a “plan for a plan”…mmm, well why don’t we just do the plan?

Or what about the creation of endless MI, pages and pages of statistics and data? How much of it gets reviewed and understood? The requests for further mi, or yet more indicators to measure people and processes. Ring any bells?

The point being is that these practices give people the Illusion of control – that if there is a plan everything is under control; that if there is endless mi, everything is being tracked and understood. It makes us feel comfortable.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good plan and I love some good stats!

My concern is when the plan becomes all-consuming, or the endless requests for more data takes the place of really listening and understanding your organisation. Taking the time to really understand what’s going.

What if we just planned our first next steps? What if we knew in detail what the next few weeks or looks like but beyond that who knows?

I know I’m going to now get all the project managers coming at me with their Gannt charts shouting about the need for plans – again, I love a good plan, but let’s leave room for emergence where we can, room to see what comes out of those first next steps, freeing ourselves from the illusion of control.

That means becoming comfortable in not knowing, comfortable in what for many people is the uncomfortable. This is the leadership skill we’re crying out for in organisations right now, the ability to be comfortable not knowing and tapping into what emerges.

Let us know your thoughts

(1) Langer, Ellen J. (1975), "The Illusion of Control", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 3


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