If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions…then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.

— Daniel Goleman, Psychologist | Author | Science Journalist

As if we don’t have enough on our minds with exploding email inboxes, rampant meetings and prolific #1 priorities, we must also worry about everything wildly spinning out of our control. That’s certainly one of the greatest hurdles facing today’s leaders — how can we possibly control the uncontrollable? The answer is, “We can’t!” Yet, many of us think we must.

Based on a study conducted by Professor Elizabeth Thornton, Babson College (The Objective Leader Personal Assessment), “…57.8% of respondents reported that their self-worth was often connected to their ability to control circumstances, and 9.5% said that their sense of self-worth is connected to their ability to control circumstances all of the time.”1 Dr. Tim Carey, clinician, researcher and professor of mental health plus author, states that…”We are all controlling people. Every living person is controlling. People have to be controlling if they want to go on living. The very act of staying alive on a day-to-day basis is a process of control.”2 Dr. Carey includes Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, Napoleon Bonaparte, Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln and many other of our most inspirational and most villainous tyrants on his “controlling people” list.

What is situational control?  

Control as being used in this context, is not about dictators, manipulators, abusers, micromanagers and the lot, trying to maliciously control other people. This is about honorably-intentioned, professionally-passionate, results-focused people wanting and needing to control situations in order to achieve positive/optimum outcomes, though their motivations could certainly be different. As examples, some may be altruistic in wanting their organizations, teams and people to “do right” by their customers while others may be more self-serving — only caring about how good they look to those who sign their paychecks. It’s also possible that some might flip-flop between altruism and self-centeredness. Whatever the motivation, how we react to situations where we’re feeling “out of control” 100% impacts our professional brand — which is a BIG DEAL. Additionally our reactions impact our ability to become our “best versions” plus find peace from within as we navigate uncontrollable waters.

With the above in mind, Dr. Carey defines control as the following….

“Control is the process of making things right for yourself and keeping them that way. A routinely functioning person is a concatenation of systems that keep body temperature right, posture right, appearance right, relationships right, health right, emotions right, schedules right, confidence right, and so on. When problems occur in a person’s routine functioning, they are problems of control.”

How control plays out in the workplace (aka damaging our brand is easy)      

While I’ve observed many “loss of control” situations over the years, I’ve provided three real-life scenarios to demonstrate how dissimilar people react to their own unique “loss of control” circumstances.

Scenario 1: Jackie

Jackie, an exemplary high performer who is both large corporate medical and insurance healthcare-experienced, couldn’t imagine in her wildest dreams, delivering results that are anything short of A+. From Jackie’s vantage point, the patients and physicians were counting on her and her team to provide flawless products and services. The challenge — Jackie worked in an organization that embraced mediocrity — a dysfunctional condition certainly beyond Jackie’s span of control (other than she accepted the opportunity several years prior without having thoroughly vetted the culture). Jackie and her team could do handstands, somersaults and back flips all day long in the pursuit of delivery perfection, yet still encounter a litany of dropped batons, miss-communications, changes in direction, decision delays and other supporting area gaffes, which would (and did) derail Jackie’s and her team’s efforts. While Jackie intellectually understood her company’s shortcomings, each time an avoidable issue cropped up, she emotionally got wrapped around the axle — by choice. Jackie would first morph into a brazen prosecuting attorney as she targeted the perpetrator’s jugular — not dissimilar to Lieutenant Kaffee cunningly cornering Colonel Jessep in the movie, A Few Good Men. Next Jackie fixated on all that was wrong — for days. She became so angry that she couldn’t see straight. Eventually she felt completely miserable and totally defeated. Where is Jackie now? Jackie sought out a high-performing organization to protect her sanity plus, once on board, she smartly tackled and modified her “when things go wrong outside of my control” reactionary behaviors.

Scenario 2: Kevin

Kevin, a conscientious worker in a small business, is singularly-focused on “Kevin’s agenda”. While his agenda is admirable and Kevin intellectually realizes that other organizational agendas outside his purview are in play, he is so headstrong on attaining his professional and personal goals that nothing else (and no one else) matters. When Kevin encounters what he would consider to be major “Kevin agenda” roadblocks that he can’t control, he chooses “email lashings”. Not being armed with all of the facts and concocting convenient and rationalized stories in his mind, Kevin launches into attack mode. He blames people, assigns negative intent to people’s actions, calls people names and tries to intimidate them into supporting his agenda — believing that his goals usurp all others. When Kevin heads to this place, which ironically occurred as I was writing this article, his listening, seeking to understand plus critical thinking skills collapse. Where is Kevin now? Kevin has jumped from various company- and self-employed jobs over the years, unable to create any kind of positive momentum nor track record of accomplishments. Before too much longer, I suspect that Kevin will, once again, move on to his next job as the self-sabotaging cycle continues.

Scenario 3: Peter

Peter, an intelligent person with respected Fortune 200 plus mid-size company credentials and experience, wanted the best for his customers and himself. Initially he appeared to be a collaborative colleague. Unfortunately, when unexpected curveballs appeared and had the potential of compromising his customers’ outcomes, he would choose to simply lose his leadership cool. Peter’s hallmark M.O. — fist pounding on tables and verbal tirades — a far cry from jumping into business solutioning mode with his team. Emotionally-strung Peter didn’t realize that: 1) his team couldn’t effectively concentrate on problem solving during “Peter fits”, so his actions further jeopardized the very customers that he was attempting to serve; 2) his team began questioning Peter’s capabilities meaning, if all Peter could do was rant and rave and not solve, perhaps he was incapable/incompetent in his role; and 3) he was losing leadership credibility and respect. Where is Peter now ? He was eventually terminated and soon thereafter retired from Corporate America.

Notice that in Jackie’s, Kevin’s and Peter’s case, all three chose self-crippling reactions that impacted their professional brands (aka outward-facing impacts). Jackie was also inwardly-impacted. She told me how angry she had become with herself in allowing her situational control issues to get the best of her. I highly suspect that Kevin is also inwardly-impacted. He appears to be a man consumed with anger. Of course Peter couldn’t have felt inwardly-confident after having been fired.

Situational control a deeper dive

We’re all wired differently and therefore view control differently:

  • What might “set off” Person A might not “set off” Person B
  • Person A’s reaction may be entirely different than Person B’s reaction, both in behaviors plus intensity

I fondly remember a Director who reported to me at a meteoric-paced global services company. He was an exceptionally talented, highly conscientious and extraordinarily resilient leader. Nothing phased him, at least not on the surface. What made him especially memorable — his unique ability in having all bases covered plus reacting to the unexpectedly disruptive with the utmost leadership composure. He was unflappable. I used to tease him that if the building were to catch on fire and the flames began licking at his heels, unlike the rest of us wildly screaming and insanely racing toward the exits, he’d be whistling a tune while jogging out the door. When the pendulum swings in the opposite direction — for those of us who demand absolute certainty in a world that is anything but — our anxiety levels skyrocket as the sand shifts beneath us. We emotionally unhinge. According to Dr. Elliott D. Cohen, a percentage of us operate under false expectations that we must accurately predict and manage the future. “…People with losing-control anxiety are perfectionists. They demand perfect certitude — or near perfect certitude — and when they don’t get it they worry and ruminate about it. This is a formula for a roller coaster ride that never ends until, of course, you die.”3  Per Dr. Cohen, “…the key to controlling your losing-control anxiety is letting go of your demand for certainty — giving up your unrealistic perfectionism about reality.” For the perfectionist, that’s easier said than done. Some will quietly “stew in their own juices” while others will publicly “act out” when life doesn’t unfold exactly as they had anticipated, expected or demanded.

We can’t control the uncontrollable, but we can control how we react to the uncontrollable

Years ago I came to realize that the greatest leadership test of all is not how we react under the best of conditions, but under the worst of conditions — under adversity. Given our innate nature to control the uncontrollable, types of adversity would be the unanticipated, the unwelcomed and the unwanted. Such scenarios are identified in the self-reflection tool that follows, along with the following crucial, self-awareness-raising questions:

  1. What workplace situations cause me to feel like I’ve lost control?
  2. As I’m losing control (or after I’ve lost control), how do I inwardly and outwardly react, based on my recent past?
  3. If my inwardly and outwardly reactions are not those of an inspiring leader or person, how must I and will I react as I move forward?

A bit about the tool…

The self-assessment captures some of the more common place “losing control” situational scenarios culled from both research plus first-hand observations and experiences. The scenarios are certainly not intended to be exhaustive but merely a thought-provoking, awareness-raising starting point. The scenarios also touch on the two types of control previously referenced:

  • Making things right for ourselves in the present and keeping them that way; and
  • Attempting to control the outcome of future events because we’re fearful that if we don’t, something terrible will happen.

While it would be ideal if everyone could accurately self-assess, that’s not realistic. For those who are self-assessment challenged, you may choose to review the list with a trusted, capable and candid colleague — ideally a person who consistently demonstrates inspirational leadership and who would be willing to help you:

  • Accurately assess your “recent past” reactions under various workplace scenarios;
  • Identify your desired “moving forward” reactions and how to best self-manage to those reactions; and
  • Track your progress plus offer additional behavioral tweaks.

Why this work is important

Before you self-assess, let’s keep in mind the three reasons why this work is important:

Reason 1: To further strengthen your professional brand.

Reason 2: To become the “best version” of you.

Reason 3: To be at peace with uncertainty.

On a final note, you are welcome to contact us if you: 1) have any tool questions; 2) would like to receive the Word version of the tool; and/or 3) need any self-assessment or “moving forward” guidance.

Situational Control Self-Assessment

Please complete the assessment as instructed then modify your reactions accordingly.

I feel like I’ve “lost control” when…

(Circle T if “True” or F if “False”)

Recent Past

Here’s how I have inwardly
& outwardly reacted in
the recent past…

(Complete for all “Ts”)

Moving Forward

As an inspiring leader or person, here’s how I will inwardly & outwardly react
moving forward…

(Complete for all “Ts”)

I’m under tight deadlines (T or F)
I have too many #1 priorities (T or F)
My focus is continuously interrupted (T or F)
My email inbox is overflowing (T or F)
I’m running from meeting to meeting (T or F)
I’m given work that I didn’t sign up for (T or F)
I’m asked to do the impossible (T or F)
Others question or override my decisions (T or F)
Others aren’t moving fast enough for me (T or F)
Others drop the ball and it impacts me (T or F)
I don’t get what I want (T or F)
I receive bad news that impacts me (T or F)
I’m told to work with someone I don’t like (T or F)
I’m told to reduce my headcount/budget (T or F)
I receive critical feedback about myself (T or F)
Someone speaks to me disrespectfully (T or F)
Someone attacks my integrity (T or F)
Someone disagrees with me (T or F)
I read “negative tone” in emails I receive (T or F)
Someone “wrongs” me (T or F)
I fail at “X” (T or F)
Others fail and it impacts me (T or F)
I deserved to but I didn’t get promoted (Y or N)
Company changes are occurring around me (T or F)
Directional changes are occurring around me (T or F)
I don’t know how Situation X will play out for me (T or F)
I’m told my role will be changing (T or F)


Thought Provokers:

Here’s what the research says… 57.8% of respondents reported that their self-worth was often connected to their ability to control circumstances…9.5% of respondents said that their sense of self-worth is connected to their ability to control circumstances all of the time…we are all controlling people…people with losing-control anxiety are perfectionists and are on a never-ending roller coaster ride until they die. When you feel a “loss of control”, how is it impacting your: 1) professional brand; 2) ability to become the “best version” of you; and 3) ability to be at peace with uncertainty?


1 Are You a Control Freak? Does it Work for You?, Psychology Today, 2015.

2 Do You Know How to Recognize Controlling People?, Psychology Today, 2016.

3 The Fear of Losing Control, Psychology Today, 2011.

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