Leadership Strategies for Taking Control

Josh Hay

When I started mediating, I found I was dealing with some very resistant people. I discovered firsthand that people who are angry, threatened, or scared will occasionally dig their heels in and hold on for dear life – sometimes to the point where they hurt themselves as much or more than they hurt the other party.

You’ve probably noticed that even when they’re not angry, people can be illogically resistant. You’re trying to get clients to follow instructions, those you supervise to follow your direction, and co-workers to help you, but they resist. Unless you’re a hypnotist, people simply don’t want to be told what to do.

In his book, Your Brain at Work, author David Rock says psychologists can tell us why we have such a desire for self-direction. Everyone wants their future in the hands of a trustworthy person; someone who is competent and who has their best interests at heart. Experience has taught us that there’s no one more trustworthy than ourselves. When we make a decision, it always makes sense to us.

When you tell people what to do, unless they already agree with you, questions arise for them: What if this doesn’t turn out well? Does this person have my best interests at heart? Are they competent? If this is such a good idea, why didn’t I think of it? That’s why, if they don’t fully trust you, they’ll resist you, even if they don’t have a better plan.

This drive to be self-directed manifests itself on a biological level. Paul A. Landsbergis and his research team from the SUNY Downstate Medical Centre found that people with more decision-making latitude in their jobs have lower blood pressure, even though those decisions are often more difficult. When you give someone more choice, you are improving their health.

Despite this concept, and no matter what your job is, you will always have to ask people to do things. As a mediator, however, I discovered that the more control I gave people, the less they resisted me. I soon discovered the same principle applied to my working life, particularly with co-workers, those I supervise, and clients. Here are my big tips for when you’re trying to get people to do something: first, you must ask them what they think should be done:

  • If their solution isn’t great, but still permissible, let them do it. Their buy-in is usually worth it.
  • If their solution is not allowed, explain why and lay out some options you can live with.
  • If 90% of your message is that they have to do exactly what you say, begin by talking about the 10% where they do have choice.
  • When you feel the way forward is obvious, still ask them what they think first. Most of the time they will give you the obvious answer, but feel they came upon the solution themselves.
Give Options, But Don’t Create Overchoice

You can’t go overboard with giving choice. When the options seem to be equally appealing, the chooser doesn’t have a general preference, or if they are relatively unfamiliar with the choices, options can confuse them.

In his classic, Future Shock, Alvin Toffler calls this concept overchoice. You experience overchoice when a sales person shows you so many vehicles that you end up buying nothing. You’re either confused, or end up making an emotional decision: you buy the one with the nicest label, the most buttons, or the red one. After all, you’ve always liked red.

Overchoice happens because decision making is a complicated process – you know that to do it correctly, you should weigh each option against the others. Each additional option weighed against the others multiplies the work. It doesn’t take long before you are overwhelmed and you switch back to your default settings.

That’s why experts like Avni Shah, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Toronto, plots choice vs. resistance on a u-shaped graph, with too many choices leading to almost as much resistance as when there is no choice.

Because of Shah’s findings, I try not to offer too many choices to whoever I may be dealing with. Rather, I try to offer two, three, or at most, five options.

I used to make sure these options were equal in my eyes, but I found that wasn’t necessary. Sometimes, the fact that the choices are not equal makes the chooser’s job easier, and they’re fine with this. At other times, what I perceive as a poor option for the chooser turns out to be the best one for them from their perspective. This also allows me to accomplish more of my agenda. When there’s an option that doesn’t work as well from my end, I leave it out. If it’s not as good an option for me, why complicate things by including it?
I have to be careful, however, because sometimes the omission of a certain option is a glaring one for the chooser, and they are left unsatisfied. If that’s the case and the omitted option is okay with me, I add it back in.

Giving people a few good options has significantly aided my conversations. When I do my homework by thinking of good options beforehand, conversations that used to be clunky are now fluid and quick.

Sometimes I worry that focusing on options that are better for me is manipulative, but I’ve found that it usually just makes life easier for everyone. If I’m worried about having too much influence in the conversation, I can present people with a broader array of options – but still limit the amount of options to three or five.

ACHIEVE is conducting a study for a book we are working on. The book will draw heavily on “A Great Place to Work” Survey. We hope you participate in the short survey – we would love to hear your input.


Mike Labun
Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership & Workplace Performance

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