What happens when you put two control freaks together on a tandem bike?

My daughter and I hired a tandem bike last week.  It quickly become apparent that both of us wanted control. I tried pulling rank as parent and the rider in the front seat, but realised all too soon that I couldn’t boss her into subordination.  All it took was a little inappropriate braking from her back seat and we had the wobbles big time.

I am a control freak.  And I’m the worst possible kind – I’m the control freak who often tries to act like I’m not a control freak.  I often wish I was more easy-going and I deny my need to control.  When I do this, I’m more difficult to work with.  I’m at my best when I acknowledge my urge to control, and even verbalise it to others.  It’s out in the open then.  And when I’m busy trying to deny my inner control freak, I’m also ignoring all the strengths it naturally brings with it.

It’s taken me a long time to realise that ‘control freak’ also equates with a high sense of responsibility, a drive to make things happen, and a ‘no excuses’ mindset.  Look up synonyms for ‘control’ and you will find words including expertise, skilfulness, influence, manage and work.  You may have heard of the term Locus of Control, defined by psychologist Julian Rotter over 50 years ago. Locus of Control refers to our sense of control over the world around us.  If you have a low locus of control, you believe that your behaviour has very little impact on outcomes.  Conversely if you have a high locus of control, you believe your behaviour has a significant impact on outcomes.  Working in recruitment many years ago, we actively sought out candidates with a high locus of control.  More action, more problem solving, less excuses and less blame-game when things weren’t going the way they should.

But working with a control freak can be hard work.  After all, how can you work with someone who is constantly trying to control you and the situation?  Another look at the synonyms for control and you will also find manipulate, dominate, command, restrain and oppress.  Ouch!  

Back on our tandem bike, while it was dawning on me that pulling rank was ineffective, my daughter Bronte was formulating a different strategy.  She had the measure of my argument that it would be safer for me to navigate through the traffic since I was in the front seat, and suggested that we take turns.  I would direct our actions through the congested traffic areas, but she would take command when we reached the quieter suburban areas.  After a few failed attempts, she also suggested we communicate aloud so we knew what each other were doing. This also enabled her to pull me into line when I tried to take control in the quieter suburban areas!

After many years of first hand experience, here are my suggestions for managers and co-workers struggling with a control freak in the team:

1. Recognise the strengths they bring to the team and acknowledge their sense of responsibility and hard work.  
2. Don’t tell them to be more easy-going.  This will likely drive their need for control underground, and could result in more manipulative behaviour or active disengagement.
3. Negotiate where they have control and where they need to hand over control to others. Check they are comfortable with this.
4. Communicate: Encourage lots of dialogue and two-way ‘current time’ feedback

For my fellow control freaks, I offer the following tips for how to thrive in the workplace (and on tandem bikes!):

1. Embrace your inner control freak and see it as a strength.  It can be a critical ingredient to your achievement and career success.
2. Acknowledge the weaknesses that come hand and hand with the strength.  Weaknesses have the greatest capacity to sink our career when we don’t acknowledge them.
3. Accept feedback on what is out of your control. Verbalise your needs, communicate regularly and listen actively to the needs of others.
4. Humour is your best friend, particularly self-depreciating humour.  Be willing to make a joke about your own need for control and it will likely lighten your own perspective, as well as giving others around you a laugh.

I’m grateful to my daughter Bronte for the lesson she gave me on our tandem bike.  Previously, I prayed that she would inherit my husband’s easy-going attitude rather than my need for control.  However, after this experience, I can see she has the negotiation and communication skills to ensure her need for control is an asset and a strength. Oh, and if you are looking for a fun team building exercise, I can highly recommend tandem bike riding!

This blog is part of a series written while travelling overseas on a gap year with my husband Jay, my son Hayden, and my daughter Bronte.  It’s a challenging, daunting and at times extremely rewarding journey to open our minds and hearts, and to come home more capable than we left.  From a business perspective, it is an opportunity to gain a new perspective to make Within Consulting a stronger and more unique organisation which can support our diverse and varied clients into the future.

Within Consulting offer a range of coaching, consulting, leadership and team workshop services.  For more information, contact Tamara Baker at tamara@withinconsulting.com.au or Miriam Yates at miriam@withinconsulting.com.au.