you control very little,

but you influence more than you think.


This distinction between control and influence is really important to grasp. You could put it this way.

You control something when you are the only variable to the outcome.

You influence something when you are one of the variables.

It can help set you free from the need to ensure things go the way you want them to go, while at the same time giving you the ability to see how your attitudes and behaviours are valuable.

I notice this a lot as I try to parent my young children. My son is 11, and my daughter is almost 9. I constantly fight the urge to try and control their behaviour. Here is an example of control.

I want them to get a certain amount of sleep, so I set up a bedtime routine. I warn them bedtime is coming. I force them to go upstairs to go to the washroom, brush their teeth, and change into their pyjamas. I get them into their beds (sometimes physically if necessary). I turn off lights, close blinds, sing to them, and kiss them goodnight. I tell them to go to sleep. Then I threaten loss of privileges for the next day if my rules are broken. For the next hour or so I have to listen closely to ensure the rules are followed and there is no cheating. If there is, then I punish the bad behaviour. If there is not, I give rewards for good behaviour.

You know what they learn from all this? Better ways to sneak around the rules.

Not exactly the lesson I want them to learn.

Influence might look like this. I point out to them during the day how lack of sleep influences their behaviours. I show them that I want them to have the best day possible, and how good sleep helps with that. I create a bedtime routine which helps them wind down from the day and prepare for rest. I get them moving toward bed when the time comes, and help them through the routine. I turn off lights, close blinds, sing to them, and kiss them goodnight. I tell them to lay there with their eyes closed until they fall asleep. I may need to go back into their rooms to remind them of the importance of good sleep and get them to get back in bed or stop reading or … . Ultimately though I recognise it will be up to them, and help them make a good choice about how much to sleep.

This way takes more time in the short-term, but moves more toward a long-term solution as they learn how to make good decisions.

Control is a short-term solution to a long-term objective.

As a leader, you need to grasp the difference between these two concepts, and you need to lead out of influence NOT control.

In the short term you may be able to control the behaviour of your team, or organisation, though we all know how limited that is. Leading this way often creates an atmosphere of deceit and secrecy as the team works they way they are supposed to while the bosses are watching, then a different way when their back is turned. This leads to increasing levels of oversight and monitoring by the leadership, which leads to increasingly sneaky ways of subverting that oversight and monitoring.

Sound like any place you’ve been? Maybe a place you worked?

Maybe a place you lead?

Ultimately, you can’t control the behaviours of your team or organisation. Face it, you can hardly control your own behaviour.

You can however, influence their behaviours.

The first step toward real influence is letting go of your need to control, and learning to trust your team and organisation. This is really hard, especially if the culture of your organisation has been shaped by control. In the short term you will be taken advantage of, but in the long term you will be able to shift the culture to a much healthier place where people are truly engaged in their work, because they are given more control over what they do.

Trust your team. Set guidelines within which they can make decisions. Help them see the big picture and the direction you want to go.

Then let them do their work.

How can you control less, and influence more?

incentives lead us astray…

well, most of the time anyway.


I’ll give you an example.

I grew up on a farm in Southern Alberta. On this farm was an old house which had been neglected and needed to be torn down. So my dad knocked it down, burned the pile, and cleaned up what he could.

This process left a number of nails and pieces of glass on the ground which stayed around for quite a few years. When I was old enough to help out he gave me the task of cleaning up these stray pieces of rubbish.

He even offered me an incentive.

He gave me a nickle for every nail or piece of glass I found and turned over to him.

I went about the work with zeal, and soon I was bringing him pail after pail full of nails and little pieces of glass. After a while he began to wonder why the pails seemed to keep coming at the same pace. Where was I finding all these nails?

So he followed me out there one day, and realised that I had found where he was dumping the nails I had already found. I simply picked them back up and returned them to him. I was recycling the nails, and getting paid multiple times for picking up the same nail.

It turns out this is called the Incentive Super-Response Tendency, and has been credited to Charlie Munger. Incentives often produce these kinds of unintended consequences, because people become focused on the incentive and not the purpose meant to be furthered by the incentive.

Rolf Dobelli noted a number of examples in The Art of Thinking Clearly. 

To control a rat infestation, French colonial rulers in Hanoi in the nineteenth century passed a law: For every dead rat handed in to the authorities, the catcher would receive a reward. Yes, many rats were destroyed, but many were also bred specially for this purpose.

In 1947, when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, archaeologists set a finder’s fee for each new parchment. Instead of lots of extra scrolls being found, they were simply torn apart to increase the reward. Similarly, in China in the nineteenth century, an incentive was offered for finding dinosaur bones. Farmers located a few on their land, broke them into pieces, and cashed in.

This doesn’t mean we should ignore incentives, as they are powerful tools, it simply means we should recognise the kinds of incentives at play in our organisations and be aware of any unintended consequences of them.

diving a little deeper

Diver swims in a Red Sea

I watched the TED talk by Michael Patrick Lynch again this morning which reminded me of the importance of critical thinking in this age of information overload. There are times when we need to take a break from our constant diet of relatively short blog posts and take a deeper dive into a particular subject.

Here at Improvise on Purpose I will attempt to do that from time to time by writing brief but meaty white papers. You will find them in a menu on the home page (on the right of the page). The first one is an exploration of motivation, trying to give a bit of an answer to the question, How can I motivate others?

I hope you enjoy the waters as you dive a little deeper.