I made my daughter cry on the weekend as I forgot to be omnipotent. On Saturday we went bowling, just her and I, while her mum was away in London. Aside from the bowling we played on a few slot machines. On this occasion we won big. Next day she asked if we could go back, more for the slot machines than the bowling I suspected. I told her we wouldn’t win again, she burst into tears. What I had meant was that it was very unlikely we would win again, but she thought I had simply decided not to win. In her head our success was a simple act of volition, not luck. I was in control of every outcome, I was omnipotent.
Lots of people I know describe themselves as “control freaks” and in many respects act like they believe themselves to be omnipotent. As impossible as we all know this is, there is a strong desire to accept blame or blame others for things which are beyond all control – “If its my fault than I can control it”. Claiming to be a control freak has become socially acceptable, and in a post-Jobs world something of a badge of honour. It shouldn’t be. It’s a complex, a neurosis.
I don’t refer to myself as a control freak as it’s an expression which avoids accountability and is non specific. I have a need to take control of situations which asserts itself in specific circumstances and makes me impatient and intolerant. Specifically I get frustrated when others are seemingly indecisive in certain situations. It is very specific. I can think of no circumstance when this has been helpful. Many when it hasn’t. Arguably it was instrumental in my career progress, but accepting more responsibility is not the same as needing control. It is not a prerequisite for success. It can choke it.
Personally, I know exactly where this came from, and have learned how to spot it rising in myself. That helps me keep it in check. Sometimes, not always. Nowadays, I spot it more and more in others. In group situations, many people have different techniques they unconsciously developed to shift the locus of control to themselves. It isn’t just chest beating alpha male behaviour. I’ve observed specific individuals consistently declare themselves as ill or having “worked until 2am” before any difficult meeting to erect a barrier against anticipated criticism. Gender and age may alter the technique but the underlying issues are common to everyone. It does not distinguish between personal and business life.
I’ve met very few people who act like this intentionally, with any real understanding of what they are doing or the impact it has. In many cases the impact is minor, but in the context of thousands of interactions a week, in a family or office environment, these can be amplified into bigger issues, as others adapt their behaviour accordingly.
Families and businesses are often interlocking combinations of peoples’ neuroses. That’s why people don’t get on. That’s why people who don’t get on, do get on, when something changes. You can’t solve them but you can watch out for them. Control freaks can start with themselves, and occasionally forget to be omnipotent.
I gave in and won on the slot machines again by the way.