You control NOTHING. Get over it.

You control NOTHING. Get over it. 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about HR strategic planning lately.  And one of the common issues that comes to the surface when you get into planning discussions is control. Here’s an example of how it usually plays out.

Through the planning process, your team identifies that one of the critical objectives for the organization is employee retention.  Your diligent discovery efforts during the planning process revealed that employee productivity increases with tenure and that you have too many newer employees voluntarily leaving the company currently.  So, your team determines that you should make increasing employee retention one of your key strategic objectives of the plan.  This also means that it will be a key measure of your success.

But, then someone makes this comment:

“But retention isn’t entirely within our control.  We can’t control how managers treat people.  We can’t control what happens in an employee’s personal life that might lead them to make a job change.  There’s too many things we don’t control.  How can our success be measured on something we can’t control?

Sadly, this can grind the process to a halt.  The underlying logic of this statement appeals to most reasonable people.  Control has a lot of allure and we are drawn to it like moths to a flame.  But, we must resist getting caught in this trap.  Control, my friends, is an illusion.

I think that this desire for control is probably the single thing that holds most HR leaders back.  Somehow we’ve come to believe that we should only be held accountable for things that are 100% within our control.  The problem is that nothing is 100% within our control.  The only thing truly ithin our control is our personal attitudes, behaviors and choices.  And even those things can be manipulated without our awareness some times.

Control doesn’t exist.  And if an HR leader would slow down and look around the organization, they’d realize that none of their peers have control either.  The head of sales is saddled with a sales target that her team must hit.  She doesn’t control what the customers will do.  She doesn’t control how the economy will look.  She doesn’t even control the choices her sales team makes about what to do or how hard to work.  Very little is within her control.  But, she has great ability to influence what happens.  She makes plans and crafts strategies for what to do to make it highly probable that her team will hit the goal.  She acknowledges that there are a lot of variables at work, and she takes the actions that are most likely to lead to success.  What she doesn’t do is waste time fighting against the goal because it’s not within her control.  She knows that her job is sales and that regardless of what she controls, she’s got to find a way to make it happen.

This same things happens at all levels of leadership.  Control doesn’t exist.  The sooner we realize that, particularly as HR leaders, the sooner we can elevate our game and our standing within the organization.

So, back to the retention example.  HR doesn’t control all of the variables related to retention.  True.  But, HR can or does influence every variable related to retention.  So, measuring HR on the organizational retention isn’t unfair.  Quite the contrary, it’s a perfect measure of the outcomes that HR should be influencing to help the organization be more productive.  In my example particularly, the HR team should embrace retention as their measure and then use all of their energy and focus to drive up the organizations retention.

As a leader, when you fully embrace the reality that you control nothing, you get focused on far more productive activity like listening, building relationships, planning, teaching, thinking, etc.  The illusion of control is crippling too many leaders.

Let go of the need for control.  It will set you free.

  • Dave "theHRCzar" Ryan

    I agree with you Jason – however it is semantics. The Director of sales damn well better make sure that the ORG has sales or they will be moving on. An HR Director needs to hit the majority of the CO goals through control, influence, guidance – call it what you will. But I get your point in terms of an absolute. The only thing we control is our own behavior. Enjoyed the read Jason!

  • James Papiano


    This is an important insight that is even more difficult for folks to understand as the pressure and the stakes go up. When the heat is on, many of us will default into "pretend control" and command and control leadership (another illusion in most organizations).

    When hiring in HR: Identify the personalities, styles, and character that are well suited to a role that has less power, authority, and control over its work than most. Especially now as HR has taken a bigger place on center stage and leaders see that this isn't just about compliance and record keeping. This stuff matters and, oh, by the way, everyone has an opinion.

    Who are the types who will succeed in such an environment? Those who are extraordinarily comfortable with ambiguity, whose ambition does not require public triumph, and who can function within the food chain of an ecosystem of competing egos without feeling threatened–even as a smaller fish.

  • gailseverini

    Great points, Jason!

    The desire for control is wired into us – it is instinctive and physiological. And there are ways of thinking about it that can set us free. Dr. David Rock's work on the SCARF model is great – YouTube video here

    For a primer on how this connects into implementation of change have a look at this guest post by Dr. John Barbuto “Your brain on change management: advancements in neuroscience shed new light on the physiology of Change Management".

    It was my own desire for control that led me to Change Management – letting go of that has been difficult but moving towards an alternative has helped.


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