Controlling the Little Things

One of the more painful experiences I had in jujitsu was when my instructor taught finger holds. We assume that because our legs are generally quite strong, it would be difficult for someone to force us to go somewhere we don’t want to go. That assumption lasted as long as it took my instructor to apply a finger hold. All he had to do was take control of the smallest joint of one finger and suddenly my legs would go exactly where he wanted them to go. By manipulating one little thing, he could convince people much larger and stronger than he was to become extremely cooperative. Controlling one small joint gave him control over their entire body, however controlling the body did not produce the same control over the arms and legs: the hands and feet still moved freely, and would regularly engage in what may be politely referred to as “nose seeking behavior.”

Now, you might be thinking, “Well, so what? That’s just leverage!”

Well, yes, it is leverage. And if that was the whole point, the correct reaction would indeed be “so what?”

Leverage, as we all know, enables us to move something large through control of something small. Jujitsu is merely a fairly straight-forward application of this principle. However, the principle is not limited to the physical. Our perception of control is determined not by the big things in life that we control, but by the little things. To put this another way, if we want people to tackle big, challenging projects, we have to convince them that they have at least some control over the outcome; they have to believe that their actions matter and have a reasonably good chance of producing positive results. Conversely, when we don’t have control over little things, we tend to assume that we can’t control the bigger things. Even worse, that feeling of not having control translates into a loss of initiative and creativity. Leverage cuts both ways.

In any organization, those stressors that decrease our sense of control are thus the most damaging. Organizational politics are one obvious example, but at a more direct level, the less control employees have over their immediate environment, the less initiative they take overall. Being able to, within reason, decorate your office or cubicle creates a sense of control. Conversely, when companies have elaborate rules that unduly limit personal expression, control is seriously decreased. Without that sense of control, employees become more like the person whose finger is being twisted rather than like the person doing the twisting: they might be compliant, but they are not enthusiastic or committed.

An article in the NY Times discussed how Google addresses exactly this issue. Google doesn’t just allow employees to decorate their work area; employees get to design their work area. Google provides them with the equivalent of high tech tinker toys that employees can use to build the work area they want. Feel like having a treadmill? No problem. Walking desk? Sure. The article pointed out that Google doesn’t even have an official policy about coming in to the office; rather, the assumption is that the employee will work out a reasonable schedule with her team. This is control in action: employees are given control over their environment, even whether to come to the office to work. This control, coupled with making the office an very enjoyable place to work, leads to employees who exercise their control to work longer and harder than anyone could ever force them to work. Indeed, one of the problems Google has is that sometimes they have to chase people out of the office! What would you do to have problems like that?

When we have to force someone to do something, either through threats or through lavish rewards, they don’t get a sense of control or commitment. They are being controlled, but they are not in control. Now, if all we want is compliance, maybe that’s just fine! Indeed, if the task is easy, that may even be sufficient. However, if we want a committed, enthusiastic work force that believes themselves capable of tackling big projects and overcoming apparently overwhelming obstacles, the secret to getting there is to give them control of the little things.

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