Control and Trust

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Control and Trust


I have been thinking recently about control and trust. One of the organisations with which I work is keen to build more trust as part of its culture. That follows the retirement of a CEO, who was very controlling.  He was highly competent, very knowledgeable, and normally had the good of the organisation at heart – but he ruled with a rod of iron, and that had some unfortunate side effects (as well as keeping things running very smoothly). One, it seems to me, is that many people were infantilised.

Even senior people, with large personalities seem to struggle to take on responsibility. Managers throughout the organisation struggle to trust others (peers or subordinates) to do anything beyond the routine.  In a fast-changing industry, that is problematic.

Photo: Harry Parvin

Discussing this with some senior people, it became clear to me that part of the problem was a failure to distinguish between control and controls.

When I was challenging them to trust more, it kept coming back to a fear of losing control – and then disastrous things might happen. They accept that they need to be able to delegate more – and to trust more – but the c-word keeps coming up.
But if one thinks about controls, rather than control, things change. The analogy I like is sailing my dinghy on Ullswater. One of the joys of dinghy sailing is the immediacy and impact of feedback: get it wrong, and you are quickly in the water; wet, cold and spluttering.

If I am sailing with someone less skilled than I am (and that’s a pretty low bar…) and want to be sure not to capsize, the easiest thing is to take control, and sail the boat myself.  But if I want to be free to do other things (take a few photos, perhaps), then I need to hand over control.  And to do that with confidence, I need to teach the other person how to use the controls. These are simple enough in a dinghy: the mainsheet, the tiller…

But I think the analogy good for organisational life: if the right controls are in place, and the person to whom we are delegating understands both the requirements of the task, and the controls and their purpose, then we can afford to take the risk of trusting them with the tasks at hand.

So, rather than focusing on control (which can really be a proxy for our own ego needs) it is more valuable to ensure that we really understand the necessary controls: and then we can hand over control – and free ourselves for more strategic leadership activities.


Andrew Scott is an independent facilitator and coach, working principally in Higher Education. His work is particularly informed by Nancy Kline’s Thinking Environment, his own Shifting Stories approach, his wide and eclectic reading, and his philosophy that individuals matter.

This blog is kindly repurposed from Andrew Scott’s blog and you can find the original here: Control and Trust