Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 10, Issue 47;   November 24, 2010: Beyond Our Control

Beyond Our Control

by

When bad things happen, despite our plans and our best efforts, we sometimes feel responsible. We failed. We could have done more. But is that really true? Aren't some things beyond our control?
Firefighter lighting grass using a drip torch

Firefighter lighting grass using a drip torch. Prairies depend on fire for ecosystem stability and diversity. Fire eliminates invasive plants and makes soil chemistry more suitable for grasses. In the absence of fire, shrubs, trees, and exotic grasses would dominate. Today many of the prairies that remain are managed by prescribed burns.

In organizations, the "grassfire" of chains of broken promises serves an analogous purpose. Cleared of commitments, the organization can change directions more nimbly for a time, until it gets locked in by a new web of commitments. Photo courtesy U.S. National Park Service.

Bad things happen. We plan and we plan, and sometimes bad things happen anyway. Even when we anticipate difficulties, events might unfold in unanticipated ways, or we might be unable to execute the plans we had because of other unanticipated events.

Yet, when bad things happen, we can feel like failures. We might believe there was something more we could have done. We lose confidence. Our performance degrades. If this cycle continues, it can affect our personal lives — even our health.

Why we do this is a bit mysterious. In calmer moments, we do know that we can't control everything, but maybe we want to feel like we're in control of more than we actually are. It's a difficult habit to break. To make some progress, though, to come to peace despite failures, we can contemplate exactly what in Life truly is beyond our control.

Hindsight is often a distorted view
Sometimes there really is something more we could have done. Usually there isn't, but even when there is, given what we knew at the time, it's possible — even likely — that we made appropriate choices, despite the clear indications otherwise when viewed with hindsight. It's possible to have made correct choices given the information we had at the time, and then later to realize that if we knew then what we know now, we would have made different choices. That's OK.
We forget about the limits of possibility
Even when hindsight reveals a better alternative, it might not have been possible at the time. Choosing it might have resulted in disciplinary action, reassignment, or termination. Was it a real choice? Even if we had advocated it, would it have been approved? Would people have supported it? Would resources have been available? Hindsight might reveal a better choice, but the then-current reality might have precluded it.
Promises are interconnected
In modern organizations, Even when hindsight reveals
a better alternative, it
might not have been
possible at the time
our plans and decisions depend on commitments from others — assurances of support, resources, reliable information, and more. They promise, and we accept their promises. Sometimes, people break their promises, usually involuntarily. They give their word based on promises others make to them. Viewed this way, modern organizations are little more than webs of promises, and when some promises are broken, promise-breaking travels through that web like grassfire. There isn't much anyone could have done about it. When your plans fail because of one of these global promise collapses, is there anything different you could have done? Probably not.

Whether due to limited information, limited capabilities, or our limited ability to keep our promises, we can control only some of what happens around us. It's a difficult reality to accept. Even though we might prefer the fiction of failure to the reality of our limitations, reality is always a better choice. Go to top Top  Next issue: How to Misunderstand Somebody Else  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenARvgjaAesHhNWxUBner@ChacMetajribCysCqPzuoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

Elephant Island, where Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew were marooned in 1916How to Avoid Responsibility
Taking responsibility and a willingness to be held accountable are the hallmarks of either a rising star in a high-performance organization, or a naïve fool in a low-performance organization. Either way, you must know the more popular techniques for avoiding responsibility.
Gen. Patton and Gen. Weyland photographed at Nancy, FranceWhat Insubordinate Non-Subordinates Want: III
When you're responsible for an organizational function, and someone not reporting to you doesn't comply with policies you rightfully established, trouble looms. What role do supervisors play?
Rachel Hoffman, for whom Florida's Rachel's Law is namedOn Snitching at Work: II
Reporting violations of laws, policies, regulations, or ethics to authorities at work can expose you to the risk of retribution. That's why the reporting decision must consider the need for safety.
Orient quad, photo by George H. Van NormanHow to Deal with Holding Back
When group members voluntarily restrict their contributions to group efforts, group success is threatened and high performance becomes impossible. How can we reduce the incidence of holding back?
A diagrammatic representation of the Deer Island Waste Water Treatment Plant in Boston HarborProblem Displacement and Technical Debt
The term problem displacement describes situations in which solving one problem creates another. It sometimes leads to incurring technical debt. How? What can we do about it?

See also Workplace Politics and Project Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The United States curling team at the Torino Olympics in 2006Coming November 22: Motivation and the Reification Error
We commit the reification error when we assume, incorrectly, that we can treat abstract constructs as if they were real objects. It's a common error when we try to motivate people. Available here and by RSS on November 22.
A human marionetteAnd on November 29: Manipulators Beware
When manipulators try to manipulate others, they're attempting to unscrupulously influence their targets to decide or act in some way the manipulators prefer. But some targets manage to outwit their manipulators. Available here and by RSS on November 29.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenahlNUilVfRZqbYypner@ChacYiWVRIQiQfobUPvLoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.