Focus On What You Can Control

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Over the years (decades by now) that I’ve worked in industry and academia, I noticed a common pattern in organizations that don’t perform well or that have great difficulty delivering on expectations: a culture has taken hold that explains phenomena in and around the organization in terms of factors that are not under the control of the organization. Instead, these factors originate outside the organization’s walls and, to a large extent, aren’t even influenceable by the organization.

The problem with this culture is that it has a fractal nature: the organization blames the outside world for its lack of ability to change and improve. Functions inside the organization blame the organization. Units blame the function. Teams blame the units and individuals blame the teams. The result is an organization that is in paralysis and can only continue to execute the processes that it has always done and that is unable to change in response to changes in the outside world. This leads to a brittle organization: it’s very rigid and doesn’t move an inch until the outside force overcomes the internal resistance and then the organization breaks in fundamental ways.

The problem is that when we focus our mental energy and intellectual capacities on the things we can’t control, we automatically put ourselves in a victim mode and view ourselves as passive entities that are subject to the whims of forces outside of us. As a consequence, we stop taking responsibility for our destiny and we throw up our hands in the air and wait for Lady Fortune to strike us with good or bad events.

I’m far from the first person to identify this problem. My favorite source for this line of thinking is Stoicism, where one of the basic principles is to focus your energy on what you can control and leave the rest to the gods. Stoicism has an unfairly negative brand in western society because most people misinterpret the philosophy. It doesn’t tell you to ignore and suppress your emotions (a common misconception) but rather suggests that letting your emotions being controlled by factors outside yourself is a recipe for suffering, which is the same message as propagated by Buddhism.

In one of his books, Stephen Covey presents the model of three circles: the circle of control, the circle of influence and the circle of concern. As the names imply, the circle of control includes everything that’s under your full control and where you need no agreement, alignment or permission with or from anyone else. The circle of influence is where decisions are taken by others but where you have the ability to influence the outcome. The circle of concern includes issues that you care about but that are completely outside your influence or control.

Most issues that arise in companies, as well as in your personal life are concerned with mixing up the proper allocation of issues to circles. Trying to control something that actually is outside your circle of control is very frustrating as your actions often go unrewarded. Trying to influence something that’s in your circle of concern leads to you feeling powerless and useless.

Organizations that don’t perform well tend to have as a common characteristic that they assign factors to the circle of concern that actually are in their circles of influence and control. So, rather than engaging with the issues at hand and doing something about the problem, everyone complains and waits for others to fix things.

Concluding, both organizations and individuals easily fall into the trap of believing that the things that matter are completely outside their control. Even if it’s true to the largest extent, the correct response is to take charge and seek to control and influence as much of the context in which you operate. Of course, we all understand that there are many situations and outcomes where we have little or no control but rather than focusing our energy on those things, focus your energy on what you can control and influence. Wasting your precious mental resources on worrying and complaining about things without taking charge is a monumental waste of your human potential.

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