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Agile transitions are hard. I wonder why people feel the need to control?

Image by Gabriela CamerottiWith the Agile approach, we constantly try to implement self-organized teams. Many of us believe that autonomy leads to improved results whereas control may bring consistency.

« The opposite of autonomy is control. Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement » – Drive, by Daniel Pink

I asked myself, “Why do people need to control?” and came up with 2 reasons: lack of trust and ego. I feel it is important to understand where people come from in order to understand the environment in which we live and operate. As coaches, it’s also important to know why people behave in such a way so we can help them.

I recently talked about fears, which is closely related to the need to control.

The problem with novelty, however is that, for most people, novelty triggers the fear system of the brain. Fear is the second major impediment to thinking like an iconoclast […] There are many types of fear, but the two that inhibit iconoclasting thinking are fear of uncertainty and fear of public ridicule (Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently).

Lack of Trust

If we are in control of our environment, then we have a far better chance of survival. Our deep subconscious mind thus gives us strong biochemical prods when we face some kind of danger (Control)

It seems normal to try to control our environment and the people around us if we aren’t confident in their motivation. As such, people tend to control. Lack of trust is closely related to fear – fear of uncertainty. In a business context, people try to control for some of these reasons:

  • to make results more predictable and ultimately to prevent mistakes
  • to reduce the perceived level of risk
  • to hide incompetence

Everything that the brain sees or hears or touches has multiple interpretations. The one that is ultimately chosen – the thing that is perceived – is simply the brain’s best guess at interpreting what flows into it […] These guesses are heavily influenced by part experience (Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently).


On the other hand, ego is a completely different beast. The motivation behind controlling to protect the ego is at least as challenging to address as the lack of trust. The reasons behind the need to control to protect the ego are:

  • to avoid an un-pleasant situation – including being ridiculed
  • the lack of humility
  • to hide a personal motivation

Once again to be successful as change agents, it is our role to dig into the reasons behind the need to control. I’m not talking about psychology, I’m simply talking about root cause analysis of the situation in an attempt to properly address the symptoms.

Once we understand the source of the need, we are in a much better position to positively impact people and successfully implement the transition.

The more radical and novel the change, the greater the liklihood of new insight being generated. To think like an iconoclast, you need novel experiences (Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently).

  1. Thanks for sharing this. It is often very hard for an Agile coach to make change when there is a lot of fear and ego in the midst. A great follow up would be how (pragmatically) an Agile coach can cut through the fear and ego. What are some great ways?

    October 5, 2010
    • Indeed, this would be a good suggestion for a follow-up post. I’ll add it to my list.

      Thanks for your comment.

      October 5, 2010
  2. I was talking with someone else about control, and she observed that control is a moving target – the more you try to control, the less overall control you will really have. Slippery stuff.

    October 5, 2010
    • Interesting observation but quite true.

      Thanks for your comment.

      October 5, 2010
  3. Nice post! There is an other great reference about Lake of Trust which lead to 4 other dysfunctions : “The Five Dysfonctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni.

    Lake of trust > Fear of conflict > Lake of commitment > Avoidance of accountability > Inattention to results

    A french summary here

    October 6, 2010
    • Luc, merci pour la référence et le commentaire.

      October 6, 2010
  4. Although I don’t fully understand the relationship between fear and anger, my simplistic view is that the anger is the realization of fear. Having said that, I recommend reading Napolean Hill’s chapter on How to outwit the 6 ghosts of fear, from his book Think and Grow Rich.

    I think people in the Agile community will find this chapter very applicable to the modern leadership practices and and the negative effects Fear can have on knowledge worker trust and motivation.

    October 7, 2010

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