What you can control and what you can't. Tips from the Working Supervisor's Support Kit

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"I know what I'd do if I was rich."

I waited. Whenever my friend Ray begins with a statement like that, I know that something out of the ordinary is in store.

"I'd smoke on airplanes."

Huh? I know Ray loves his cigarettes, but I didn't get the connection at all.

"Okay," I said, "I'll bite. How would being rich make it possible for you to smoke on airplanes? They're not going to lift the ban anytime soon."

Ray laughed. He does that to me a lot. "You just don't get it, Mr. Leadership Expert. The only penalty is a fine. If I was willing to pay it, they'd have to let me smoke."

He's right. I should have gotten it. When you're the boss, you can set up all kinds of consequences for people. You can use the consequences outlined in company policy.

But if your team members are willing to take the consequences, there's no way to stop them from doing what they want. In other words, you can't control what they do.

That surprises a lot of new bosses. They think their new job gives them the power to control what their team members do. Not so.

All you can control is your behavior. Behavior is what you say and what you do.

You can use your behavior to influence the behavior and the performance of your team members. But they still have the final say in how they act and how they perform.

Boss's Bottom Line

The only behavior you can control is your own. Use what you say and what you do to influence the behavior and performance of the people on your team.

This tip is a sample of what you'll find in my Working Supervisor's Support Kit.


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  • 7/17/2009 2:51 PM Mary Jo wrote:
    Wally, thanks for succinctly describing what appears to be a paradox. I find that even many of my senior leader clients have to re-learn that "the only behavior you can control is your own".
    Reply to this
    1. 7/17/2009 3:07 PM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for adding that. It took me a phenomenally long time to learn that lesson. In fact I don't think I got it until I started training on leadership skills. In strong cultures you can sometimes get away without knowing this key fact. That's because your team members will do the right thing because the culture supports that. But even then, if you understand how little actual power you have, you can do a far better job of leading the team.

      Reply to this
  • 7/17/2009 4:46 PM Dan McCarthy wrote:
    Wally –
    Well said - such a simple yet powerful lesson. I also agree with Mary Jo – a lot of leaders at all levels seemed to have missed that lesson.
    Reply to this
    1. 7/17/2009 5:01 PM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for the kind words, Dan. I think an awful lot of bosses today miss the fact that one-on-one, what we call "supervision" is part of every boss's job, even way up there in the C-suite.

      Reply to this
  • 7/17/2009 5:24 PM Jim Estill wrote:
    I would add, the bigger the company, the less the leader controls. The leader only influences.

    So the key is to figure out how to influence effectively. And usually this is not by trying to control.

    Inspired people beat compliant people any day.
    Reply to this
    1. 7/17/2009 6:26 PM Wally Bock wrote:

      Great point, Jim. The higher you go on the org chart, the more the majority of your influence is indirect. I think that's why effective MBWA works so well.

      Reply to this
  • 7/17/2009 6:47 PM ndslotnick wrote:
    Once again, it appears to this old soldier that your Marine experience is showing. Sometimes I think that the military is better about teaching these things - maybe because they have to. It is one thing to coerce someone with punishment or even offer them rewards in peacetime, but when in combat, the punishment/reward might quickly be outweighed by the threat to their life. You had better have established your leadership using something other than rewards and punishment before you got there. The best way is probably to lead by example.
    Reply to this
    1. 7/17/2009 6:58 PM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for stopping by Nancy. I'm sure my Marine experience is showing. I don't know that I have much choice. My experience included a couple of first-rate CEOs and other officers and a habit of asking for input and actually listening to what was said. But it also included situations where your superior said, "Jump!" and you asked, "How high?" on the way up.


      When I was in the workforce after I left the Marines, it took me a while to learn that neither of those situations was common. I asked people for input and was often surprised that they were surprised that I did so. But there were too many times when I expected people to jump when they just gave me puzzled looks. It probably took me a decade or more to understand that the problem was mine, not theirs.

      Reply to this
  • 7/18/2009 5:34 PM Maria Weyman wrote:
    Great point Wally: It's not about control--it's about influencing and inspiring your team.
    Reply to this
    1. 7/19/2009 6:31 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks, Maria. If you're a boss, you can sure make it about control. But the best bosses learn to stand back whenever possible and let influence rule.

      Reply to this
  • 7/19/2009 11:31 AM Bret Simmons wrote:
    Right on, Wally. Actually, I like to say the behavior you have the MOST control over is your own. But as you point out, we have the ability to shape the behavior we want to see from others at work by the things we say and do. Great point.
    Reply to this
    1. 7/19/2009 3:49 PM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for coming by and sharing, Bret. I think it's crucial to understand how little control, but how much influence you have when you're the boss.

      Reply to this
  • 7/23/2009 4:24 PM Lynn M wrote:
    Wally, I think it is like when we say, "He makes me so angry!" No...YOU'RE making yourself angry. No one can MAKE you get angry. It is surprising when people don't react as we believe we would act in a situation or the way the majority of people would act. Ultimately, the only thing you can control is yourself. Thanks for the thought-provoking post. I think most people know this, but it seems the easiest thing to forget. Shouldn't we all feel liberated knowing that WE are in total control of our own behavior?
    Reply to this
    1. 7/23/2009 4:44 PM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for the comment, Lynn. I'm not sure that I agree that everyone knows this. Our language really conspires against it. We say, "He makes me angry" or "She motivates her team members" and so many other catch phrases that imply we control others' responses or that they control ours.

      Reply to this
  • 11/13/2013 5:57 AM microsoft office helps wrote:
    The tips from the supervisor's kit was really informative and I think it is true that there are things that are under our control and some not under control, so we have to act accordingly to get success or profit.
    Reply to this
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