Getting Results You’re Trying to Avoid With the Unilateral Control Approach

By Roger Schwarz

The mindset of unilateral control — which seems to come naturally to almost everyone in business — leads people to try to achieve goals by influencing others without being influenced in return.

It defines leadership as power over others and makes sharing power with others feel like losing power — a bad thing, in that context.

When you apply a unilateral control mindset to working with people who see things differently from you, your essential perspective is a triple threat:

  • I understand the situation, you don’t.
  • I’m right, you’re wrong.
  • I will win.

Consequently, you retain all responsibility and accountability when you’re leading a team. You lead discussions, correct members’ thinking, and arbitrate differences that arise between them. And when you ’re a team member, you expect the leader to do these things.

People tend to default to this mindset in moments of challenge. It determines how they walk when it matters even when their talk is something else. It’s their background operating system.

Getting results you’re trying to avoid

A unilateral control mindset leads inevitably to unilateral control behavior, and the net effect is usually the opposite of what anyone wants. Instead of developing high-quality decisions that everyone is committed to, the team grinds out poor decisions that its members are reluctant to implement. Instead of improving working relationships and creating individual well-being, people trapped in unilateral control strain their relationships and create stress for themselves and others.

And when you get these unintended results, you’re surprised.

You certainly didn’t set out to create poor decisions, resistance to change, defensiveness, and stress. Yet you have created, or rather contributed to, these outcomes.

As systems thinkers like to say, systems are perfectly designed to get the results they get. The unilateral control operating system enables you to efficiently and skillfully reach ineffective results.

This moment of surprise is a gift  — a heads-up to be curious and learn from the mistake. Unfortunately, few people embrace this gift and get curious enough to unwrap it.

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Getting out of the unilateral control mindset

Most simply blame others for what went wrong. And those who avoid that pitfall tend to assume it was simply their actions that created the problem and so try to change what they do.

For example, thinking your direct reports became quiet and defensive because you were simply telling them what you thought, at the next meeting you ask them plenty of questions and play down your own views. However, shifting from telling others your views to asking for their views is simply substituting one ineffective strategy for another — the people around the table will generally see your shift as a ploy, and will either keep quiet or attempt to figure out your view and play it back to you.

Shifting only your behaviors or strategies simply gets the same ineffective results as before, albeit through different means. In short, your efforts to change your behavior lead you to unknowingly reinforce your unilateral control mindset.

Your behaviors aren’t the root cause of your unintended results. The root cause is your mindset.

As long as you are using a unilateral control mindset, you won’t be able to consistently create the kinds of long-term results you want. Your underlying values and assumptions will trip you up over and over again.

Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams: How You and Your Team Get Unstuck to Get Results by Roger Schwarz. Copyright © 2013.

Roger Schwarz is a recognized thought leader in the realm of team leadership. An organizational psychologist and President and CEO of Roger Schwarz & Associates, he is a sought-after advisor to global companies, federal government agencies and international non-profit organizations. Clients include American Airlines, American Red Cross, the World Bank, TransCanada, Chevron and the US Department of the Interior.