Control talk: the route to productivity?

Written by
Dr Dalton Kehoe

26 Aug 2016

26 Aug 2016 • by Dr Dalton Kehoe

The answer lies in the nature of the particular situations managers find themselves in and in a deep paradox in the elephant mind (unconscious mind). 

First, the paradox:

The same mind that is wired to connect with others contains all the information we need to control them. The elephant mind constantly reads every situation we’re in and automatically compares it to cultural patterns and personal habits buried in long-term memory. Those memories include watching how people tried to control us, and others, as we grew up. This information is instantly available to us when we’re offered a management position.

It nicely complements our deeply learned cultural patterns about what drives organisational life in our society: (1) people’s behavior must be controlled if we are to create order and get anything done at all. As a result (2) organisations are consciously built so that the few at the top have the right to manage the more in the middle, who control the many at the bottom, and (3) everyone has the permission of their position to tell other people what to do.

Thus, in most organisational situations managers automatically use positional control talk, not connect talk, to carry out their duties. Since it flows from the elephant’s internal model of organisational reality, positional control talk always begins with a critical judgment:

C. Critical judgment:  “I have the right” to give

O. Orders and

N. Narrow my employees’ choices. They’ll change because orders are implicitly

T. Threatening. If they don’t, I can be righteously indignant and 

O. Overtly criticise their behavior and

L.  Lay blame on them for not following my orders.

Since most of our behavior is driven by situational cues triggering our deep learning rather than by conscious, deliberate choice, positional control talk “works” for both managers and employees because of a another level of paradox. As the control talk model indicates, when someone tries to “manage” us as an employee, their talk and behavior are read as low-level threats by our elephant mind. It shifts our body’s self-regulation systems into flight-fight status.

Paradoxically, our elephant also “knows” the schema for being an employee. We don’t fight or flee and we want to avoid making the situation more threatening to our rider’s sense of self by being criticised and blamed. So, we simply spend our neural energy on being wary and disengaged. We nod in the right places and do enough to get by. This is the main reason for continuingly high levels of employee disengagement in the workforce.

Second, the situation:

Connect talk is used less than it should be because managers often find themselves in situations that actually threaten their sense of “rightness” as valuable, competent and influential people. 

In Mindful Management, I call them the “3 D’s”:

1.    Differences between what we expected people to do or say and what they actually did or said - momentary disruptions to our sense of rightness, or

2.    Disagreements about how we, and they, see common problems and what should be done about them – more persistent threats to our sense of what’s right, and then

3.    Disorder - when the processes we oversee simply fall apart and completely undermine our sense of “rightness.”

Unlike positional control talk that can be delivered with calm coolness these situations trigger a bolt of hot, fearful emotion in the elephant. It automatically produces defensive control talk for the rider. This begins with a seriously critical judgment - the “fundamental attribution” error – that the other’s threatening behavior comes from their character not the situation they happen to be in. We automatically make it personal.

C.  Critical judgment  “You are wrong” so I
O.  Offer intense arguments to 
N.  Negotiate a change in you, so, I can be right and get things done my way. 
 If you don’t change, I simply
T. Try again. Any continued resistance induces
R.  Righteous anger in my elephant to the level of an emotional hi-jack. I
O.  Openly attack you as a person as I
L.  Lay blame on you for the situation.

Defensive control is the most dangerous form of talk and sadly it “naturally” flows from the structure our mind and the structure of many situations managers have to deal with. Our rider mind is always seeking the positive answers to the question,  “how am I being treated here?” and 3D situations automatically generate threats. They fire up the elephant’s automatic talk for self-protection and we feel compelled to make other people wrong so we can maintain the illusion of our own “rightness.” 

Of course, there is a far better way to handle differences, disagreement and disorder in the situations managers face. It, however, requires that we wake up and become mindful in the moment; manage the elephant’s emotional reactions; avoid negative judgment and use the rider to consciously speak in a way that keeps us connected to the other, despite our apparent differences. I call it dialogue talk and it will be the subject of a future article.