Found this great article on LinkedIn, and I had to share with you all!  Fred Kofman examines unilateral “control freak” type leadership versus leadership styles that support mutual learning.  Hmm… I wonder which method is more effective?

I love the idea of creating your own case study of your leadership style in action. When you were under pressure, how did you handle the situation? Were you a unilateral thinker or did you support mutual learning? Thanks for the great post, Fred!

Boss, Leadership, Control Freak

“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?”

“Life transforming” is how I would call Chris Argyris’s seminar at Harvard. Chris had an uncanny ability to hold up a mirror and show his students that we were not as fair as we thought we were.

Chris discovered that managers operate according to one of two models: unilateral control or mutual learning. Managers who practice unilateral control assume that they are right and anyone that disagrees with them is wrong; mutual learners assume that diverse perspectives may be valid and worth exploring. Chris found that all managers he studied operated according to the unilateral control model. It took serious deprogramming and skill building to switch to the mutual learning model.

Of course, we were not managers. We were graduate students committed to personal and organizational development. We thought we were learners.

Chris made us think again. Asking us to present our own cases of difficult conversations, he showed us that when things got tough, we became unilateral control freaks.

My image-shattering mirror was a dialogue with my mother on a Sunday evening (a third Sunday in October), which I took to class on Monday morning. On the right-hand column, I wrote what my mother and I said. On the left-hand column, what I thought and felt but didn’t say.

What I thought and felt but didn´t say What was said
Oh no! I forgot. She`s mad. Mother: Today was Mother’s day.
This is such a lame excuse. Me: Not in the U.S.
I knew she wouldn’t buy it. Mother: I live in Argentina.
Apologize. This is a bad way to go… Me: I don´t.
You don´t have to rub it in! Mother: You didn´t call me.
I´m making her mad but I can´t stop now. Me: I called you on Wednesday
Arrrrggggghhhhhhh. Mother: Wednesday was not mother´s day.

She knew; I knew that she knew; she knew that I knew that she knew; all to no avail. When I felt threatened and embarrassed I reverted to unilateral control.

Over my 20 years of executive education and consulting, I have found Argyris’s case writing technique and his distinction between unilateral control and mutual learning invaluable to understand organizational dysfunctions. I provide my clients with the definitions below and ask them to write their left-hand column cases of difficult conversations.

As I do with them, I invite you to read the profiles below, think of a difficult conversation, and see which shoe fits. Or rather, when the control shoe fits you.

Unilateral Control

The unilateral control model rests on three assumptions:

  • I am rational. My point of view is objective; it’s not blurred by emotion or influenced by personal concerns. I see things as they are.
  • Others are not. People who disagree with me aren’t rational. They are closed-minded and attached to their personal agenda. They don’t want to see the truth.
  • Fear motivates. Whenever something goes wrong, somebody must take the blame. The person responsible ought to suffer consequences. Fear of failure promotes success.

These assumptions lead to five strategies:

  • Define goals and strategies unilaterally. Don’t waste time trying to negotiate common goals and strategies. Impose the “right” goals (that is, my goals) and the “right” strategies (that is, my strategies) to achieve them.
  • Win over others. Implementation takes determination. Hold on to my goals and strategies and overcome any opposition. Changing my mind is a sign of weakness. Support those who help me achieve my objectives. Undermine those who don’t.
  • Manipulate information. Present only facts that support my argument. Hide those that oppose it. The only relevant information is that which helps me convince others that I am right and they are wrong. Do not inquire or allow others to express reasoning that leads to different conclusions.
  • Rely on external motivation. Threaten people with dire consequences if they don’t do as I say, and promise to reward them if they do. Use my might to convince people I am right. Save face at all costs.
  • Suppress feelings. Good work is product of hard thinking, not feeling. Emotionality is evidence of incompetence and weakness. Do not express my emotions and discourage others from expressing theirs. Ease in to avoid negative feelings.

Mutual Learning

The mutual learning model rests on three opposite assumptions:

  • I am limited. My point of view is subjective; it is conditioned by emotion and influenced by personal concerns. I see things as they appear to me. My beliefs are plausible hypothesis—always subject to disconfirmation.
  • Others are complementary. People who disagree with me are rational. They may see things that I do not, or have concerns I don´t understand. They can provide additional data that can better inform my perspective.
  • Learning motivates. A defect is a treasure. Like a symptom that reveals an underlying illness and enables its treatment, a mistake is an opportunity to examine and improve the process that created it.

These three assumptions lead to five strategies:

  • Define goals and strategies in a consensual manner. Invest time negotiating common goals and strategies: the more inclusion, the more wisdom—and the more buy-in. Seek consensus on goals and the strategies to achieve them.
  • Win with others. Implementation takes collaboration and flexibility. Support and respect those who see things differently from you. Ask them about their reasons and suggestions. If you find their views convincing, adopt them; if you don´t, explain to them why. Changing your mind is a sign of openness and strength.
  • Share information. Present my views and listen to others’ views. Share my data, my reasoning, and my intent with others so that they can reach their own conclusions. Create conditions for open conversations so that others feel invited to do the same with me. Encourage mutual inquiry.
  • Rely on internal commitment. Support free and informed choice. Provide maximal information and minimal coercion to help others decide how to satisfy their needs and interests. Encourage people to take responsibility and accountability for their choices.
  • Accept feelings. Human beings are emotional beings, so feelings are critical components of our behavior. Express my emotions and encourage others to express theirs. Consider these feelings valid and worthy of attention.

Original Blog Post: Are You a Unilateral Control Freak?


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