November 5, 2002

The Illusion of Control

While what follows might initially appear to be a political diatribe, be assured it really is a statement focused more on organizational development.

Scan almost any headline, listen to almost any news broadcast the past week and you would be sure to find some story talking about which party is going to “control” Congress after the election today. Is it any wonder we have difficulty passing legislation or engaging in regular bipartisanship when the fundamental issue of elections is framed with this power-laden divisive language?

Let's be clear about this. No one is going to get elected to control anything today.

One party will most likely get elected to the majority, and should every individual member of the majority party cast a vote in concert with the voting preferences of his or her colleagues on almost every issue, we might actually have a situation in which one party “controls” Congress.

Now I am not politically naïve (at least not too much so). And I certainly understand the perks associated with the majority party in either the House or the Senate at either the state or national level. But this illusion of control, this masquerade of meaning, is one I think long ago outlived its usefulness, if indeed it ever had any.

Too often in organizations, we assume the majority to be right, the majority to be dominant, the majority to be in control. As one who facilitates dozens of planning sessions and decision-making meetings a year for a very diverse mix of associations and corporations, I have regularly witness isolated individuals or small groups clearly in the minority who quite effectively dominate discussions, filibuster conversations, and redirect the agenda of the presumed controlling majority.

To speak of a group of independent minded individuals, in this case state Senators, who are charged with serving diverse constituencies whose needs are in no way 100% synchronous is really insulting to the deliberative and decision-making process.

The real challenge is not that the media frames the majority’s role this way, it is that “we the people” and “they the legislature” start to actually believe it. This same delusional state is replicated all too frequently by elected or hired leaders of associations and corporations.

Little sympathy is ever engendered by control-obsessed leaders who forget they really do serve at the will of the people in their association, company, or community. Sure, their anointed power may allow them to dictate the course of action for even a long period of time, but eventually their inability to compromise, their unwillingness to collaborate, and their air of superiority comes crashing down around them. The people they serve always have the true control. They just remember that too rarely and exercise it too infrequently.

I, for one, believe it is time we quit equating being in the majority with being in control. They are in the majority. That may indeed allow for them to control choices and direction. But better they see that as a possibility than an inevitability. For that is all it really is.


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