As a parent of three young children, I spend a lot of time telling them what to do and not to do.

“Eat your breakfast”

“Don’t throw your crayons in the toilet”

“Say thank you”

“Don’t hit your sister”

And the list goes on and on.  I’m sure any of us with kids can relate to this.  We spend a lot of time as parents teaching and enforcing rules.  Parenting is hard and (kind of like testing) much of it must be learned on the job. You can read all the books you want, but it isn’t until you are interacting with the hearts and minds of real life humans that you realize just how little you know and how much you have to learn.  One of the things I’ve been thinking about recently is my desire for control and how much of my parenting revolves around that.  I want my kids to do certain things and act certain ways, not in the first place because it will be good for them, but primarily because I want to be able to know and predict what they’ll do.  I want to be able to know that I can go to the grocery store without a meltdown.  I want to be able to sit and read a book without needing to break up a fight.  I want to be able to take my kids out in public and never feel embarrassed by something they say or do.

These aren’t bad things in themselves, but when my primary way of dealing with my kids becomes about how I can control them so that they will do what I want them to when I want them to do it, am I building a healthy relationship?  Is that really the way I want to interact with my kids, and in the long run is that really going to work?  Right now I have the advantage that they are kind of in awe of me and will do what I say (sometimes). That won’t last forever.  If I want my kids to grow up to be kind, generous, contributors to the good of society, are they going to do that through a program of control?

I want to leave the parenting questions for a minute and switch gears.  What about at work?  How much of what we try to do revolves around control?  I want that coder to make the api in this way.  I want that manager to agree to my way of seeing the product. I want that other tester to stop being so focused on detailed up-front test plans and get into exploratory testing.  Why do we get so worked up about stuff like this?  Isn’t it often because of a desire for control?

We don’t like not knowing what is going to happen and so we try our best to control those around us, but just like in parenting, is that the best way to build relationships and see people become the best they can be?  If we get better at playing power games and forcing people to do what we want are we really helping to build a team that will stand out in the long run?  There is a difference between control and influence.  We ought to use our influence for good, but I think we would do well to watch out for our tendency towards control.

When control becomes the focus, relationships can be hurt.  Keep the relationship at the center and try to let go of your need for control.  Not easy to do, I know – I struggle with it too, but let’s work on it together ok?

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