How Unilateral Control Undermines Team Results and Relationships

Roger Schwarz

If your leadership team isn’t getting the results it needs, the cause may be your (and your team’s) mindset. Mindset is the set of core values and assumptions from which you operate. It is your way of seeing that shapes your thoughts, feelings, and behavior.How you THINK is how you LEAD

The research and my more than thirty years working with leaders and their teams reveal that in even moderately challenging situations virtually all leaders use a mindset that undermines team results—what I call a “unilateral control” mindset. When you use a unilateral control mindset, you try to achieve your goals by controlling the situation. You try to influence others to do what you want them to do while not being influenced by others. When you’re working with people who see things differently from you, the essence of your mindset is simple: I understand the situation, you don’t; I’m right, you’re wrong; I will win.

Values of the Unilateral Control Mindset
When you operate from a unilateral control mindset you use a mix of the following values:

Win, don’t lose. Having goals is essential to being effective as an individual, team, and organization. But when you use a unilateral control mindset, you see challenging situations as a contest in which there are winners and losers. You see others’ claims or behaviors that don’t support your view as getting in your way.

Be right. Being right is a corollary of win, don’t lose. When you value being right, you take pride in showing others that your views are—well, right. If you have ever taken satisfaction in thinking or saying to someone, “I told you so” or “I knew this would happen,” you know what it feels like to value being right.

Minimize expression of negative feelings. This means keeping unpleasant feelings—yours and everyone else’s—out of the conversation. This value follows from a belief that expressions of anger or frustration are incompetent behaviors. In short, you believe that little good can come of people airing their feelings on a topic; it only leads to tension, wounded sensibilities, and strained working relationships.

Act rational. You expect yourself and others to remain purely analytical and logical. You believe that if you simply lay out the facts, all reasonable people will agree with you. When you discover gaps in your thinking, you try to prevent others from recognizing those gaps.

Assumptions of the Unilateral Control Mindset
When you operate from a unilateral control mindset you also make the following assumptions:

I understand the situation; those who disagree don’t. Whatever information and understanding you bring to the situation are accurate and complete, and so are the conclusions you draw from them. In other words, the way you see things is the way things really are. If your team members hold different views, they just don’t get it, are confused, misinformed, or simply clueless.

I am right; those who disagree are wrong. This assumption is an extension of the first one. You assume that situations come with right and wrong answers and that your answer is, of course, the right one. People who disagree with you or see it differently are simply wrong. When you hold this assumption, you and the people with whom you are disagreeing cannot possibly all be right.

My motives are pure; those who disagree have questionable motives. You consider yourself an earnest seeker of truth, acting in the best interests of the team and organization. At the same time, you assume that those who disagree with you have questionable motives: they may be trying to increase their own power, control more resources, or even undermine your efforts.

My feelings and behaviors are justified. Because others don’t understand the situation as it really is (read: as you see it), because others are wrong, and because others may have questionable motives, you consider your feelings and behaviors justified. If you are annoyed or angry, if you need to end-run someone to accomplish a goal, or if you summarily pull someone off a project, it’s all justified. Although you might have preferred not to do these things, others’ behaviors left you no choice.

I am not contributing to the problem. You don’t consider the possibility that you’re contributing to the very problem you’re privately (and maybe publicly) complaining about. It doesn’t occur to you that your thoughts and feelings may lead you to act ineffectively. As a result, you see others as needing to change, not you.

Getting Your Team Unstuck
You may be thinking that you don’t use a unilateral control mindset, but almost everyone who uses this approach is unaware of it. When you use this approach you simply think that you’re doing the best thing for your team. And it’s not just you. If you and your team are dealing with high-stakes challenging issues and aren’t getting the results you need, your team members are probably also using a unilateral control mindset.

When you and your team use a unilateral control mindset, you get poor results: the team makes poor decisions that take longer to implement; team working relationships suffer; and team members feel stressed, dissatisfied and unmotivated.

Getting unstuck to get better results takes more than simply changing behavior. You and your team need to change your mindset. Fortunately, there is another mindset that you and your team can use—it’s called Mutual Learning.


1 The unilateral control values were developed by Chris Argyris and Don Schön, who originally labeled them Model I. The unilateral control assumptions are adapted from the work of Robert Putnam, Diana McLain Smith, and Phil MacArthur at Action Design (1997).