Your leadership weakness is being “too controlling.” What to do?

17 phrases and suggestions to avoid the common leadership weakness of coming across as too controlling as a manager.

Recently, a manager told me how he’d received feedback from his team about his greatest leadership weakness. “I come across as too intense or controlling,” he admitted. 

Genuinely concerned, he then asked me, “What can I do to not be that way?”

Among all the feedback we receive as managers about our leadership weaknesses, coming across as “too controlling” might be one of the most difficult to swallow.

You get that stuck feeling in your throat because, well, frankly, you feel like you need to be controlling, at times. You feel justified. After all, you just want the thing to get done! And record goes to show, sometimes it doesn’t get done. So how else are you supposed to communicate the urgency and significance of a deliverable, without coming across as “intense” and “controlling”? And who said “intense” and “controlling” should be perceived as a negative thing, in the first place?

Psychologist Edward Deci has committed his life’s work to answering these questions, researching motivation and the effects of control over the past few decades. What happens when you come across as “intense” or “controlling” to someone else?

What Deci uncovered is stunning. In his studies detailed in his book Why We Do What We Do, Deci found that when a person feels pressure or a feeling of control, their performance worsens, the quality of their outcome worsens. And if the effects couldn’t get any more deleterious, the person also learns less during the process and doesn’t enjoy doing the task as much, itself, as well. 

This controlling environment manifests in ways you might expect:  A manager uses overtly controlling language (e.g., words like, “have to,” “should,” and “ought”), sets strict deadlines without getting any input from the team, and dangles rewards if only certain behaviors are met.

But Deci also found in his research how there are more subtle forms of control that we don’t recognize as readily.  For example, as a manager, if you praise people only conditionally (say, when you need something according to your timeline) – you’re pressuring someone. Or, if you invoke a team member’s guilt by talking about how many hours their team is putting into the project – that’s a means of control, too. 

In short, any behavior that’s an attempt to get what you want has the potential to come across as “controlling” and negatively impact your team’s performance. Despite your best intention not to, if you’re trying to exert influence on someone, that’s going to be picked up by the other person, in some way, shape or form. 

So every time you’ve said, “I need this ASAP” or “These are your goals…” or “We have to do this”… you’ve in fact unknowingly chipped away and undermined someone’s intrinsic motivation. While your intense and hasty language may seem energizing to you, it comes off as pressuring to the other person. You’ve made them feel more constricted, more on edge.

So what do you do instead? The good news is that there is an alternative. Deci conducted a study at Xerox Corporation with over 1,000 managers, where he tested a variety of ways to encourage them to act what he deemed more “autonomy supportive.”That is, to focus on increasing an employee’s own intrinsic motivation and be supportive to their freedom, rather than coming cross as controlling, as a manager.

Based on Deci’s most notable best practices, here are some key considerations to curb your leadership weakness as a manager to be controlling:

Ask yourself: What might it feel like to be the other person receiving this?

You must start with the other person’s perspective. Surely, this sounds a little bit like “Empathy 101” – but it can be hard to internalize that what you want might not be what the other person wants. Recognize that there may be a gap, and instead of trying to force the gap closed, consider why they might be separate to begin with.

Say goodbye to pressure words.

“ASAP,” “urgent,” “should,” ”must” – all of these words incite pressure. There’s a way to make a request without pressuring a person to do it exactly the way you think they should. Below, in the “Putting this into practice” section, I’ll share specific phrases and questions you can use to avoid using pressuring language. 

Choices, choices, choices.

Deci performed numerous studies highlighting how optionality and choice enables people to do better work. So when you’re thinking about asking someone to do something, consider the ways in which you can give them as many choices as possible. Read on in the next section (“Putting this into practice”), and I’ll share a few examples of exactly how to do this.

Acknowledge the shit.

Coming off as less can controlling can be as straightforward as acknowledging that someone doesn’t have a lot of choice. For example, you can say, “I know this sucks” or “I know I’m putting you in a tough spot.” You might be thinking that already in your head – but don’t keep that to yourself. Your team will never know you feel for their situation if you never let them know.

Overstate the reason.

You’ll want to clue someone in to why you’re making the request or suggestion. While seemingly obvious, this context – which they unlikely have to the same degree as you, given that you’re exposed to information that they might not have – it’s easy for a request to sound more like a demand. It’s hard to understand why you’re being controlling if you’re not explaining why.

Putting this into practice

Hopefully, these suggestions are helpful as you think about how you can avoid this leadership weakness of coming across as less controlling to your team. But most importantly – and I think what is most tricky – is to find tangible ways to put this into practice. How can you be autonomously supportive, as Deci advises, but specifically? What language can you swap out? What phrases can you use?  Here are my recommendations:

Instead of saying:   “I need this ASAP…”

Try asking:  

  • “What can I take off your plate so we can accomplish this?”
  • “Is this deadline reasonable?” 
  • “What trade-off will we need to make so X is delivered by this time?”

These phrases give choice and optionality in how a person can accomplish a task, rather than demanding that the task be accomplished. 

Instead of saying:  “You should do Y…”

Try asking:  

  • “What advice would you give me if you were in my position?”
  • “What do you think is the best way to approach this?”
  • “What’s your opinion on how to move forward?”

These phrases help someone play role in decision-making and participate in it, rather than someone absorbing passively what you think should happen.

Instead of saying:  “These are your goals…”

Try asking:

  • “What goals would get you excited about achieving?”
  • “What should the team accomplish that you’d be proud of?”
  • “What kind of work would make you feel energized and ‘I’m glad I did that?’”

Involve people in the process of setting goals, and they’ll be more intrinsically motivated to achieve them.

Instead of saying:  “We’re counting on you to do this.”

Try saying:

  • “Excellent work on Y.”
  • “You did Z better than I could have.”
  • “You’ve made the team better by doing X.”

Use praise to acknowledge a job well done – not to coerce someone to do something. 

I want to be clear:  These phrases are not silver bullets. Motivation is highly individualized. You can’t expect that any template, broadly applied, will cause your team to never perceive you as controlling. Each person carries with them different experiences, expectations and sensitivities – and people change over time! So, as a manager, expect to be constantly adjusting, learning, observing, re-adjusting your language and behavior to be less controlling, based on how your team responds.

This nuance involved shouldn’t be discouraging. If anything, you should be motivatedby it. It’s a reminder that our team is not the means to the end. Our team is not a resource or tool. Our team is comprised of human beings. Of course they are nuanced. And of course any solution to become less controlling toward them will have to be nuanced, as well. 

So try a handful of these phrases, keep some of these suggestions in mind, and know that you’ll need to exercise nuance in how they’re each applied. And when you do, you can avoid having “being controlling” be your permanent leadership weakness.


Claire is the CEO of Know Your Team – software that helps you avoid becoming a bad boss. Her company was spun-out of Basecamp back in 2014. If you were interested, you can read more of Claire’s writing on leadership on the Know Your Team blog.

4 thoughts on “Your leadership weakness is being “too controlling.” What to do?

  1. One thing that I’ve also come to realise recently is that feedback is often cumulative of verbal and non-verbal feedback. Leaders shouldn’t under-estimate the effect that the non-verbal feedback can have on an employee. Worse when they can’t match it up equally with specific objective feedback

  2. One of my personal favorites to use instead of saying: “You should do Y…” is “If you already knew the answer, what would it be?”

    I love it because it empowers the person to believe in their own ideas while still giving you the opportunity to share your experience or insight after they set the tone.

    1. Well, this is within the context of the person is a really good employee / coworker. If you’ve got to deal with low self-motivated personnel, with lack of sympathy, I advise to go with “You should do Y…, so that ….” and then finish with “what do you think?” It saves everyone’s time. Just saying.

  3. I’m totally going to apply this to parenting too!

    It sounds like just using a phrase like “what do you think is the best approach to this?” and then proceeding to try to convince them of the approach you already decided on, isn’t going to be effective. You’d be the same pushy manager, just more annoying because you’re doing it in a roundabout way.

    It sounds like what’s needed is a fundamental shift: you need to value their insights, and they need to understand more of your wider perspective.

    (I ranted about something similar in my post “Why developers invent problems, support agents feel like janitors, and marketing thinks the product is lousy” at https://cmljnelson.blog/2019/06/10/why-developers-invent-problems-support-agents-feel-like-janitors-and-marketers-think-the-product-is-lousy/ )

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