This was a great model developed by a friend of mind ‘Simon Drury’ (Art of Reinvention) who’s a business psychologist and coach. I thought I’d share it with you as it’s such an interesting model.

The premise of ‘control needs theory’ is that our sense of being in control or not, is directly linked to feelings. He says that there are essentially three fundamental areas that make up our life experience. Things that we can hope or expect to control and let me firstly just qualify what we mean by control theory because very often people assign the word ‘freak’ to the word ‘control’ and all of a sudden it takes on a kind of negative undesirable persona. If you imagine that control is an axis, a line, at one end you do of course get some who are control-freaks, or what are termed as power-crazy people. And at the other end you get the exact opposite – the other extreme – very mild-mannered and wouldn’t say boo to a goose. Most people typically are in the bell curve in the middle. And we move up and down this control line depending on our circumstances and where we are at any one moment in time. And of course people can become fixated at any point along this line but it is very often circumstance-specific, so people will move up and down the line generally. So, given that, what we mean by control, is having that sense of predictability where things fit within our world.

And the three areas that we hope or expect to have control over are i. self or ourselves ii. other people iii. the environment. And the model continues by looking at, if you imagine a moment in time when, you sense that everything is as you would want it to be, everything is, if you like, in place. For instance, people are doing what you want them to do, people are saying what you want them to say, you’re feeling good about you, everything seems right, and you are on what is referred to as your ‘optimum control need line’.

This line where you are where everything is as you would want it to be is your ‘optimum control need level’. So, in fact, if you have a piece of paper and pencil, in front of you, you could draw a horizontal line in the middle of the page, and that’s the optimum control need line.

Now then, when you are on that line and everything is as you would like it to be, the feeling you have is I’m ‘OK’ or I’m better. So, you might feel ‘Yeah, everything’s OK’, you might feel happy, you might feel elated. It’s OK or better.

Now, here’s the interesting piece – when something happens unexpectedly, for example, it may put you in a sense of being ‘out of control’, whether it’s a little bit or a big bit, then you start to move away from your optimum line. So, your boss comes into your office and says “I need you to write a report for the board by 5 o’clock this afternoon” … 1) you realize that you’re not very good at writing reports, 2) you don’t like presenting and 3) you don’t have time to do it. So automatically you’re knocked off your line. And, the further away from your optimum line you go, the more profound the negative feelings are that you experience.

When this happens, to start with, you may feel a little bit of a lack of confidence, a feeling of insecurity perhaps, that could move to frustration. And then the further away you get from your optimum need level you get into the realms of fear and panic the more out of control you feel.

Now, the third part of this cycle, is what we call the ‘strategy’ part. When you are knocked off your line and you’re experiencing these negative feelings, prompted by a sense of lack of control, what happens is that you will start to employ strategies to try and get you back up to the line so that you feel OK again. So, for example, if the boss has asked you to produce this report and you don’t have all the facts to be able to do it, seeking that information, that knowledge, may be just enough for you to get back up to your line again and feel OK.

And another example is if somebody cuts you up on the motorway and you feel out of control, somebody’s done something to you unexpectedly and you feel negative and maybe your heart’s pumping, and some people have the strategy of retaliation. So they think, “Right – well, he’s done it to me, I’m going to do it to him!” and they’ll then chase the person. Other people of course will choose a strategy of calm, and I’m not going to get involved in this, and slow down perhaps, and that’s their strategy and that gets them back up to their lines so that their heartbeat starts to calm down and they feel relaxed again.

And of course we have a whole range of these strategies: some people feel that they’re not as effective as a leader, things happen in their leadership experience that knock them off their line that they go and seek to develop their leadership skills, so they get back up to the line and feel more in control.

There’s a lovely little anecdote that Simon uses to describe control needs theory and that is that people who watch football will know that if there’s a free kick or a penalty that has to be taken and the referee puts the ball down on the spot, the first thing that the kicker does, without fail, is they’ll go up to the ball and pick it up and they’ll do something with it, because, for them, that control strategy is “I want to somehow have an influence on the ball, I want it to be placed where I put it, not where the ref has put it”. And this is one of those wonderful light control move strategies which comes under the heading of ‘environment’. They need to have the last touch of the ball because they are placing it in the way they want it to be, which is a control strategy, and they feel OK about that.

If however, the ref was to say to the person kicking the ball, “do not touch the ball I placed there”, that would create a lot of tension within the person wanting to kick the ball. Other strategies can include obstinacy for instance, “I don’t want to do that”, “I’m not doing that so I’m not going to do it”. Some people find themselves choosing anger. Some people will withdraw into their comfort zone and just do things that they know they can do, the sort of no-brainer things that help them feel back in control again.

So there are many strategies that we use, and as Simon explains, the thing is they don’t always work, which is why coaching is so important after people understand and go through this model that they can start to analyse the strategies they use and to rate them as how effective they are and they can then choose to get rid of them and put something else in place.

And so it’s working with this model and that the final piece, which is the more interactive part of the model, is that, if, you know, somebody comes in and does something to you, whether it’s at work or at home and they, as a result of their behaviour, knock you off your line and you start to feel frustrated or maybe even fearful and your strategy is to retaliate, so you shout at this person or do something that the other person doesn’t like, guess what you’ve done? You’ve knocked them off their level, so they start to feel negative. They then employ one of their strategies, which may be having to shout back at you or, going off and shouting at somebody else, and so, as a result of using our strategies to get us back to our line, we very effectively knock other people off theirs.

So we are all in this process of trying to get back to our lines and one of the things that is so valuable about this model, apart from the knowledge around it, is that to develop better relationships with people, it helps to first of all understand what knocks the other person off their line, and also the strategies that they employ to get back up to the line, because that’s where they feel happy or happier.

And then it’s for you to help them get back up to their line and so you support them in a sense. And by doing that, they’ll feel OK and they’re more likely to be amenable to what you’re suggesting or the relationship between you can grow.

And of course as a curative measure ultimately if you know the kind of things that knock somebody off their line, then you avoid those things to start with, which is preventative, which is always the better one of the three.

And of course the level of the optimum need and the control line will differ depending on the different optimum needs of the individual and the situation they’re faced with.
For example, if somebody is relaxed on a beach and on holiday and they’ve got people they care about round them and they’ve just had a lovely lunch and the sun is beautiful, then the chances are that they’re control need level, or if we look at the axis, they’re perhaps further away from the extreme end than somebody who is at work, under huge amounts of pressure, maybe there’s a threat of redundancy and the boss is being particularly horrible or they’ve just had a bereavement or something traumatic has happened in their lives, they’re going to be in a different place on that line and their control needs are going to be different at that time. And they will employ perhaps more extreme strategies to try and get them back to their line, and a lot of them won’t work. So what tends to happen is, there’s the opportunity then to choose to get support to get back up to the line. So it may be a coach, it may be a counsellor, or it may be a number of different practitioners because the individual feels that he can’t do it on their own.

Article: by Wendy Howard, from an interview with Simon Drury, Art of Reinvention.

Join me on Twitter at and

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *