May 23, 2022 3 min read

On Dichotomy of Control and Nudging

Level up your leadership. Each edition is a 3 min read, and contains an original article summary, an actionable snippet, a set of reflection prompts, and a reading recommendation.​


Original Article Summary Note to Myself

I am in week two of my website being down due to cloud infrastructure issues. It has been a true test of implementing the Stoic notion ofdichotomy of control.

The basic idea is that some things are under our control while many others are just not. Most of our suffering comes from trying to control something that we cannot by definition.

Discerning between the two is key.

Epictetus wrote about this 2,000 years back in Enchiridon .While there are many explanations of it, the following is the one I keep going back to.

The Handbook actually opens with a technique to remind ourselves that some things are “up to us,” or directly under our control, and other things are not. ​Modern Stoics sometimes call this the “Dichotomy of Control” or the “Stoic Fork.”​

Just recalling this distinction can help you recover a sense of indifference toward external things. ​Think of it this way.

When you strongly judge something to be good or bad, you also commit yourself to saying that you want to obtain or avoid it. ​But if something is outside your control, then it’s simply irrational to demand that you should obtain or avoid it.

It’s a contradiction to believe both that you must do something and also that it’s not within your power to do so. ​The Stoics viewed this confusion as the root cause of most emotional suffering. ​

They pointed out that only our own acts of volition, our own intentions and judgments if you like, are directly under our control. ​Only my own voluntary actions themselves are truly under my control. ​

When we judge external things to be good or bad, it’s as though we forget what’s under our control and try to overextend our sphere of responsibility.

The Stoics view only their own actions as good or bad, virtuous or vicious, and therefore classify all external things as indifferent, because they’re not entirely “up to us” in this sense.​

- From How to Think Like a Roman Emperor- The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius by Donald Robertson.

This idea is equally true for managerial life where we do not have direct control over many things. Discerning the difference between the two can open up a different set of actions.


Actionable Snippet

Whether you are a team lead or a CEO, influencing people in the right direction is a key part of your role. And it's easy to complicate.

At it's core the basic building block of managerial life is conversations. Our effectiveness dpeends on how good we are at this basic building block and then executing it over and over.

Andy Grove captured this nuance perfectly in High Output Management:

You often do things at the office designed to influence events slightly, maybe making a phone call to an associate suggesting that a decision be made in a certain way. . . . ​In such instances you may be advocating a preferred course of action, but you are not issuing an instruction or a command.

Yet you’re doing something stronger than merely conveying information. ​Let’s call it “nudging” because through it you nudge an individual or a meeting in the direction you would like. ​

This is an immensely important managerial activity in which we engage all the time, and it should be carefully distinguished from decision-making that results in firm, clear directives.

​In reality, for every unambiguous decision we make, we probably nudge things a dozen times.

Some folks when they get into leadership postions assume that giving out orders is part of the job.

You might not necessarily be "barking" orders but might be relying too much on your positional power rather than your influence.

While dictating behavior is one way to get things done, there are other more effective ways of doing so.

Consider which approach you are using the most.


Reflection Questions

  • How strategic are you about your ongoing conversations?
  • Do you even see it as a building block in what you do?
  • Do you give out orders or do you influence?
  • Would your team's behavior be different in one vs the other?
  • How can you get better?

Leader’s Library

This week's reading recommendation is High Output Management, the 1983 classic from former Intel CEO Andy Grove. His other book Only the Paranoid Survive is more well-known, but in my opinion this one is better in terms of relevance to managers.

Recently it has seen a huge surge in interest in the tech managerial world.

It is highly actionable but at the same time does not over-simplify or idealize the messy world of management and leadership.

You can tell it is written by a master practioner who has operated at almost every level of the game.

Regardless of your role, it is useful. Based on where you are in your journey, you will find something uniquely different each time you read it.

It's one of those few books I kept going back to at different stages in my career. I am sure you will do the same. Enjoy.

That's it for this edition. Have a great week!

– Sheril Mathews

Sheril Mathews
After a 20 year stint in various technical/management/leadership/ positions in the wilds of corporate America I started LS to help leaders & high performers level up their game.
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