Trust or Control?

“Trust is good, control is better.” You’re sure to have heard of this saying, it’s a piece of advice that many of us do trust in and follow – whether in our business lives, our personal relationships or in bringing up our children. Yet hardly anybody knows where this saying comes from.

It’s about one hundred years old and is attributed to Vladimir Iljitsch Lenin, the man who as an erstwhile revolutionary in Russia laid the groundwork for the totalitarian control system of Stalinism that followed him, a paranoid system that mistrusted everything and everybody and cost the lives of countless numbers of people.

Every control system is built on mistrust. Every good human community is built on trust. Sometimes mistrust is founded and necessary, sometimes it’s just plain wrong – so where do we draw the line? 

Certainty in uncertainty

It’s not always easy to do this, especially when faced with some specific situation. But it’s important that we do ask ourselves this question so that when push does come to shove and we are uncertain, we don’t automatically switch to the control mode – whether in personal relationships or in dealing with social matters. I can understand that many people now yearn for security and the type of controlling that comes with it. Yet the decisive question in this context is: when is control really appropriate and necessary for our communal life and when will it only be detrimental.

Self-control and self-confidence

I think that we need both of these elements – both trust AND control – when dealing with our lives. And for me this also includes self-control and self-confidence. After all, if you can’t even trust yourself, how can you possibly trust anyone else? And if you can’t even control yourself, how can you exercise any meaningful form of control over others? 

For many years I held an executive position in top management. Even back then I felt that there was no point in trying to control my co-workers. I knew that they all wanted to give their very best and that they could only do this by being trusted and by being provided with space for autonomous action and initiative. My job was not to control (to micro-manage???) their behaviour but to ensure that at the end of the day the right results came through. And in this way, working collectively, we were highly successful for many years. 

 People need to be trusted in order to develop their skills and abilities and act on their own initiative. This is something that parents raising kids should never forget. Yet unfortunately leadership through such oppressive, discouraging control systems in companies and organisations all too often destroys the very basis on which trust is built. These are often places where the mindset of the early 20th century still lingers on. 

Using control judiciously

The need for control goes hand-in-hand with the question of security and risk. Do I want assured quality in the food I eat? Of course I do! Do I want road and air traffic to be controlled for the well-being of the general public? Absolutely! Do I want to see that animals lead good lives and that my rubbish is properly disposed of? Naturally! Do I want assured compliance with climate protection goals? Yes indeed! 

So control in itself is nothing bad. Even so, it’s only the correct measure of control applied in the right places that makes it meaningful and useful. And this means that every single one of us – civil society as a whole but also government and commerce – still has a lot of rethinking to do. 

Especially in these times we’re confronted by a veritable chorus of demands for controls and prohibitions. What we need to do here is come together and examine them all with the greatest attention – and not immediately subscribe to the next proposal for control or prohibition. Sometimes control may be necessary. Yet sometimes it’s much better to follow the path of trust.  

Seeing the world with eyes wide open 

In my own life I’m anything but a control freak. But I’m also not a person who can blindly trust. I’m a precise observer who gathers her own impressions, examines and weighs what she thinks and then draws her own conclusions.  I’m alert and attentive in all kinds of situations and I don’t live my life along the lines of “trust once, trust always”. What I do try to do is to find the correct balance. 

And honestly – If I were to spend all my time suspiciously doubting everything around me and trying to control and do everything by myself, there’d be no more room in my life for all the great ideas and suggestions from other people which inspire me and bring me forward, and no more room for all those people I love to work with on a solid basis of trust. And that is something I would really miss. 

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