The misguided quest for control

You’ve been there. Perhaps you’re in the supermarket minding your own business when you are suddenly struck by a scene. A child is totally out of control, screaming, carrying on, and you are asking yourself, “How come that parent can’t control that child?”

If you’re a parent yourself, you might be telling yourself something else, too. “The parents of that child must be doing something horribly wrong to put up with behavior like that.” Why is it that we reflexively blame parents for their children’s misbehavior?
Because it gives us the illusion of control.
As parents, we desperately want to think we have control over how our kids turn out. So we tell ourselves that because we don’t make the mistakes those other parents make, then our kids will be OK. So every time we see a kid who has problems, we want to blame the parents, just to make ourselves feel more in control. Because if it isn’t the parents fault, then (oh no!) those problems could befall our kids, too! Scary.
Unfortunately, we don’t have as much control as we wish we did. Sure, parents are a huge influence over their kids, but sometimes kids don’t turn out the way we expect even when we did a good job.
I remember being the person in that supermarket asking myself what was wrong with the parents that allowed that kind of behavior, and my wife brought me up short with her typical wisdom. “How do you know what problems that child has? He could be autistic or have some other wrenching problem those poor parents cope with every minute of their lives. For all you know, that kid is having a good day.”
She’s right. We tell ourselves these things to give ourselves the illusion of control. It’s a natural human impulse that soothes us in times of upset. But it might not help us to think clearly and rationally about the situations we are in and it certainly doesn’t help us provide help to other parents.
Marketers, unfortunately are human beings too, and suffer from similar mindsets. (You knew I would eventually get around to talking about marketing, huh?) So, when you see a company suffer a huge public relations black eye, do you say to yourself, “Boy, that PR team really screwed that one up”? When a rival product begins to attract denigrating word-of-mouth, do you tell yourself, “Those guys just do not know how to practice message control”?
Or do you look at those experiences as a cautionary tale?
As marketers and PR professionals, we need to resist the impulse to explain away the problems of others with incompetence. While it’s true that some problems really are screw-ups, many are simply the luck of the draw. We’d love to believe that our superior decisions, policies, messages, and other assets determine our success and protect us from similar travails, but they don’t. We don’t have the control over our situations that we want, and we need to be ready for something unforeseen to happen without it ruining our entire self-image of competence.
Can you watch others deal with situations and learn from them, or must you explain them away to soothe yourself? Do you analyze things you see and ask yourself what you’d do in that situation, or do you tell yourself that you can control things so that would never happen?
“That will never happen to me” is probably something that many people have said to themselves. And it did happen to some of them. Are you learning how to handle difficult situations or are you just telling yourself that you are in control?

Mike Moran

Mike Moran is a Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also served as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website,, most recently as the Manager of Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He was a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research and is now a Senior Fellow of The Conference Board. A Certified Speaking Professional, Mike regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide

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