Jack worked for a business which provided technical IT support to other businesses. His job as a technician was to visit client sites when their computer systems fell over and mend them. He was known for being good at his job, but he had one problem.
If things went well on the client site, and he was able to fix the problem, he had no problem. But if he arrived and, after a period of time, couldn’t diagnose the cause of the fault, he became very panicky and stressed. This of course created a vicious feedback loop whereby the stress and tension substantially reduced his power to perform his job – which just raised the stress.
We talked about this. As the conversation continued, it became clear that Jack was a ‘controlling’ person. He liked things to go the way that suited him. At one level, it was clear that having a job which enabled him to restore control to a broken situation could be a highly rewarding one. One which allowed him to demonstrate that he could be the agent bringing the situation back into control. (And, of course, client businesses whose IT has gone down are extremely grateful to the person who fixes it, so there was plenty of room for reward in terms of gratitude.)
Think about the situation Jack was in. His employer would have a service level agreement with each client, so Jack would know before he arrived on site what equipment, communications and software he was expected to support, and would have a description – more or less useful – of what the immediate problem was. However, to all intents and purposes, he arrived into a situation that was out of control.
Although the opportunity to restore control was there, it depended on his ability, training, experience, skills and so on. If the problem eluded him, he was like a swimmer out of his depth – too far out and unable to get back to dry land. He was surround by chaos and did not have the means to restore order. As every minute passed and each new intervention proved fruitless, so the feeling that he couldn’t get back into control increased.
At this point there is an acceptable and useful cognitive behaviour coaching technique which we could have applied.
But we carried on talking. We explained that being controlling is a essentially a defence. It’s saying that the world is unpredictable, and unpredictability is bad because things can happen which hurt me, which I can’t stop happening. The more I can make the world behave how I want it to – or just in a way which I can predict – the less likely something bad is going to get under the wire.
So Jack’s controlling behaviour was a defence. And the defence had been erected in order to reduce the risk of attack; because being attacked hurt.
The key thing was that this defence shield had nothing to do with his current employer, or any employer he might have had. It had been constructed, no doubt over a substantial period of time, long ago. It might have been purposeful at the time (though even then, it would have been unlikely to have been the most useful course of action) – but it isn’t appropriate now.
So the learning points that Jack got were:
1 he was deliberately playing a risky game: putting himself in an out of control situation so that he could demonstrate to himself he could restore order
2 his controlling behaviour was a defence
3 the defence had been put in place long ago and was inappropriate to the present day
4 and, the nice point about this conversation, he realised what the early initiating events were that caused him to erect this defence shield.
As a result of the last point he was able to make progress on his own.
This is a true story—names and details have been changed to protect the innocent.