Back in January, a startup baby name website called babynames.net ran a “Belly Ballot” contest. They promised to pay $5,000 to an expectant mother who let their readers vote to name their baby. It was supposed to launch their new Belly Ballot feature, which allows friends and family to vote on names parents are considering for their baby.

Two months later, the company posted a picture of their contest winner, Natasha Hill. They had screen captures of her Facebook page. Natasha even gave an interview to the Huffington Post about how “fun” the contest was and how she was looking forward to paying off some credit card debt and starting a college fund for her kid.

The only problem? Natasha Hill doesn’t exist. She’s really Natasha Lloyd, an L.A.-based actress with an IMDB profile who had previously appeared on Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader.  Not only was Lloyd an actress – she wasn’t even pregnant.

Oops.

When the news broke, people wanted to know why. Website founder Lacey Moler explained that they’d hired Natasha after they didn’t receive a single entry to their contest. Moler said, ““We came up with the idea for the contest and we knew it would be controversial. We’re a start-up and we wanted to control the situation. We never thought it would get this big.”

Gini Dietrich at Spin Sucks has already written a spot-on piece about Belly Ballot’s PR and reputation management mistakes. Go read it – it’s fabulous.

But I want to talk about control. I can’t count how many times I’ve walked into a mismanaged crisis and been given that same explanation: “We wanted to control the situation.”

But the truth is that you just can’t control a situation. You may be able to control your message, your reactions, or your communication – but you can’t control a situation because you can’t control how other people behave or react. You can understand a situation, you can even manage your responses, but you can never control the situation itself. 

That’s the thing – the babynames.net folks weren’t really trying to “control the situation.” They were just trying to hide the fact that no one had entered their contest. And that really wasn’t such a big deal to the rest of the world. But it certainly seems to have been a big deal to them. What were they so scared of? It wouldn’t be the first time no one entered a contest. It wouldn’t be the first time someone staged a contest as an outrageous publicity stunt and never named a winner. It certainly wouldn’t have negated the basic function or value of their website and product. But some consequence scared them so much that they felt the need to do something unethical to avoid it.

That’s why my deception radar goes off when people tell me that they needed to control a situation – because “the need to control” is never an isolated reaction. It’s what people say when they don’t want to admit that they were scared. And, often, when they don’t want to admit which negative consequences scared them the most. In this case, the Belly Ballot got a lot of media attention – which was the whole point.  They’d probably built an entire marketing campaign around naming a winner and having people vote for the baby name. And, at their core, they didn’t want to admit – publicly, or to themselves – that they’d made a mistake, that they needed to go back to the drawing board and start over.

People think control freaks are scared of other people- that other people will screw up, sabotage them, or cause them to do more work – but that’s not been my experience. Those are just the excuses control freaks give to cover up their real motives.  Control freaks are almost always overcompensating because they feel out of control – of their work, of their emotions, and of other people’s opinions of them. 

You’ve know the kind of people I’m talking about:

It’s the graphic designer who hides her computer screen when you walk into the room and won’t let anyone see her work until she’s ready to share it.

It’s the computer programmer who insists that no one else can possibly understand his code and won’t let anyone be in the room with him while he works.

It’s the manager who refuses to let anyone else use the cash register or enter orders into the POS system.

It’s the boss who sends emails to people in the next office instead of holding real conversations.

They’re not worried that you’ll make mistakes. They’re worried that you’ll notice that they aren’t perfect and they won’t be able to hide from the fact themselves. Every control freak I’ve ever met hides, lies, or manipulates to keep others from getting close enough to know what they’re doing. Control freaks control their work – and try to control how other people view them – because they can’t control their own anxiety and emotional reactions. Sound familiar? It’s the same problem I talked about earlier this month in Why Good People Lie. They’re not really trying to hide from you – they’re trying to hide from their emotional reaction to outsider’s opinions. That’s why that graphic designer snaps at you and twists her monitor away when you catch a glimpse of her screen and say “Hey, that looks great!” It doesn’t matter that you gave her a compliment. What matters is that she is now reacting to some stimulus that she wasn’t ready for and was caught off guard.

It’s hard enough when you’re working on a normal project, but a control freak’s natural instincts can push them to commit corporate suicide when things don’t go the way they planned. That’s because in a moment of real crisis, a control freak’s instinct isn’t to help their company – it’s to protect themselves from negative consequences.  That’s a really common reaction when you’re running a start up. When you’re putting insane hours into a building a new business, your identity runs into it. You forget where you end and it starts. And when something doesn’t go as planned for the business, it feels like an attack on you.  It doesn’t mean you’re selfish or evil – it just means that you have a strong natural instinct that you need to understand and keep in check. 

I want that to be really clear – I don’t think the people at babynames.net are bad people. I don’t know them, but I’m sure they’re like most of us business owners. They’re good people who spend all day every day working to make their business successful. They’ve probably spent years trying to make it a reality. They feel responsible for their employees and investors – and they really just want to do well. They aren’t PR experts – but most of us aren’t. So they ran into a new situation, and they made a mistake, and they’ve learned from it. And that’s okay. That’s the whole point. Making mistakes IS the whole point.

If you work with a control freak, you have to accept that you can’t control that instinctual reactions to a crisis. The best thing you can do is try to help them plan for worst-case scenarios before they hit – so they’ll have an alternative and be less likely to give in to their instinct. When someone presents a plan for responding to a crisis, ask “How does this plan increase our customers’ trust in our brand? What is this really protecting us from? How could this plan backfire and make us look bad?” That last one is critical – the best way to motivate someone who is trying to avoid negative consequences is to point out the negative consequences of their plan.

If you are a control freak, you have to identify what you’re really scared of. When I run into a client who is obviously struggling with control and can’t separate their emotions from the situation, I have them do this:

1) Make a list of what they’re currently worried about
2) Write down what would be the worst case consequence of that happening to your business.
3) Write down why that consequence scares you personally.

It sounds simple, but it works – and it works fast, and it works every time. It forces you to separate your personal anxiety from the actual consequences for your business.

And then, the first step to getting over control freak tendencies is to accept that those mistakes and negative consequences are real possibilities — that you’re going to make mistakes and people are going to find out about them and you’ll feel bad but it won’t be the end of the world.

I have ^this^ sign in on my wall that says “Let’s make better mistakes tomorrow!” It takes time – and sometimes a lot of therapy – to get behind that attitude. But it’s the healthiest, least risky, and least exhausting place to be when you’re running a business.  It’s how you stop trying to control the situation and start moving forward and making things better.


A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.