Can being an Illusionist help you become a more effective leader?


By Chris Gandy

Have you experienced coming across a random piece of information or advice that for some reason resonates and seems to stick with you for life? I have.

Way back, almost before there was a digital anything, when researching for my honours thesis in Applied Psychology, I came across an article by Dr. Ellen Langer called the Illusion of Control which had just this effect on me.

Langer, a Harvard psychologist took a group of people and gave half a randomly assigned lottery number and the other half a blank piece of paper on which they could write any lottery number they wanted. Then, just before drawing the lottery, she offered to buy back the tickets. What happened next seems to defy all rational logic.

Intuitively there should be no difference at all in what people would be willing to sell their ticket for. Winning the lottery was  pure chance as every ticket has equal opportunity to win. But in fact, what she discovered was that she had to pay five times more for the tickets in which the participants got to write their own number!

As I said this little experiment has stuck with me for a number of years and I often reference it in coaching discussions.

The reason the experiment is relevant for leaders is that it reveals a sometimes illogical, but consistent truth about human nature. When we believe we have the control to choose for ourselves, we are much more motivated to embrace and complete the task. Five times more so according to Dr. Langer!

The original Langer experiment has been replicated and validated multiple times. And it makes no difference whether the participants are business executives, housewives, university students, mature aged  or teenagers, the same results always occur.

The lesson this research is clearly demonstrating is the more a leader can provide their team with a sense of control over their jobs, tasks, and responsibilities, the more motivated and engaged their team will be. This is because the team’s sense of association or connection to the leader is increased, their sense of equity and fair play fairness rises, they feel more important and self esteem goes up and they tend to have greater clarity about what will happen next – all as a result of simply being given a sense of more control!  And,  of course, the reverse happens when a leader takes away control through micromanagement and indiscriminately imposing their authority on their followers.

Armed with this information maybe you could look to giving your teams more control in the future by considering the what, who, when, where and how of a project or task.

What needs to be done – Rather than simply telling the team what needs to be down, why not start with questions about what they believe they should be doing. This could be instructive!

Who is on the team:  Instead of assigning people to projects, if possible, give them an opportunity to pick who they want to work with. People are more motivated when they are working with a team of their choice.

When it needs to be done: One of the easiest areas to give some control back to your team. Rather than setting deadlines on projects from a position of authority, talk with your team about realistic deadlines and negotiate a completion date that makes sense to you and them. Having control over setting deadlines motivates people to commit to meet those deadlines.

How to do it: Tell your team what needs to be done and then get out of the way.  Let them determine how it should be accomplished. Don’t impose your way unless there are extraordinarily good reasons. Giving people the control to decide how to complete a task will provide motivation not only to get the task done, but do it well.

Where they will be doing it: Can some of the work that needs to be done be completed off-site? Allowing people the control to decide where they want to do the necessary work can be a great motivator.

Almost any tasks or projects can be analysed from these different perspectives providing you with multiple opportunities to give your teams an increased sense of control… resulting in increased motivation and engagement. And just maybe, some may even feel as if they have won the lottery!

About the author: Chris Gandy is a Director of Cause and Effective ( a company dedicated to assisting cause-based organisations make greater social impact through Coaching, Consultation and Executive Interim Management.

About B-Cause

B-Cause is published by Cause and Effective. We help good causes find and attract effective leaders.

Thats our take on things. Over to you, please add to the discussion.

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