Last week, I gave an interview to a student writing a thesis about how Stoic philosophy and practice can productively inform the domain of business. One of the topics that inevitably came up was what has come to be called the "dichotomy of control". This is a distinction articulated by the Late Stoic philosopher Epictetus between what is in our control, or is "up to us" (ep'hemon in Greek) and what is not in our control or up to us (ouk ep'hemon). It has come to play a centrally important role in the contemporary revival and reinterpretation called "modern Stoicism".
Like most components of Stoic philosophy, this dichotomy seems very simple (especially if one only focuses on Epictetus early discussions of it). It turns out to be quite a bit more complex if one actually reads beyond Epictetus' very short Enchiridion and studies the much fuller Discourses. There are several reasons for that, two of which I'll just outline here (I'll elaborate them in more general terms in a later post).
First, any concept that is intended to apply successfully to our complicated human lives is going to be correspondingly complex. People may reference it in simplistic terms - the vocabulary of sound-bites and life-hacks - but the real significance of the concept only becomes apparent when it is unpacked and applied. (If you'd like to go beyond the sound-bite version, check out this essay).
Second, as Seneca points out, responding to his epistolary interlocutor, Lucilius in Letter 33 (entitled, "On The Futility of Learning Maxims"), you shortchange yourself in trying to reduce philosophies to short quotes:
Look into their wisdom as a whole; study it as a whole. They are working out a plan and weaving together, line upon line, a masterpiece, from which nothing can be taken away without injury to the whole.Stoicism itself is a systematic and fairly comprehensive approach, so if one really wants to understand it and derive benefits from it, one has to treat the key concepts accordingly, as components in an integrated whole - not as isolated and oversimplified maxims.
Now on to the issue of control, the lack of control, and our desire and striving for control. These affect and occur in every workplace, particularly given the purposive nature of companies, paid work, and the locations we dedicate to that activity. In fact, any given workplace is permeated with teleologies - orientations towards ends, purposes, or goals - many of them often at odds with each other. People are doing things - and not just doing, but also saying, thinking, feeling, choosing, rejecting, etc. - for all sorts of reasons.
The purposive activities people engage in produce outcomes, results, consequences. Sometimes they have measures or benchmarks as well (and sometimes these are tracked, sometimes not, sometimes just made up or "guestimated"), and these are typically tied to some expectations or objectives. These might be formally communicated, or just implicit and assumed. Workplaces are one of many different overlapping domains of human existence, and (with rare exceptions) the people employed there only partially identify their own desires, goals, values, and the like with that of the larger organization (e.g. the company) or with those of its central work-activities.
One way to unpack the Stoic dichotomy of control is that outcomes or effects of choices and actions fall into the domain of what lies outside of our control. Whether we are successful or not depends on factors that we cannot directly control, entirely predict, or manage. In some cases, even our being able to carry out an action might lie outside of our control.
What does lie within the scope of our control is the interior domain of our intentions, our choices, our commitments. Epictetus does also say that our assumptions, our judgements and opinions, our desires and aversions, our emotional responses, our assent, refusal, or suspension of assent - these all are in our power, strictly speaking. But he also clearly thinks that these are in principle in our control, but in practice, in specific situations, often not - in significant part because we already have established habits which we need to examine and rework. Still, we do have some measure of control over what we think, feel, and choose.
Another thing that falls within the scope of our own control is how we think about that distinction itself - what's in our control/what's not - and how we apply it. In fact, those very labels or conceptions fall into the class of what Epictetus and other Stoics call proleipseis, "preconceptions" or "general conceptions" - broad concepts that we apply in specific cases, and which studying philosophy helps us to improve and refine. Many people think or feel that things that actually are not in their control are in their control - and then act accordingly. And likewise, many people assume things that are in their control are not in their control - and then make decisions on the basis of that wrong assumption. That's one reason Epictetus and his modern interpreters lay so much stress on making the distinction, and getting it right.
In the course of our interview, we were discussing how the dichotomy of control might apply to managers in particular. When you are managing other people, from a Stoic perspective, strictly speaking, what those people think, say, feel, assume, and do is something that is outside of your control. And yet the entire "science" (there's good reasons to use quotes there!) rests on the assumption that we can control other people. We can induce them to choose some behavior and to avoid or cease other behavior, right? We can even set things up, or work on them to get them to see things the right way - to think, to value, to choose, to feel along the lines we want, can't we? One's very success as a manager often is made to depend on doing so - or at least looking like one is pulling that off.
A manager who is realistic about human nature in general, the vagaries of the workplace, and the actual human beings who report to them will likely adopt a perspective, if not identical, at least similar to the classic Stoic one on just how much they can "manage" (in the sense of control) their subordinates. You might say (and admittedly more needs to be written about this) that genuine, ethical, productive management and leadership will require and stick with a realistic perspective of this sort. A manager can do - or at least attempt, or set up, or create opportunities for - quite a lot that might be able to positively affect the workplace and the employees who report to them. But they don't control outcomes.
Managers will often be assessed in terms of outcomes, though - and that is one type of pressure that can easily shift them into assuming that they do control much more than they do. Add to this an assumption that they should control things, events, and persons, that they are responsible for results, and it is easy to see how so many people in managerial positions can make themselves quite productive by some measures (at least for a while) and also consistently miserable as well.
One limit-point of this is the person that we often call a "micro-manager". We've all run into people like this - or perhaps some of us also have this tendency. The micro-manager is a mess, Stoically speaking, on multiple grounds. First off, that person is entirely mixed up about what is or isn't in their power - that by itself is going to generate all sorts of problems. Second, they routinely intrude themselves into the domain of what is in someone else's power - and there's more to be said about that below. Third, their decision to stick their nose in here or there displays and derives from a lack of the virtue of prudence - and that means that they are likely in the grips of the opposed vice of foolishness. There are many ways to be foolish, and lack of perspective and mistaken priorities in the workplace, as one micro-manages others, is definitely one of them. Fourth, the micro-manager can be at best only temporarily content (when for the time being, they get their way) - this trait is definitely a recipe for being unhappy long-term.
To bring this to a close, consider again how micro-managing in the workplace (or really, anywhere else as well) sets one up for failure. A boss gives employees strict and detailed instructions about how some fairly important but routine task ought to be done. And inevitably the employee - who is after all, another human being with desires, preferred ways of doing things, and ideas of their own - will carry out the assigned task (or not) in their own manner. The result will not be what the boss has desired and demanded. And then, the boss will be upset.
Epictetus has a pretty straightforward way to illuminate this. In his long chapter "On Freedom" (Discourses book 4, chapter 1), he writes:
When, therefore, you see one man cringing before another, or flattering him contrary to his own opinion, say confidently of this man also that he is not free; and that not merely if he be doing so for the sake of a paltry meal, but even if it be for a governorship or a consulship. Call rather those who do these things for certain small ends slaves on a small scale, and the others, as they deserve, slaves on a grand scale . . . When, therefore, it is in another's power to put hindrances in a man's way and subject him to compulsion, say confidently that this man is not free. . . . However, if he does none of these things, do not call him free yet, but find out what his judgements are, whether they are in any respect subject to compulsion, to hindrance, to unhappiness; and if you find him to be that kind of a person, call him a slave on holiday at the Saturnalia; say that his master is out of town; later on he will return, and then you will learn what the fellow suffers.—Who will return?—Anyone who has control over the things which some man desires, to get these for him or to take them away.—Have we, then, so many masters?—Yes, so many. For even before these personal masters we have masters in the form of circumstances, and these are many. Hence, it needs must follow that those too who have authority over some one of these circumstances are our masters.
The boss who micro-manages presents a particularly interesting case in this light. Wanting to be the master over others - over the actions, choices, thoughts, and desires of others - they make themselves, at least in some respects, "slaves" in Stoic sense to those others. Attempting to extend and impose control over others, they yield control to those others.