A battle of wills

When I was fourteen, I had one of the most embarrassing experiences of my life. I accidentally crashed the car belonging to a handsome seventeen-year-old boy. The kid was a coworker of mine at a restaurant and was giving me a ride home. For some reason still unclear to me, he wanted to teach me to drive. I was really nervous and didn’t want to (for now-obvious reasons…) but I capitulated. I chose not to exert my will and simply refuse. As for what led to the accident? Well, primarily the fact that I had zero business operating a motor vehicle. But thinking about it all these years later, I think there was another layer to it. I had been a passive passenger in cars for my entire life to that point, and I think that on some level, I didn’t really believe I could be in charge of one, which led to my failure to control it effectively.

I bring this up now, not merely to air my adolescent humiliations for your entertainment, but because this issue of will has come up repeatedly in recent conversations I’ve had. Many challenges people face at work fall into the categories of “excessive will” or “insufficient will.” Both represent often habitual patterns of engaging with our environment, and, like most habitual patterns, pose potential pitfalls.



1. lacking strength of will

There are people on one side who are overly accommodating and agreeable. They seem to lack confidence; they come off as pushovers. Their default is to let others exert control instead of doing it themselves. On some level, they seem not to believe they have the right to exert their will on situations and people. Maybe it’s personalty, maybe their parents exhorted them on the importance of being nice. But the results are that they don’t rise in their organization. They get feedback that they’re not taken seriously. They aren’t successful at influencing others. When working with people with similar tendencies, they get more wrapped up in building consensus instead of building good ideas. When working with strong-willed people, they get run over.



1. intent on having one’s own way; headstrong or obstinate

At the other end of the hall we have the bulldozers. People who are uniformly assertive and controlling. Their immediate impulse is to seek to direct, advise, and organize others. They may be perceived as domineering, stubborn, and arrogant. They miss opportunities to gain important information or valuable learning because they don’t ask others for their perspective. People may resent them for constantly imposing their structure, or for incessantly stepping into the limelight. They may micromanage and deprive their employees of opportunities to learn. When two of these types collide, sparks fly. When working with less assertive people, they run roughshod..

Further, when we wish to exert our will but are prevented from doing so – whether by internal or external forces – we often end up doing so anyway, in indirect or unproductive ways. People who are unassertive may engage in avoiding behavior, dragging their feet, or passively aggressive cooperating and quietly doing what they want. People who seek to assert their will but are thwarted may exert it in other demonstrable ways, such as excessive and inappropriate emoting, or seizing upon an unrelated situation on which to assert dominance.

Neither of these extremes is effective. Neither is inherently wrong, either. This is merely another angle from which to deepen our self-awareness and adaptability. Where on the continuum do you fall? What unquestioned assumptions and beliefs underlie this pattern? Where – and with whom – is it not working for you? What do you need to do to cultivate the behavior that allow you to stretch down the continuum in the other direction?

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