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In Charge vs. In Control: The Subtle But Important Difference

By Rebecca Johnson

I recently discovered an interesting statement on the bottom of a document I’ve looked at many times before. Somehow I’d never seen it, but this time it jumped out at me:

“Power is self-sustaining, permanent, stationary, and invincible. Force is temporary, consumes energy, and moves from location to location.”

I had never thought about power and force in these terms, but the words resonated with me. They gave me the same feeling I have about two other phrases that often get used interchangeably but actually have very different meanings: “in charge” versus “in control.”

In our mindful eating programs , we explore the differences between being in charge vs. in control in our very first workshop. The difference may seem subtle at first but the meanings become clear as participants practice mindful eating. Most quickly recognize that being in control of their eating, like force, is temporary and energy consuming. It relies on willpower and micro-management which can be quickly sabotaged by an endless list of variables, and usually leads to the opposite—feeling out of control.

03B73766 - CopyAs our mindful eating program participants experiment with being in charge, they begin to experience the joy and freedom that comes from tuning into their own body wisdom and making conscious, intentional decisions. This new personal power is especially meaningful because it is available at any moment, no matter what emotional or environmental cues exist that make it difficult to stay in control.

This idea has relevance not just with food and eating, but with behavior change in general. The differences between being in charge vs. in control is a helpful construct for those of us in the health promotion field to consider as we work with individuals and organizations that want to thrive.

In the current health promotion paradigm, especially in corporate wellness, there is often an undercurrent of force and control. The aim is to “get” people to change, and the methods often include carrots, sticks, guilt, and coercion. For both the organization and the individual, this approach consumes a great deal of time and energy. It results in temporary compliance (and often resentment) instead of meaningful change that leads to thriving. Ultimately, it’s counterproductive to what most organizations want: truly engaged employees who give their best at work each day.

Instead, I like to consider how organizations might empower their employees to take charge of their thoughts, feelings, and decisions. When employees learn to elicit their own best thinking, effectively manage their emotions, and make intentional choices, the natural by-product is behaviors that support health, well-being, and quality of life—at work, and everywhere else. This is a subtler process than demanding change through force and control but an infinitely more rewarding one for both the individual and the organization.

In their new book, How to Create a Thriving Culture at Work: Featuring the Seven Points of Transformation, authors Rosie Ward and Jon Robison lay the foundation for this important paradigm shift in organizational and individual well-being. Through a thoughtful blend of the new sciences (Quantum Physics, Chaos Theory), and the latest research on organizational development, motivation, and behavior change, this book helps us understand why force and control don’t work when it comes to something as complex as cultivating thriving lives and organizations. It lays out a plan for creating the conditions in which employees are empowered and in charge so they can be “freed, fueled, and inspired to bring their best selves to work each day.”

I love the work Drs. Ward and Robison have done for many reasons. It resonates with what I’ve found to be true in my personal life and in my professional experience in the health promotion field working with individuals and organizations. It also provides a broader context in which a holistic, weight-neutral, mindfulness-based approach like Am I Hungry? can thrive in the workplace.

When employees are struggling with food and eating, the last thing they need is pressure from their organization to weigh themselves frequently, log their food and exercise, count calories or “control” their behaviors in some other way. Not only is that approach unsustainable and ineffective, it’s likely to contribute to the problem and consume time and energy that would otherwise be directed towards work and meaningful pursuits. What employees really need is a supportive environment where the conditions are created for them to:

  • Re-establish hunger as their primary cue for eating
  • Cultivate awareness of their physical and emotional cues
  • Learn to meet non-hunger needs in more effective ways than eating
  • Choose foods that provide a balance of nourishment and enjoyment
  • Eat for optimal satisfaction and satiety
  • Rediscover joy and vitality in physical activity
  • Utilize the energy they consume to live healthfully and vibrantly, and
  • Care for their body, mind, heart and spirit to support optimal well-being

For many people, resolving a difficult relationship with food through mindful eating is a gateway for developing a more mindful approach to life and work. Visit our Mindful Eating for Organizations page for more information on how your organization can offer your employees access to these life-changing programs.

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About the author

Rebecca Johnson is a leader in the health promotion industry with more than 20 years of experience in diverse roles. She is a licensed Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Program Facilitator and Coach and advocates for the use of mindfulness-based and weight-neutral programs in the workplace. Rebecca also serves as a consultant for organizations ready to leverage the power of organizational development and employee wellbeing to create truly thriving cultures.

One Comment

  1. Andrew Morgera says:

    I agree completely with the fact that people need to be in charge of their eating habits. It allows individuals to learn the healthy eating habits that will go a long way in establishing a constant peace of mind within the individual. Force comes from the outside while power grows from within and that is what really matters.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

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