4 min read

Burnout, frustration, and overwhelm are rampant realities in social justice and educational equity organizations, sectors, and movements at large. If you’re like a lot of managers and staff we know, you might feel like you’re often tasked with making the impossible possible, trying to do the most with the least. With the responsibilities we shoulder in increasingly complex environments, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed, stuck, helpless, or just plain annoyed sometimes.

Outside your sphere: What people think of me, other people, current events, and the world. Inside your sphere: the relationships I build and invest in, how I spend my time, what I propose, and my feedback.
Illustration: Kiely Houston

Sphere of control is a concept that helps people focus their precious time and energy on the things they can control so that they can make a greater impact where it matters most. While in most spaces it’s regarded as a tool for productivity, we see it as a tool for resilience. It’s not just about getting things done; it’s about recognizing your power. Generally speaking, this matters because seeing where we have choices and agency is key to our sense of well-being. For managers specifically, creating space for others to exercise their voice, choice, and agency is part of a trauma-informed approach.

We think that anyone can apply the concept of sphere of control (at work and beyond), but we’ve found that it’s particularly helpful for people with marginalized identities or who have less positional power in their organizations.

How to use it

Below are four steps for using sphere of control to get unstuck, accompanied by examples. Take 3-4 minutes to think through the following:

1. Name the situation.

What’s the situation that’s causing your feelings of overwhelm, frustration, helplessness, stuckness, or anger?

2. Identify what’s outside your sphere of control.

Think about what you have no direct control over. This might include things in your political, social, organizational, or personal context, immovable project constraints (such as deadlines or budgets), and other people’s attitudes, behaviors, or feelings.

3. Identify what’s inside your sphere of control.

Think about what you can directly control. This can include your mindset or approach, proposals, and actions you can take. The things inside your sphere of control can range from the immediate and relatively small task, like “talk to my manager about the situation” to a bigger or more dramatic change, like “find another job.” Consider your full range of options.

4. Do one thing within your control.

For many people, simply naming what’s in their control is enough to feel a sense of power and agency and get out of the rut of helplessness. However, we recommend that you go one step further and take action on one thing you have control over.

  • What mindsets, approaches, or values can you apply?
  • What actions can you take?
  • What can you do to prevent or prepare for the situation if it happens again?
  • How might you react if/when the situation arises?
  • What proposals can you make?

Sphere of control in action

Here’s an example of how you might think through your sphere of control:

1. The situation

I’m a middle manager and I’ve been advocating to get key staff vacancies filled for months. My team doesn’t understand what’s taking so long, and I share their frustration. We’re getting close to (hard-won) approval on a recruitment. Problem is, I know HR is totally backlogged and our salaries aren’t competitive. I worry this may take awhile even once we have the green light.

2. Outside the sphere

  • Quick fixes to structural problems with HR capacity and salary policies
  • COVID-19 leading to high turnover and fewer applications
  • How long it will take to get approval and the length of the hiring process
  • What’s happened in the past that led to these vacancies

3. Inside the sphere

  • Talk to my manager about the impact on team morale and capacity
  • Work with team to adjust goals and reprioritize
  • Finding creative ways to boost capacity, like advocating to hire a contractor or temp
  • Start talent scouting so we can move quickly when hiring is approved
  • Find another job if nothing changes in the next six months

4. One thing I can do

I will talk to my manager about the impact on team morale and capacity; in the meantime, I will also work with my team to adjust their goals and reprioritize.

Things to keep in mind

Your sphere of control isn’t static.

While there are some things you may never have direct control over, you may find that it expands or contracts depending on your context, relationships, roles, and personal capacity. Consider how you might grow your sphere of control. What relationships or skills could you build? How might you shape your trajectory (within your organization or beyond)? Managers, consider how your actions might impact your staff’s sphere of control. What might you do to contribute to your staff feeling like they have choices and agency?

Sphere of control is not a cure-all.

Sphere of control is helpful for thinking through issues and figuring out where you have agency. For larger and more complex problems, it might help you mitigate some of the impacts, but your actions alone likely won’t solve the problem altogether. While this may feel like a downer, it’s important to let go of the things that are outside of your control so that you can focus on where you can have the greatest impact.

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