Discover your Circle of Influence and Control: why you have more power than you think

How do you increase your feeling of control in any workplace situation? Use this clever Circle of Influence and Circle of Control exercise developed by management guru, Stephen Covey.

In this article we explain:

How using Circle of Influence can help you feel more in control

A few years ago I was juggling several large and time-consuming projects, and had just started a new business. There was so much going on I was barely hanging on. I needed a break, my wife needed a break. We found a weekend that worked and booked a hotel in Paris. (This was before children…)

We’d arranged for our cat to be looked after by a friend while we were away, but on the day we were due to leave, I was so busy that I completely forgot that we’d run out of cat food, and needed to buy more.

I remembered just as I got home and rushed out to buy some. But the supermarket was busy, the queues were long and we were 45 minutes late leaving the house.

When we finally got to the airport we just missed the car-park bus and had to run across the terminal building.

It was very stressful.

To cut a long story short, we made the flight, but my wife was annoyed… and the tension between us lasted for the whole weekend. It wasn’t the break we’d both been needing so much.

With so many tasks, emails and projects on my plate, it was clearly affecting my life – and I had to own up to the fact that I was out of control. I felt powerless. At the time I felt that there was nothing I could do about it.

Maybe you’ve had a similar experience, where you’ve had so much on it has been hard to stay in control of it all? It can be very debilitating.

A few years later a colleague showed me Circle of Influence. It’s a clever tool that might not have helped with the cat food, but it would have helped me get clearer about all the things I was trying to juggle, and find a way to work out what I could do to feel less overwhelmed.

Circle of Influence is simple and accessible, a way to regain a feeling of control and agency when at first it seems like you have none. It’s a great tool to help you discover that you always have more power than you think.

Read on to find out how it works.

First, a quick plug for our NEW course for managers:

(scroll down to get to skip ahead and read more about what Circle of Influence is first)

Circle of Influence e-course

Help your team regain a feeling of control right now. Free e-course.

Take our NEW Empower Your Team with Circle of Influence 2.0 online course and empower your team to look at all the things on their plates in a new way.
The course includes:
  • Detailed step-by-step instructions on how to use Circles of Influence with your team
  • Explanatory audio and video guides
  • Downloadable pdfs and a walk-through slide deck
  • Lifetime access
  • PLUS: Two extra tools to help your team level up their mindset – the Energy Mood Matrix, and Good Day Bad Day

Find out more about our new FREE course for managers here.

“the exercises make the circle useful”


Click here Circle of Influence


What is Circle of Influence?

Let’s face it, we all have things in our lives and our work that challenge us.

Back in 1989 Stephen Covey wrote about how to deal with these things by being proactive, in his bestselling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Using this clever tool – called Circle of Influence and Control – Covey created 3 circles:

  • the Circle of Concern
  • the Circle of Control
  • the Circle of Influence

The Circle of Concern includes all the challenges and concerns you have in your work and in your life. The task is to realise which of these things are inside and which outside of your Circle of Control.

Some things – like the weather, pandemics, the economy – are out of your control, there’s nothing you can do about them. Other things, such as how you respond to certain people, your work performance, and whether you eat healthy or unhealthy food, are totally within your control.

But perhaps some of the things in your Circle of Concern, that you can’t control directly, are things you can influence.

Being proactive means acting on what you can control, and working on expanding your Circle of Influence, and doing what you can about them, instead of waiting for things to happen.

The tool itself shows you a way to explore how to gain control when you feel like you have none, and discover that you always have more power than you think.

Circle of Influence – the Do-It-Yourself version

You can learn how to use Circle of Influence and get a deeper understanding of it by joining our new no-risk online course, or to try Circle of Influence yourself here’s a FREE worksheet you can download, and read on for a summary guide on how to do it – it can be done individually but it’s best with a group:

    1. On a large sheet of paper, draw a big circle, this is the Circle of Concern.
    2. Get your team members to write their areas of concern on sticky notes, and put them in the circle. There will be lots of things that are of concern to them or are factors that could be affecting how they feel.
    3. When they’re done, draw another smaller circle in the middle of the first circle, this is the Circle of Control. These are the things they can control.
    4. In conversation, move all the sticky notes in the big Circle of Concern that they can actively control, into the middle Circle of Control.

Circles of Influence

Who is in your circle of influence?

  • People usually feel there aren’t many items that they can actively control. They may have a lot of stress and anxiety over the things they’ve written down and will feel they don’t have any control over them. Having no control is alarming.
  • So, draw another circle in between the first two – between the circles of Concern and Control. This is the Circle of Influence.
  • Get team members to look at the ways they could influence some of the things that are out of their control.
  • Maybe they can’t control them, but could they influence them? E.g. could they forge a better relationship with the person outside of the team who’s firing requests at them, and get to the root cause of that?
  • Go through all the notes that are in the Circle of Concern and together try to move them into the Circle of Influence.
  • When you explore these further, if you think about them differently, you’ll find that some of the concerns can go straight into the Circle of Control.
  • You may also discover solutions and suggestions in the group.


The power of Circle of Influence and why you should use it

Here’s another story, to illustrate how Circle of Influence works. When Sarah Benson started a new job in marketing, she loved it. She flourished and worked her way up until she got promoted, at which point she began working with Bob, a senior executive. Bob did all sorts of interesting and high level projects.

It seemed like her dream come true, but Sarah found working with Bob incredibly stressful: his personal manner was abrupt and accusatory, and he had no idea he was having this impact.

There were the unhelpful conversations, and the end-of-the-day last minute requests that meant she had to stay late, all the time.

On top of this, Sarah’s partner also got a new job which meant taking the kids to school became more complicated, not to mention that Sarah was now managing people who used to be her peers, which was awkward.

She became more and more stressed, her confidence started to ebb away and her dream job turned sour. She felt completely out of control and unable to engage with these things that she felt she couldn’t change.

Sarah didn’t know what to do. She felt powerless and became unhappier and unhappier at work.

And then she discovered Circle of Influence and Control, and through using it, she realised that although she couldn’t escape, stop or control any of these stressful things, there were things she could do to influence them and change their impact on her.

She found out the school was able to offer wrap-around care and the children could be dropped off a bit earlier, which meant her partner could take care of that. There was a mentoring scheme at work and just the prospect that she might be able to discuss ideas about managing her team with someone was a huge relief.

Even the impossibility of dealing with Bob had a solution. Sarah was too scared to speak to him directly but found a way to speak to her line manager who had a side conversation with Bob. He actually welcomed the feedback and he became more considerate to work with.

A series of small things added up to quite a big difference.

Sarah quickly found she had more energy to deal with other things. She decided to try Circle of Influence with her team, and through the resulting conversations they all developed a better understanding of each other, and better relationships as a result.

The upshot: both Sarah and her team were able to move forward, Sarah was much happier at work, and she fell in love with her job again.

Why it’s a good tool for teams

Circle of Influence is a great tool for resilience. If anyone feels out of control, you can question all of the reasons why they feel that, and see if they can find more agency about them.

For the things they simply can’t control, get them to stop worrying about them. You can’t affect government policy, or the weather… so just put those outside and park it.

At the very least, what is left is awareness of the factors that are outside their circle of influence.
Often it turns out, they realise they can influence more than they think, or they can change their attitude and their response to them. Even the act of acknowledging this creates some relief.

In a team, you’re trying to get to a point of safety where team members feel confident enough to be able to talk about the things they’re frightened of and neutralise those fears.

Doing that as a group means you really get to know each other, building empathy about what concerns you and where your stress comes from. Solving those problems together helps that too.
This is really good for building the rapport of a team: a little bit of vulnerability draws people in.

And it gets away from just focussing on conversations about the mechanics of the work, to acknowledging the emotional response, to the experience of doing the work, to the culture, and how we might be unconsciously creating problems for ourselves and our colleagues.

People are not naturally drawn to these conversations, so we have to find these tools like Circles of Influence to make it easier to talk about this stuff.

Our new Circle of Influence online course

For years at Then Somehow, we’ve been teaching teams how to be more productive, more in control of their work and how to be happier by using Circle of Influence. We usually do it through in-person training workshops for our clients, but the world is changing and when one client asked us to turn our material into an online e-learning course, something clicked for us – so we’ve been developing online courses that anyone can take.

Our newest online course shows you how to work with the Circle of Influence for yourself and your team.

The course has step-by-step instructions on how to use this helpful tool, audio and video guides, downloadable pdfs and a walk-through slide deck. We’ve also included two bonus lessons that explore other tools you can use to have better conversations with your team.

Take the course and you’ll learn how to acknowledge your personal and collective concerns. You’ll find ways to change what you can and accept the things you can’t.

You will also learn how to work together to find solutions.

“It is probably the most direct/upfront piece of training I’ve ever seen and for that reason, it is very refreshing”
Head of Department, UCL

See more details about our Circle of Influence course here.

Want to work on Circles of Influence and Control with your team? Facilitated in-person and remote workshops with Then Somehow bring teams together, improve staff engagement and productivity. Contact us for details.

Also, have a look at our tools that help you improve delegation, have difficult conversations with your team, and give and receive 360 feedback.

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