Non-normality can cause transient growth of perturbations in thermoacoustic systems with stable eigenvalues. This can cause low-amplitude perturbations to grow to amplitudes high enough to make nonlinear effects significant, and the system can become nonlinearly unstable, even though it is stable under classical linear stability. In this paper, we have demonstrated that this feature can lead to the failure of the traditional controllers that were designed on the basis of classical linear stability analysis. We have also shown in a simple model that it is possible to prevent ‘nonlinear driving’ by controlling transient growth, using linear controllers. The analysis is performed in the context of a horizontal Rijke tube.