Dealing With Control Freaks

Clinical psychologist Dr. Al Bernstein joined us today to discuss how you can get control of  the "control freaks" in your life.

Gwen, your boss, is a control freak who tells everybody what to do and how to do it in excruciating detail. Nothing is too small to escape her attention. She corrects the grammar and spelling in your emails. She can't make up her mind. When she assigns you a project, she keeps changing the requirements. When anyone makes even a tiny mistake, she sends out a memo changing procedures for the entire department. The list goes on and on.

Gwen is just one example you might meet at work. Control freaks are everywhere, maybe even at your house.

Why are control freaks so obsessed? Do they think they have the only brain on the planet? Why do they insist that everything be done their way even when you can show them that your way works just as well? Or better. Why do they need to be in control of everything all the time?

Before you get too worked up, stop and consider: Why would a person have such an overwhelming need to control? The answer to this question, and to many others that you might pose about obnoxious and crazy-making behaviors is, simply, fear.

Frightened people devise frightening systems to keep them at a safe distance from whatever it is they're afraid of. What they do to protect themselves almost always causes more damage than what they were afraid of.

As frightened people like Gwen become more controlling, the performance of the people they are trying to control deteriorates. Worrying about criticism makes people overly cautious, so they make more mistakes. Then there is always passive-aggressive retaliation from people who don't like to be told what to do. Whatever the cause, the poorer performance increases the control freak's need for control and performance deteriorates further.


The secret to dealing effectively with micromanaging control freaks like Gwen is to see their fear rather than your irritation. If you want them to be less controlling you have to calm them down rather than making them more upset. Here are some suggestions:

Don't let your inner teenager make your decisions for you

Nobody likes to be told what to do, even by people like bosses who have a right to tell us what to do. At the root of this dislike, inside all of us, is a teenager who hasn't grown up. Our inner teenager will do stupid and self-destructive things to show people, whether they are parents, spouses or bosses that they aren't the boss of us. Letting this inner teenager make your decisions about control freaks will always make the situation worse. If you want things to get better, you have to think like a grownup.

Don't call them control freaks

Getting irritated and calling them control freaks, whether out loud, or in the privacy of your mind, will make the situation worse. Controlling people pay attention to tiny details. They will see your irritation as clearly as if you'd posted it on a billboard outside their office window. Your attitude will serve as evidence that they should watch you even more closely.

Even if you bring it up in the kindest way possible, discussing the issue of control directly will backfire. Control freaks, even if they joke about it, never see themselves as overly controlling. They are only protecting an ungrateful world from the inevitable mistakes that result from not paying close enough attention. Forget trying to talk them out of it. Even seasoned therapists have trouble convincing the control obsessed that their behavior might be causing more problems than it's solving.

Use reassurance, not recrimination

Take time before you start a job to get a clear and concrete idea of what your micromanaging boss (or your mother) wants when she wants it, and how she wants it done. Take copious notes. There are two reasons to do this. The first is simple reassurance. If you look like you are taking her instructions seriously, she will worry less about you making mistakes. Control freaks love to lecture. When they do, listen carefully. Annoying as these lectures may be, they are inevitable. They are far less damaging at the beginning of a project than they will be later on if she thinks you made a mistake.

The second reason for listening closely to this initial lecture is to come away with clear specifications of the end product required. Every task has a product -- whatever it is that needs to be done -- and a process -- the actual behaviors through which the end product is achieved. At the beginning, negotiate to deliver a very specific, measurable product at a very specific time. This will be crucial later on when the control freak tries to control the process.

Give progress reports before she asks for them

Nothing allays a control freak's fears like excess information. Remind her that you are taking the project as seriously as she does.

If your boss tries to control the process, ask if this means that the end product has changed

The notes you took during that initial lecture will come in handy here. Treat attempts to control the process as requests to change the end product, which any business person would have to agree would reopen the whole negotiation. If the end product is not affected, why change the process? Needless to say you have to have some history of delivering the goods for a strategy like this to work.

Keep up the good work

If you follow this procedure several times and actually do what you say you are going to do when you say you are going to do it, your boss will become less worried about your performance, and may go off to micro-manage somebody less responsible.



For more information, visit his website.


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