Trying to micromanage the output of a team can reduce productivity and increase stress
Trying to micromanage the output of a team can reduce productivity and increase stress © FT illustration; Dreamstime

Have you dealt with a control freak at work? Tell us how you managed the situation in the comment field below.

Control freaks make everyone’s life a misery. They often set the agenda in meetings, control discussions, interrupt others and can become aggressive when challenged. They might remember every detail of a conversation with colleagues, then use it against them in a later disagreement.

It is not unusual, and even understandable, for people to be more controlling when they are newly promoted or start a business.

Consequences

Those situations can lead to the fear of not being regarded as capable of the new job, or of the company failing. Handing over work to subordinates or employees leaves those in charge with the risks — and consequences — should things go wrong.

If the urge to control events cannot be reined in, however, it may be symptomatic of a deep-rooted anxiety of being let down by others and an inability to cope with unpredictability.

If it is not addressed it can damage staff morale, harm the company and inhibit growth. Entrepreneurs can find it particularly difficult to relinquish control as their business grows and they take on increasing numbers of staff.

A recipe for disappointment

One such man with a successful start-up came to me for psychotherapy because his fear and anticipation of being let down made it nearly impossible for him to delegate. He was heading towards burnout.

During our early sessions he admitted that if he could not curb his urge to micromanage, then the business would never grow and he could see himself becoming a bully.

“One of the things [I found out about] growing a team was seeing just how few steps there were from going about my business to being a tyrant,” he says. “You’re constantly feeling that people are letting you down because they can’t possibly meet the expectations that you’ve set, so you are constantly angry.”

His need for control stemmed from the unpredictability that characterised his childhood and upbringing, where decisions were made and changed without consideration for his feelings.

In his early years his mother’s illness meant she was frequently hospitalised. His father was indecisive — decisions would be made and changed on a daily basis. My client learnt that the people who were meant to look after him were unreliable.

The next time he found himself depending on people for his livelihood would be in his business, where his repressed rage towards his parents and fear of being let down returned to haunt him.

“One of the reasons I want to keep tight control of things is to prevent the opportunities for the chaos and confusion that feel so problematic to me,” he explains.

Through our conversations he came to understand that expecting others to anticipate his every thought was a recipe for disappointment. “There’s no possible way I can download all of my thinking,” he says. “If I don’t accept that to be true then I’m always going to be let down.

“If you expect everyone to let you down all the time, you’re not going to trust them to succeed. That’s the cycle.”

Making these links with the past has enabled this entrepreneur to respond better to the immediate needs of his company and delegate more work to his team.

Tips for dealing with control-freakery at work

David Archer, who co-founded the Socia consultancy, which helps organisations to collaborate on projects, says that working with a controlling colleague often results in less efficiency. Because the controlling person is often picking holes in colleagues’ work, they become anxious and as a result are more likely to make mistakes.

He adds: “[When] working for a controlling person you get extra levels of checking, which is just duplicating the same effort.”

To solve the problem, it is necessary to make the controlling person see they will gain just as good an outcome from trusting others to perform in their way, even if that is different from how they would do the job themselves.

His advice for those working for a control freak is not to be confrontational. “If you start the conversation by saying ‘you’re over-controlling’, you are likely to get into a conflict straight away,” he explains. “Start by saying: ‘I would like to improve the way I work, but in order to do that we need to work differently. You are constraining me or checking my work too much.’”

Mr Archer adds the next move would be to suggest tackling a project that is not crucial to the business in a more collaborative way, to show that the outcome can be just as good. “You build up trust by delivering small results,” he says.

A barrier to innovation

Control freaks are often highly conscientious, disciplined and organised and this may lead to them reaching top positions. As they climb the career ladder, however, their obsessive-compulsive traits create even more difficulties because they are unable to let go of work, believing that for a job to be done well they have to do it themselves.

This strict adherence to regulations and procedures leaves them lacking a creative side, and often hinders innovative input from their team.

In a desperate attempt to exert control these managers frequently slip into workaholism or perfectionism, which are defensive reactions to the fear of making mistakes, something that they believe will leave them feeling humiliated. For such people, imagined mistakes can feel as devastating, or worse, than actual ones.

As managers, control freaks expect subordinates to perform to their level, and are as critical of others as they are of themselves. Because they often overlook their own achievements they also tend to withhold praise from staff. Focusing on what has not been achieved as opposed to what has been done, they can make people close to them so anxious that they often under-perform as a result.

Case study: ‘The pleasure in achieving is fleeting’

A woman who ran a small sales team came to see me when her perfectionism and over-work robbed her of a sense of achievement and enjoyment. “I just feel like nothing is ever at the point it should be,” she says. “I probably perceive criticism where there isn’t any. I feel haunted by the idea that I’m going to mess something up.

“The focus is always on what’s missing. The pleasure in achieving is very fleeting. I feel good for 30 seconds, then I’m back on the not achieving.”

The result is that she often misreads situations, for example, over-delivering for fear she has not done enough. This only puts an additional and unnecessary strain on the business.

Her fear of underperforming stems from her relationship with her father. Any positive attention he gave was contingent on her performing exceptionally well. In our conversations she came to understand how perfectionism was her attempt to gain approval from her father, and her fear of making mistakes was a dread of his condemnation.

“I got 11 A*s and one A for my GCSEs [public exams] and his response was, ‘What happened with the A?’ The thing that he’ll notice is when I mess something up.”

Unconsciously, fear of her father’s judgment became displaced on to clients and even her employees. The only solution she used to reduce her anxiety was working harder, creating a vicious cycle: nothing was ever good enough.

“I could just about keep up with my own drive before I had kids, but now I feel I’m massively under-performing all the time,” she says.

The writer is a psychotherapist, family therapist and business consultant

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