By Linnda Durre, Ph.D., Author of Surviving the Toxic Workplace – Protect Yourself Against Co-workers Bosses and Work Environments That Poison Your Day published by McGraw Hill, February 19, 2010.
In my twice-monthly column, I will help you cope with a different type of boss, whether male or female. The three previous ones are: Dick the Dictator, Bashia the Backstabber, and Sewell the Sexual Harasser. This week, let’s take another one of the most frequently complained about types – Carl the Control Freak.
Carl the Control Freak is usually an obsessive-compulsive personality who has some or even all of the following characteristics: their attention to detail, obsessiveness, compulsivity, hoarding, perfectionism, persistence, tenacity, all or nothing and black/white beliefs, intolerance, rigidity, fear, inability to accept other opinions, their need to be right, their strict adherence to rules, laws, and/or religious codes of behavior; their refusal or difficulty to admit mistakes, flaws, or accept feedback; poor listening skills, avoidance of looking at themselves, and lack of insight and introspection. They demand others to agree with them, do as they say, and comply with their wishes.
Carl the Control Freak can be highly critical, has a strong need to control, and he has to have everything his way. He usually hates to be interrupted in a conversation or have anything out of order or not done the way he likes it. He goes ballistic if one thing on his desk is moved or if you challenge one word in his report. He may have outbursts, tantrums, and yell at people, which isn’t acceptable, and creates a hostile work environment.
EXPLANATION: Carl probably had controlling, perfectionistic parents who demanded that he and all their children accept their belief system without question and obey their rules totally. His parents’ love was probably conditional, based on strict adherence and compliance to perfection. As children and teens growing up, they were not allowed to make mistakes, and they knew that they needed to keep any defiance, rebellion, or independent thinking in check, repressed, or hidden. There may have even been physical abuse, such as beatings, for making mistakes or breaking the rules. They may have gotten stomach aches, headaches or other ailments dealing with the rigidity. To Carl, making a mistake or having something out of order means that he is a bad, stupid, and/or vulnerable person, who might be punished. He may be ashamed, embarrassed, frightened, and/or angry when he errs. And if you point it out, he can go through the roof. His ego cannot stand that. Have some compassion for his childhood, and still set limits.
Carl probably had very controlling parents and he learned how to be controlling from them. Carl’s parents may also have been intrusive, coming into his room, looking through his diary, closet, and/or drawers. They disturbed and invaded his sense of privacy and order, snooped, and/or took things. He resented it, and swore it wasn’t going to happen again, so he’s hyper-vigilant that no one disturbs his possessions. He’s recreating his childhood in the work setting and it drives you and others nuts.
If Carl suffers from OCD – Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder – he will usually be very afraid of change, he will see the world as a chaotic and dangerous world where he feels powerless and therefore, he must control everything and everyone and everything around him. He may be a person who has strict religious beliefs and is ruled by guilt and fear, so he has to always follow the rules, laws, and obey authority as he wants you to do as well – usually his authority! Conversely, sometimes Carl can be a person who doesn’t believe in God or a Higher Power [called by many names – God, Jesus, Buddha, Allah, Yahweh, Krishna, Mohammed, etc. and/or George Lucas’ “The Force” – because he is so reluctant to give his personal power and control over to anyone or anything. Carl may even be an atheist or agnostic. Carl doesn’t really trust people, life, or a higher spiritual being that is loving and guiding him, even by giving him turmoil, challenges, and adversity to learn from. Carl doesn’t understand that many inventions and discoveries are made from “mistakes” – like potato chips, breakthroughs in medicine, vaccinations, and artistic creations.
Because Carl has to have everything just so, he tries to control the people in his world as well as his possessions on and in his desk. Order and organization are crucial to a control freak. He may have low self-esteem and be very fragile inside although he may appear strong, domineering, and self–confident on the outside. If he erupts into yelling and screaming, you must address that as well. Be diplomatic, compassionate, and firm when setting limits with Carl. If it doesn’t work, go to HR.
SOLUTION: “Carl, I respect your high level of organization, neatness, and order. I admire your dedication to dotting your I’s and crossing your T’s. It’s reassuring to work with a boss who takes pride in his work and is committed to excellence. I appreciate how carefully you oversee our department. What bothers me is that your need to control everything becomes over-bearing, unreasonable, and domineering. Being more flexible and trusting will create a better, more productive office environment. Mistakes happen. Nothing in life is perfect, including people. Your angry outbursts and yelling are frightening me and others and we’d all like it to stop. It creates a hostile work environment, which is illegal. They feel you don’t trust their intelligence, competence, and ability to get the job done. It’s affecting office morale, productivity, and communication, which will eventually effect the financial bottom line, and I’m sure you don’t want that to happen. I don’t want to go to HR about it, so please let’s dialogue and/or have an office meeting on how we can meet your goals without the pressure we all feel. We’d all like to get along with you and work here happily and productively. I hope we can work together.”
If Carl doesn’t change, then go to HR. If Carl does have OCD – Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – bring the printed description of it from the DSM IV (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – Volume Four from the American Psychiatric Association) and hand it to the HR Director. Tell HR that Carl’s controlling nature is interfering with productivity and office morale, which will effect the financial bottom line. No company wants to lose money. Ask them to please deal with the deeper psychological issues with Carl. HR might recommend that your boss take advantage of the five free sessions of counseling from your EAP and/or go to individual counseling, which probably covers 10-20 sessions under the company’s insurance, with only a ten to twenty dollar co-pay. If you need to schedule an appointment with Carl and HR, do it after you talk to HR by yourself to explain your frustration and the situation. A good HR manager will handle it all diplomatically and thoroughly, and hopefully it will improve. If not, then ask for a lateral transfer to another department, or find another job with an inspiring, motivating, and admirable boss.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Linnda Durré, Ph.D., a psychotherapist, corporate consultant, national speaker, and columnist, currently hosts and produces her third radio show, “The Linnda Durré Show” on WEUS 810AM Orlando. She has hosted and co-produced two live call-in TV shows, including, “Ask the Family Therapist” on the Mayo Clinic-affiliated America’s Health Network, and has been interviewed on Oprah, 60 Minutes, The Today Show, Good Morning America, The O’Reilly Factor, and NPR, among others. She has been featured in publications including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Investors Business Daily, USA Today, Parade, and San Francisco Chronicle, and she has written for Forbes Online, American Cities Business Journals, and Orlando Business Journal.