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Coping with a toxic boss: “CARL THE CONTROL FREAK”

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. 
 
THE SITUATION:
 
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.

Coping with a toxic boss: “CARL THE CONTROL FREAK”
1 vote, 5.00 avg. rating (98% score)
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  • Amy

    I work for a “Carl” (which is how I will refer to him), and it’s sheer hell. Our Carl is so OCD, we have surveillance cameras (many with sound) everywhere, and he’s constantly watching them like a security guard, instead of being somewhere other than his office. And he treats everyone like a peon – absolutely no people skills to speak of, and his conduct borders on (and often crosses into) the unethical. He is so concerned about his bottom line, he has gone in and adjusted employees’ time punches without their knowledge – he is now in hot water with the labour department. We have no HR to go to, and the other boss got fed up with Carl and walked out. Needless to say, I’m exploring my options as well – as are many colleagues of mine.

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  • D

    I am so glad I found this tonight. I work for a very small company-there is no HR. I have been here for over 5 years. I knew something wasn’t right compared to other places I have worked-the first month of employment here. Being absolutely desperate to maintain a paycheck- I stayed on and believed If I was strong enough I could weather the storms and possibly affect change. The opposite has happened. Not only has my paycheck diminished year to year-for the first time in a 25 year career history, (My employment is customer/commission driven) I am even more financially behind than ever. Just finding the description of toxic behavior has given me great hope. I now know what to say to make my claim-and stop getting engaged in the other person’s negative behavior. The person I am dealing with isn’t even the boss or company owner. The owner seems to let this person (the one who handles the desk and customer scheduling) run free reign on what happens with first line customer contact. That’s allready illegal when you receive a 1099. I know I have been verbally attacked to my face, behind my back and to customers. I HAVE A PROVEN CREDIBLE TRACK RECORD THE 20 YEARS BEFORE I WORKED HERE. I know the time I have been employed here that said front desk person finds a person of the month to railroad, attack, accuse and diminish by also creating false and exaggerated claims of failure upon that employee. I know that some of the other employees have been subjected to, witnessed and been imtimidated by this person’s behavior. THIS PERSON IS NOT THE OWNER OR EVEN THE LEASEHOLDER OR IN ANY WAY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE MAINTAINENCE COSTS OF SAID ESTABLISHMENT. Thank you for doing what you have done with your career. I know now I have the skills and mindset to handle this better-simply so I can bide my time before I leave, or, pursue a lawsuit if I am terminated-simply because I called this person to the carpet about her behavior and how it affects the bottom line! For the first time in over 5 years, I finally feel peace. I knew I was not wrong in my beliefs or my hopes. Thank you

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  • texcee

    Re “Carl the Controller”. OMG — you just described my ex-boss to a “T”. He was the managing partner of a very small law firm, but instead of practicing law, he spent nearly all his time monitoring the computer network to see what his employees were working on. God help you if he caught you using the internet, even for business purposes. He dictated what you could have on your desk — no plants, no family photos, no calendars, etc. The desks were situated in such a way that he could walk behind you and see what was on your computer screen. You weren’t allowed to speak to your neighbors in the office because it meant you weren’t working. It was a sweat shop! He would yell at people in front of the whole office, and would fire people arbitrarily because he could. The whole office lived in fear of him. To add insult to injury, I was required to type up his Sunday school lessons, which he taught at a fundamentalist megachurch and which were invariably fire and brimstone, as he interpreted the Law of God. Finally, after he charged out of his office at just before 5:00 on a Friday, and screamed at me in front of everyone because I wasn’t working, I had had enough and I walked out. This guy was a Nut Job Deluxe! It’s been a year and a half and I’m still traumatized!

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  • Carl

    Maybe Carl is a little disturbed for having his personal life made public against his will at a time when he was sick….kind of like celebrities have to deal with….er except they willfully sign up for that. If his condition ever lands him in a behavioral hospital, one ‘no brainer’ course of action would be to agitate him with voyeuristic monitoring until he reacts with rage against ‘violating his rights’…whatever that means…and then put it on youtube for a good laugh. Or is that something that’s not a good thing to do …I keep forgetting. Good thing we have behavioral experts selling us books to clear it up.

  • Heath James, Sr.

    I can tell you’ve never actually had to deal with any of the problems you mention here. 90% of employees would magically find themselves out of work or severely harrassed if they went to HR with even a hint of one of the problems you describe. You really think you can give advice because you’re smart and really tried to think this through? People’s lives are on the line and here you are giving advice and playing games with real people. These situations are real. They are happening everyday. Your solutions are a joke. They all end with “…and if that doesn’t work, go tell HR.” Are you kidding me? HR exists for only one reason; to limit corporate’s liability and as soon as an employee comes to HR with a complex “people” problem, HR is going to find a way to remove the person on the lowest rung of the ladder. They’re not going to perform some fair and concise investigation whereby there may be a snowball’s chance in hell of making an impartial determination against a supervisor. Hell, even if they did, they would probably keep the investigation AND ITS RESULTS secret which would just open the poor employee up for some unforeseeable retaliation. The employee would probably be so befuddled that he would get himself fired on the grounds of his own crazy behavior as a result of the shitstorm all this would cause. You need to smarten up and quit giving advice unless you actually know what you are talking about.

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  • SuzyQPublic

    I am an attorney, and my boss (also an attorney) has OCDP, It only falls on me and his paralegal, however. No one else suffers from it, and our coworkers think he’s a great guy. I appreciate that he hired me, although I found out later he does not respect female attorneys. I am the only person besides the paralegal who he has not fired. He is very bright — his Father was also a very prominent attorney, and I have learned so much from him but he doesn’t get that I have 5 years to his 40 years. I am a great attorney, smart, but nothing is ever good enough for him. I thought it was just me until I realized he cuts everyone apart. (in private of course because is persona is great guy). He is such a perfectionist that it takes him forever to get something out. I am so happy when he is traveling and away. He may retire in two years, and I can’t wait. I am smart, decisive and easy to work with, but he makes me question my every move for fear of that look and those nasty comments. He does have a good marriage, but she is 10 years younger and does not work, so he runs the show. I guess I can blame my crappy boss on his paents?

  • SuzyQPublic

    Wow, sounds like two other lawyers I have worked for. What’s their problem?