Alice’s mother, Helen, was a critical perfectionist.  Nothing was ever good enough; nothing was done right; nobody could please her, no matter how hard they tried.  She’d been that way as long as Alice could remember and Alice had lived in fear of her mother’s attacks at least as long. There had been hundreds of incidents before, but the one that finally pushed Alice over the line was at Helen’s retirement from work when she was seventy.  Helen said she didn’t want a party.  Alice argued; seventy and retiring were big events, Helen deserved a big celebration, the family wanted to get together.  But Helen was adamant, so Alice gave in and made no plans.

The night before her retirement, Helen called Alice and asked when the big party was; she’d been given no details and Alice was a lousy daughter for not planning a party exactly the way Helen wanted.

Alice was stunned but managed to get her brain working.  Hurriedly she picked the following Saturday for the event.  Alice asked Helen who she wanted invited and what she wanted at the party.  Helen said that anything would do, she wasn’t picky.

Alice ignored a nagging feeling that she was being set up as usual.  She did her best.  She invited all the family and a few friends Helen had from work.  She organized a potluck.  On the big night, there was plenty of food and everybody seemed to have a good time.

The next morning her mother called Alice and started abusing her.  Nothing had been right at her party.  She’d invited all the wrong people, had all the wrong food, the party was too small and there was not enough praise for Helen’s long years of hard work.  Helen was mortified that Alice was such an incompetent and miserable hostess, and an uncaring, unloving daughter.

Because Alice had sought coaching previously, she was prepared.  Something in her snapped.  After all these years of submitting to her mother’s abuse, Alice had had enough.

She said she had a new rule when facing a bullying control-freak: just say “No.” No more hiding things and pretending; Helen was mean, nasty and no fun.  No more looking the other way; no more colluding or enabling Helen’s behavior.  No more planning for Helen.  If Helen wanted to see her, she’d have to stop that behavior immediately.  If she needed therapy, she should go get it.

Before Helen could interrupt, Alice went on.  She was not going to open herself to the usual abuse Helen heaped on her every year so her mother wasn’t invited to have Christmas with them.  Alice and her family were gong to relax and enjoy the holidays without any complaining, sarcasm or put-downs.  Then she said good-bye.

Alice immediately called everyone in the family and told them what she’d told her mother.  Of course, they knew how Helen had always been.  Now that a heroine had stepped forward, a few who had always submitted and endured Helen’s past behavior were willing to support Alice by agreeing with her in public and even telling Helen what they thought of her behavior.

With her own children and their families, Alice also insisted on a new family rule: When someone tries to do something nice for you, just say “Thank you.”

Of course, Alice was soon smitten with guilt and self-bullying.  She thought she’d gone too far and she really was ungrateful and unloving.  She’d expected those thoughts and had planned not to act on them.  She took a cold shower instead.  And she stuck to her plan.

It was scary for her to stand up for her own standards; to act in public like the person she wanted to be.  But she kept herself on track by remembering she was setting a good example for her children and their spouses.  Later, she was kept on track by the pleasure she felt when her children and some of her extended family started saying “thank you” instead of complaining.

Critical perfectionists come in all sizes and shapes, create hundreds of different situations and attack in many overt and covert ways.  Since all tactics depend on the situation, expert coaching by phone or Skype helps.  We can design a plan that fits you and your situation.  And build your will and skill to carry it out effectively.

Suppose your employees are grumbling about one of your senior managers, the director of a key department – he’s much too harsh and turnover is high.  What should you do? One option, the easy way out, is to ignore it.  This option may be especially appealing if productivity is decent, despite the grumbling.

To read the rest of this article from the Business First of Louisville, see: What to do when complaints are about a senior manager

But suppose you look deeper and the evidence is clear:  Your senior manager is a critical perfectionist.  He micro-manages with sarcastic criticism and put-downs, browbeats staff relentlessly, never gives compliments and hogs the credit and shovels the blame.  He harasses, bullies and abuses his staff.  Even long-term stars want out and productivity is merely OK.  Unhappiness has spread to other departments that have interacted with him.

You can still find easy explanations to avoid getting involved: You have other worries, there are no red flags on balance sheets, he treats you OK and he hasn’t thrown anything, hit anyone or blown up in public.  Employees always complain about hard-driving leaders and why open a can of worms?

Leaders who still gloss over these situations are merely conflict-avoidant.  They’ll ensure years of hard feelings, declining performance, scorn behind their backs and, eventually, increased costs to clean out a bigger cesspool.  Or maybe they think they’ll be long gone before it backs up to their door.

Another option is often chosen by leaders who think, “We’re all good people here. If we got together we’d agree on an effective compromise.”  They hope the politically correct approach of facilitated negotiation will manufacture a solution that works for everyone.

But in this situation that’s just a band-aid.  It won’t lead to long-term, productive change because the problem is a brutal manager, not a lack of understanding and acceptance of different styles within a reasonable range.

At this point, there’s little incentive for the senior manager to make consistent, lasting change.  During negotiations a lot of talk will happen, fingers will get pointed, people will get argumentative and defensive, hopes will get raised and dashed, and people will become even more polarized, antagonistic and litigious.  You’ve simply delayed a real solution and upped the pain and cost.

I recommend a third option: To give the problem manager a chance to turn things around and mend fences, give him an ultimatum - “change or else” - backed by short timelines, close monitoring, effective support for the changes you want him to make and repeated praise from you for any progress.

Get a coach-advisor the manager can respect, accept and trust.  He will need to learn a new managing style and new communication skills.  Expect stepwise progress as he learns whether his new approach can keep productivity, quality and kudos high.  Help him maintain leadership credibility by requiring training for the whole department hand having him participate.

How do you know when to quit dodging your responsibility and to use the third option? A truthful and global costing out is crucial.  See original article for details.

Take into account the effects of his behavior on:

  • Productivity.
  • Time spent by HR, staff and supervisors in all departments talking about incidents and dealing with complaints and hurt feelings.
  • Effects on inter-departmental interactions.
  • Transfer and turnover of good employees, especially outstanding young people who would be the next generation of leaders.
  • Monetary and emotional costs of facilitated negotiations that fail.
  • Costs for litigation, lawyers and buying silence from many employees.
  • Lost respect for you and lost passion for your mission and goals, which will infect the organization.

You may have heard the expression, “People don’t leave organizations; they leave bad supervisors.”  That’s much too simplistic.

Once you have competitive benefits, great people leave bad environments – including poor supervisors, peers and coworkers, and systems that thwart accomplishment.  The most effective way of keeping the best employees and managers is setting high standards and standing up for them.

Remember, your leadership is on trial also.

Often, individuals need coaching and organizations need consulting to help them design and implement a plan that fits the situation.  To get the help you need, call Ben at 1-877-828-5543.

Are you a nitpicking perfectionist?  You might not think so, but what does your staff think?  If so, it’s time for change.  Because for all their good intentions, control freaks generally do more harm than good. To read the rest of this article from the Business Journal of Portland, see: Nitpicking control-freak bosses always lose their best employees

Of course you want to make sure things are just right, especially on documents that might have legal consequences or if they’ll be seen by big customers or big bosses.  But what are the consequences of going too far?

For control freaks, there is no “too far.” They nitpick every document and e-mail.  They red-pencil every word and choice of layout, font style and size.  They’ll even correct their own changes if you feed them back a second time.  They think no one is quite as good at anything as they are.

You know the type: The boss who plans the details of every small event, spends an afternoon directing exactly where to place balloons or strings of lights, designs the organization’s web site, takes a day to oversee re-painting stripes in the parking lot or argues directly with vendors about minor details.

They used to be called “seagull bosses” because they flew in sporadically, squawked a lot, left a mess and flew off to squawk about something else.

A steady diet of bullying and correcting staff – especially in minor details or matters of taste and style – means that control freak bosses don’t have time to do their real jobs.

Inevitably, staff motivation, morale and productivity suffer.  Nitpicking perfectionists gloat while using sarcasm, put-downs, negativity and yelling.  Even staff not directly involved are affected by the waves of discontent and ridicule that spread to every part of the organization.

The most creative and responsible staff will leave.  Those who stay are willing to endure more micromanagement because they think it ensures they won’t get blamed for mistakes.

How do you recognize if you’re a control freak?

Most nitpickers get the wake up call the hard way: Someone tells them the harsh truth.  It could be a big boss, letting you know that you’re wasting your time nitpicking and you’d better deliver on your real tasks.  It could be a colleague or supervisee telling you why you’re overworked, why people laugh behind your back or why your best people are leaving.

The key to stopping compulsive nitpicking is hiring and training people who are at least as good as you are and then giving them their appropriate turf.  But of course, controlling bullies usually lack the guts to have good people around them.

How can you deal with a control freak boss?  Don’t take the attacks personally.  It’s not about you; it’s simply how they operate. Some choices are: