Some control freaks at work are complete narcissists, others cover up major insecurities. We can make lists of possible reasons that led someone to be a controlling adult – for example, genetics, they grew up with control freaks, they had no control when they were kids, their control when they were kids saved them, control assuages their terror of the unknown, control helps them succeed, they really are smarter and more competent than the rest of us, they want to feel like they’re smarter and more competent than the rest of us, or the feeling of righteousness is intoxicating. Of course even more reasons can be listed, but especially at work where our influence is small and temporary, our psychoanalysis of these abusive bullies rarely helps us change their behavior. In the workplace, we suffer from the symptoms of their behavior, not the causes.
The real question at work is not why they act the way they do, but how to stop them.
The obvious controllers harass us overtly; their arrogant, narcissistic, nit-picking personalities oppress us continually. Even if they don’t have power over us, they’ll be relentless. But at least we can recognize the source of our pain and we can focus on creating tactics that get them off our backs.
The most difficult control freaks to stop are the sneaky, manipulative, covert bullies. They use a style in which:
- They make what seem to be innocuous suggestions for our best interests.
- Their understated certainty is overwhelming.
- They always know better ways to do everything even if they suggest them quietly.
- They’re so enthusiastic that our hesitations are swept away.
- Their feelings are the center of attention and who can resist helping them.
- They subtly increase our self-doubt and decrease our confidence and self-esteem so we’ll take their direction.
- Their reasons, excuses and rules are quietly but firmly presented with better logic and more certainty than we can articulate. Our resistance seems petty, ludicrous and selfish.
In order to succeed at work, we need to take charge some of the time. Control freaks need to be in charge all the time over everything. They’d rather dominate than have relationships that bring out the greatest in everyone.
The reason I focus on the symptoms you need to deal with, instead of the psychological causes is that no presentation to the control-freak of why they use their controlling style/personality and no attempts to beg, bribe or assuage their fears ever changes their behavior. The beginning of all change for control freaks is when their controlling strategy no longer works.
No one strategy stops control freaks. The creation of a successful tactical plan depends on the people, the style of the controller, the situation and the power dynamics. But there are a few guidelines.
- Since control freaks want to take over everything, don’t ever give ground. You’re trying to convince them never to try to control you, but instead to go control other people.
- Don’t argue or debate what’s best. If you use their suggestions don’t ever acknowledge their guidance. If they know that you accepted their input, even if they made it in a suggestive way, that opening will encourage them to push your boundaries consistently and relentlessly. Go your own way and live with the consequences.
- Shine a light on their bullying tactics and the damage it causes to productivity and teamwork. Never focus on your feelings.
- Don’t get sucked into becoming their confident or therapist. Your narcissism in thinking that you can help them will be your downfall.
- Ignore your self-bullying; that little voice that doesn’t like you, that tells you that the control-freak might be right. If you don’t trust your own guts you’ll get sucked in, just like you would into a black hole.
Assume that you can’t therapeutize or rehabilitate them. You’re never going to change them. They’re bullying, control freaks. Get the coaching you need to get them away from you as fast as you can. You don’t need their direction. You’re simply trying to keep them from taking over team meetings and stifling input from other people.
Control freaks at home rarely change for any length of time. After their bullying is confronted, they may promise to do better, but their good behavior will last only for a while. They’ll revert or get sneakier about exerting their control. While you can bring continual pressure to bear on your boyfriend or girlfriend, husband or wife, parents or children, or friends, real change is in the bully’s hands. Change typically requires bullies to face the loss of what they value most. Do they value you and the children more, or will they cling to their personal style as their identity forever?