How to Work with Control Freaks

Why are some people obsessed with control? Why do they insist that everything be done their way even when your way works just as well -- or even better? You know them: They're the fear-driven colleagues who question and complain unless every task is done as they would do it, bosses who think they never have enough information to make a final decision, or bean counters who delay important orders because they're checking boxes over and over again. Here's why they are like they are, and three steps for dealing with control freaks.

Control freaks see themselves as burdened with the task of protecting an ungrateful world from mistakes. They are seldom aware of the fear that drives their behavior.

Imagine a dog inside an electric fence. After he touches it once or twice, you can turn off the power because he won't go near it again. That is how control freaks handle the possibility of mistakes. They try to keep a safe distance by obsessing about every detail lest even the tiniest of errors take them by surprise.

Of course, this strategy can be self-defeating. While it's good to avoid mistakes, people who take chances are the ones who succeed. Remember, Babe Ruth held the all-time record for strikeouts as well as for home runs. Thomas Edison, inventor of the electric light and the phonograph, patented 1,091 inventions, most of which no one ever found useful.

So what do you do if you have to work for a control freak? Getting mad and accusing him or her of being a control freak will only make the situation worse. She will see your behavior as evidence that you're not interested in doing things the "right" way.

The answer to working with control freaks lies in negotiation, not recrimination. A little reassurance that you take your tasks seriously won't hurt either. Remember that fear is the driving force behind their persistent meddling. Try these tips for controlling your control freak.

Tip 1: Every task has a goal, whether it's a report, a decision or a sale, and a process, the actual behaviors through which the goal is achieved. Negotiate to deliver a very specific product at a very specific time. Always try to set goals that can be measured. Send updates on your progress to forestall surprise checkups, but do not send a partially finished version of your project unless you want to reopen the negotiations.

Tip 2: Treat attempts to control the process as requests to change the end product, which any business person would have to agree reopens the whole negotiation. If the end product is not affected, why change the process? Keep thorough notes and bring them out when the person wants to meddle with the project. Ask whether the characteristics of the project's final goal are different now. If your manager says they aren't, respectfully ask why, if the goal is the same, the process to achieve it should be changed. This logic is difficult for anyone to refute, even a control freak. This strategy works best when you have some history of delivering the goods on time and in a satisfactory manner.

Tip 3: Hand over the deliverables on time, and stand firm on the point that you have met the deadline and your product conforms to all stated specifications. If you do what you say, when you say you'll do it, the control freak might go away and bother somebody less reliable.

Wondering whether you might be a control freak? Here's a surefire test. If, once every day, you can't publicly acknowledge that somebody else's way of doing something important was better than yours, start looking for that invisible electric fence around your mind.

Get more advice on dealing with the difficult person in your office!

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