One of my bosses, Janet, was clever, hardworking and had an amazing eye for detail. She had high standards: if you e-mailed with a question at 10 p.m., she replied by 10.05. She worked hard, delivered on time, hated mistakes and expected the same from her team.
She was driving us mad. We had been working on the project for weeks and every Tuesday morning we would sit for hours as she ground through endless detail. For every insight from her years of experience, there were a dozen trivialities. On a presentation she would change the fonts on the bullets and complain if the angle of the staple was wrong – (top right, horizontal, equal distance from both margins). Janet knew best: at two hours you felt patronised and inadequate, after three your life force had drained away never to return. You’ve guessed it; she was a bona fide, micromanaging, control freak.
Don’t be surprised that control freaks, such as micromanagers, get promoted. At first sight a workaholic, detail obsessive can look like a high performer. Rewarding pathological behaviour is always a bad decision. They will sacrifice themselves and their health through excessive hours and stress as they rush from issue to issue, creating bottlenecks for their department. The worst thing an organisation can do is to appoint them to a leadership position where they will suck dry team morale and destroy productivity.
A compulsive need to control is usually a way of binding anxiety and of coping with a deep inner fear of falling apart. There is often a chaotic childhood and they will seek to achieve increasingly senior positions and higher levels of control to counter their feelings of inadequacy. Some will fanatically count carbs, be clean freaks or seem obsessed with details, rules and lists. Micromanaging as a leader never works beyond the very short term. Control of complex environments is an illusion and stifling others ends in conflict and the chaos they dread. Divorce, breakdown and a drinking problem often appear in the final act.
If you work for one try these approaches to hold on to your sanity and self-respect.
• You can’t control a controller. Battling with them will not work and you will not change deeply ingrained behaviours through confrontation. You are likely to increase their level of anxiety and need for control.
• Don’t be defined by their judgement of you. Their view that no one has their standards or can do a job as well as them is clearly delusional.
• Help manage their anxiety. Identify the triggers to their high levels of anxiety. It might be missing deadlines, not knowing what is going on or disappointing their boss. Adopt approaches which give them confidence that you will help support them, make them look good and have the detail they crave.
• Never be a victim. Being passive will only encourage the behaviour and reinforce their view that they know best. Be adult and assertive in your approach with a confident ‘don’t worry I will make it happen!’
• Coach them. Work at winning their trust through being the person who understands them and gets things done. Discuss with them about how they like to be managed. You can guarantee that they hate to be controlled and an understanding that you feel the same can help to take the relationship forward.
• Is it just you? Be sure that they are really a controller. If they are only doing it with you they are not a micromanager. They may perceive your performance as poor and you need to ask them to give you honest feedback.