Control freaks - people who can't let go

Attention to detail and a determination to do things properly are admirable traits. But for some, these virtues curdle into obsessive behaviour that stifles all self-expression in the workplace. Who are these people? Helen Kirwan-Taylor nails the control freaks.

by Helen Kirwan-Taylor
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

They dominate meetings. They insist on scrutinising everyone's work. They are the first in and the last out. Control freaks exist in every office and are capable of making everyone else's life a misery. The former CEO of IT supplier Cerner counted the number of cars in the parking lot at weekends; film director Ridley Scott called his cleaner from across the world to make sure she'd put out the rubbish. No-one needs a map to identify a control freak.

Exerting control over our environment is a fundamental human need, but in a certain portion of the population, the 'release' mechanism simply doesn't exist. 'Control freaks try and control every aspect of the environment,' says executive coach Jon Stokes of Stokes & Jolly in London. 'They obsesses. They try to assemble masses of information. They try and be on top of every situation and every detail.'

The difference, though, between the conscientious worker and the control freak is that the latter's behaviour extends beyond the work at hand and affects other people. Control freaks not only try to dominate the environment by putting order on what they perceive as chaos, but they also try to control how other people think and behave. They try and set the agenda in meetings, interrupt others, and get hostile when challenged. This is often combined with an acute sense of order and attention to detail.

Consequently, the control freak has a tendency to move up the career ladder quickly - whereupon the symptoms, if unchecked, only get worse. At one end of the spectrum, the control freak is a motivated and organised employee; at the other, an obsessional, temperamental bully who can't see the big picture and makes everyone else's life a fun-free zone.

'There are many kinds of control freak,' says industrial psychologist Bill Hester of DDI Consulting. 'In extreme cases, it presents itself with clinical symptoms and obsessive-compulsive behaviour, but really it's more of a behavioural problem and a natural progression of our working life. Often, someone is valued for what they can produce, but then they are put into leadership positions where they rely on other people to get things done, and this is when it comes to the fore. They just can't let go. Control freaks have high personal standards and often they have had bad experiences with people in the past. They have been let down, so they learn that to do anything well, they have to do it themselves, and soon it becomes a self-perpetuating circle.'

Unlike some disorders, this is one that many are loath to nip in the bud. Sometimes, it's considered a positive attribute and a key to success. Top entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Harvey Weinstein admit to it; in fact, there are those who argue that unless you are driven to be perfect and obsess over details, you cannot succeed in the modern world, where processing information is a prerequisite for advancement. Focus, attention to detail and high personal standards would seem a good thing to most people. 'Take a company like Pret-a-Manger' (run by well-known stickler for detail, Julian Metcalfe), says Stokes. 'It really matters that every sandwich is made just so.'

Says Dr Martin Scurr, a leading London GP with a successful practice, who admits to having many of the characteristics himself: 'If you hire a pilot to fly you to a destination, or you hire someone to look after your money, or you ask someone to operate on you, you really want them to be a control freak. Most successful men are controlling types. The question is: where is the watershed between high standards and pathological behaviour?'

Scurr became aware of his own controlling behaviour over the years. 'You begin to realise that something you were always proud of has become a problem,' he explains. In his case, it was the need to be on top of all details in his practice (he returns e-mails late on Saturday evenings). Although he longs for people to do things for him, he seems to do them all himself: 'I want my assistant desperately to make me a coffee, but I know I will make it better.'

The same perfectionist behaviour extended to the home front, where Scurr (now divorced) found he was reloading the dishwasher because, in his words, 'it had to be done properly'. His need to start every day with a 'clean slate' means he never lets go.

Control freaks, in other words, function to a high standard but few can bear to work with them. An ex-employee of a heritage charity says of his former boss: 'He would come to meetings with a notebook where he would systematically write down everything that was said. The meeting was always to his agenda and you never left until he was ready. There would be people who would try to get up and go and he would bark: "Sit down". When things didn't go his way, he flew into one of his famous tirades. He would fire people over the PA system. You would hear someone's name being called and told to clear up their desk.'

By their very nature, control freaks are saying: I don't trust you. You aren't good enough. Only I can do it properly. 'The control freak feels like Atlas carrying the burden of the world on his shoulders,' says Manfred Kets de Vries, professor of leadership at Insead in France. 'You see this behaviour often among entrepreneurs. They feel they can't trust anyone to do it as well as they do. They make everyone around them unhappy'.

Typical control-freak behaviour is to send e-mails just to get a response. 'They pester people. They nudge them, they irritate them,' says Kets de Vries.

Detail fanatics (who include Jobs, Bill Gates, Martha Stewart and Gordon Brown) can be very successful, but when the organisation grows, their behaviour can become destructive. 'When you run large organisations, you can't answer every e-mail and attend every meeting or you'd die,' says Kets de Vries. 'You can't influence everyone and watch everything. You have to take a big-picture view.'

The spectrum of control-freak behaviour goes from the all-out bully to the sly manipulative boss who changes the rules constantly so that no-one can ever anticipate the next move. A chef in a well-known London restaurant describes his former boss: 'He always moved the goalposts to make sure we never came up to scratch. It was very small things. He would ask us to cut the strawberries for the dessert crossways, not lengthways, then he would come back in and say he wanted it done the other way.' Everyone was permanently tense, and ultimately, the talented chefs left.

To manage a control freak, you must understand their motivations and fears. 'Underneath the behaviour is fear and anxiety,' says Stokes. 'The control freak thinks he is holding everything together and if he lets his side down, all will come crashing down.' But no-one can achieve control of people - it's an illusion. 'Only with threats, money and weapons can you truly control people, but that is temporary.'

The worst thing you can do to a control freak is challenge their authority. 'You have to figure out what is bugging them,' says Stokes. 'They live in a world of perceived threats, and only by making them feel safe can you win their trust. You have to ask them: "What can I do to help you achieve your goal?"'

A study conducted by the University of Bradford Management Centre found, not surprisingly, that 'absolutists, perfectionists and control freaks' were more prone to insomnia, heart palpitations, high blood pressure and chronic fatigue than their more relaxed counterparts. By their very nature, control freaks cannot be optimists. Seldom are they the life and soul of the party either.

The mindset, the researchers concluded, is hard to alter. 'Control freaks can't see their own behaviour,' says Stokes. 'They think they are doing everyone a huge favour.' It's not until the company is run to the ground, the employees leave or the wife walks out that the control freak realises it's time to change.

'If you are running a company of 720,000 people and you are a control freak, you can't survive,' says Kets de Vries. 'At the core is shame and fear and, really, the only way you can help them get better is to help them realise that they are no longer five years old.'

In other words, teach them that the world will not fall apart if they miss one meeting.

Are you a control freak? Answer these questions honestly (or get your PA to do it for you).

I trust others to get the work done on time and to a good standard
a) rarely
b) generally
c) always

I find other people have better ideas than me
a) rarely
b) sometimes
c) often

I normally find I am right
a) mostly
b) sometimes
c) it depends on your perspective

During the course of a meeting, do you
a) Take notes, because someone has to?
b) Take down the important points?
c) Assume someone else is paying attention?
At the end of the day are you more likely to
a) Stay until you have returned every e-mail before going home?
b) Make a list of relevant things to tackle tomorrow?
c) Start calling around your colleagues to see who wants to go out for a

When faced with a menu in a restaurant, do you
a) Think it is sensible to order for everyone to save time?
b) Ask everyone alse what they would like first and then order?
c) Wait until it's your turn to order?

Do you feel that if you were to take a holiday your business would
a) Fall apart because no-one knows how to do anything properly?
b) Suffer a bit, but not as much as it would were you not to have a
c) Allow others a chance to take charge and show what they can do?

When planning a trip, do you
a) Allow extra time for traffic and unexpected delays and bring a
briefcase full of work to occupy your time in case you arrive early?
b) Follow the airline's instructions?
c) Wait until the last minute, at which point you rush like mad?

When setting off on holiday, do you
a) Go through everyone's suitcase to make sure it is packed properly
before heading out?
b) Pack your suitcase and figure everyone else can do their own?
c) Pack when the taxi arrives?

If most or all of your answers were a), you have controlling issues and
should try to exercise some flexibility. Start by altering some of your
routine. If not taking notes in a meeting makes you nervous, it is an
indication of the problem.

If all or most of your answers were b), you are able to relinquish
control when necessary and are on the healthy side of being in control.
You are a team player.

If most of your answers were c), you are in danger of becoming an
out-of-control freak. There's a fine line between being easygoing and
being irresponsible. The latter behaviour, in fact, fuels the control
freak's anxiety.

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