Creative LeadershipEngaging Culture

Dealing With Control Freaks – Is There Help?

Matt Villano, writing in The New York Times has created a very insightful article on dealing with control freaks. In my experience, one of the greatest challenges facing the leadership of churches and ministries is the control freak. It presents itself in different ways – sometimes a dictator, sometimes a micro-manager, and sometimes a detail freak – but almost always, it’s someone who can’t delegate, doesn’t trust employees, and wants to approve everything. The result is an atmosphere that suffocates vision, stifles motivation, and blocks real progress. Maybe Villano’s article will give you some ideas and suggestions that will help in your daily struggles with the control freak in your office:

The Control Freak in the Corner Office

Q. You’ve just gotten a new boss, and he’s constantly meddling in your work. How can you manage a micromanager?

A. Patiently. “You’re not going to change a micromanager’s habits overnight,” said Marilyn Puder-York, an independent executive coach in New York and the author of “The Office Survival Guide: Surefire Techniques for Dealing With Challenging People and Situations” ( McGraw-Hill, 2005). “Remember that reversing this kind of behavior takes time.”

Q. What’s the difference between hands-on leadership and micromanaging?

A. Constructive leadership techniques such as participation, collaboration and oversight become micromanagement when they interfere with performance quality and efficiency. Gayle Lantz, president of WorkMatters, an organizational development consulting firm in Birmingham, Ala., says bosses are too controlling when they “lose sight of the big picture.”

Johanna Kirk, interim associate director of marketing at the University of Idaho in Moscow, said she had to cope with a micromanager several years ago, when she was working for an anesthesia billing firm. She said her boss cleaned out employees’ desks when she felt that they were too messy and deleted e-mail messages from employees’ computers when she thought that workers didn’t need the notes anymore.

“She treated me like I didn’t finish high school,” said Ms. Kirk, who has a college degree. “I’m not sure it is possible to express the frustration with this type of leader.”

Q. How often do employees see their bosses as interlopers?

A. Quite often, according to some surveys. In 2004, Harry E. Chambers, president of Trinity Solutions, an executive training and consulting firm in Peachtree City, Ga., commissioned an independent survey on workplace relationships. He found that 79 percent of 200 respondents said they had been micromanaged at one time or another.

A year earlier, in a study by FranklinCovey, an office products manufacturer in Salt Lake City, 9 percent of nearly 11,000 people who responded to a survey singled out micromanagement as the most significant barrier to productivity they faced.

“To say micromanagement is rampant would be an understatement,” said Mr. Chambers, author of “My Way or the Highway: The Micromanagement Survival Guide,” (Berrett-Koehler, 2004). “Even in the best and most positive work environments, you’ll always find managers who lead this way.”

Q. Why do they do it?

A. Bosses may micromanage for a variety of reasons. Some don’t know any better, especially if they’ve been promoted into managerial posts without proper leadership training. Others meddle because their supervisors have told them to — a situation that often arises when a company faces financial hardships or some sort of audit.

Some bosses grapple with psychological issues: fear of failure or inability to trust subordinates. Leslie Furlow, president of AchieveMentors, a leadership development company in Cleburne, Tex., said such people compensated for insecurities by overmanaging workers. “I don’t think people get up in the morning and say they’re going to micromanage their people,” she said. “They are just afraid that if they let an employee loose, the employee is going to embarrass the manager in some form.”

Q. Is it wise to air your frustrations about the boss’s stifling style?

A. Speak up if you’re feeling suffocated, but do it in a positive and respectful way. Ask the boss what he expects of you and how he thinks you’re doing. Reassure him that you can meet his objectives and that you can do so without constant supervision.

Dan Stockdale, president of Adventures in Leadership, a consulting company in Knoxville, Tenn., recommended that employees center the conversation on career development. “Couch the talk in terms of how you can do your job better, not how the boss can be a better boss,” Mr. Stockdale said. “An accusatory tone will get you nowhere.”

Sometimes it’s acceptable to ask the boss to explain his management style. Gregg Stocker, director of quality and performance improvement at ICO Polymers, a plastic manufacturer in Houston, did just that when he worked for a boss in the 1990’s who demanded daily reports and a variety of other updates. Mr. Stocker did not like the setup and asked his boss to explain it. When the boss said he forwarded the material to his own superiors as proof of performance, the routine seemed more palatable.

“It was reassuring that the information wasn’t just disappearing into a vacuum,” Mr. Stocker said recently. He went on to work at the company for eight years.

Q. How much managerial meddling should you accept?

A. Some short-term annoyance may be necessary to achieve independence later. Ms. Lantz, the consultant in Birmingham, suggested that you try to anticipate what information your boss requires and provide it before he has a chance to request it. You may want to work with your boss to establish a schedule with regular checkpoints that eliminate the need for oversight.

“When you provide the boss with what he wants, you’re taking away the fear that drives the micromanagement in the first place,” Ms. Lantz said. “Without those fears, the boss should demand less over time.”

Of course, if the demands don’t subside, you might request an internal transfer or seek another job. This kind of drastic change can be unsettling but ultimately liberating; your career choices are one thing that a micromanager can’t control.


photo credit: Josh Juggling via photopin (license)


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  1. “To be working with us, one has to understand what it’s like to work with visionaries” is a classic statement heard from Christian networks and churches across the globe. It’s unfortunate that a top-down hierarchy rules in most networks, when there are so many creatives out there who can truly make faith-based media more relevant and powerful. Great post, thanks.

  2. I have worked under a micromanaging control freak for many years. I've read online advice galore, but none of it applies or helps in this case. I can't discuss my personal development with my boss (as the article above recommends), because she doesn't want me to develop—part of her control shtick is to keep me in my place, "gatekeep" all information and access, stifle me both creatively and professionally…well, you get the idea. You cannot change someone like this, because the insecurities run too deep. She needs professional help, and I'm not a shrink. I am desperate to get out from under her control, but our local job market is not that great for my profession. Guess I'll just keep trying. 🙂  

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