Creative Leadership

Creative Alert: Obsessively Detailed People Will Kill You

Anal Retentive” – bear with me here, and just check the dictionary or Wikipedia. It’s a person who’s attention to detail becomes obsessive. Trust me, you’ll encounter these people sooner or later in your work. It’s the person who is a slave to policy. He’d rather the organization fail, than actually bend the rules. I’ve met hundreds of them, and they’re the people who speak up after you’ve produced a successful project to “remind” you that some incredibly minor detail wasn’t totally accurate.

In one TV station, I met a production manager who made his staff fill out three different forms just to pull a videotape reel off the shelf. In another organization, an anal retentive had created an administrative chart that looked like Dante’s trip through hell. Another one wanted detailed reports from everyone at the end of the week, so he could track every productive minute from every employee.

My advice? Ignore these people. They don’t get the big picture. To them, it’s more important to stick with the plan than actually be successful. They’d rather see the project or organization tank than deviate from the norm.

They aren’t bad people, but they’re trapped in limited thinking they can’t escape from.

If you want to change the world, then ignore them.  Please.

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  1. Is it being anal retentive or is it micromanaging or just control freak? I agree with Ferris Buller who said “its tolerance that allows people like me to put up with people like you”

    1. as Phil said:  ”
      they’re the people who speak up after you’ve produced a successful project to “remind” you that some incredibly minor detail wasn’t totally accurate”

  2. Sticking to a flawed plan at all costs. If nothing goes wrong, we must have done it right…right?

    Add to your list the teacher with a list of 47 inflexible classroom rules who laments students’ lack of creativity.

    I suspect this behavior boils down to fear, lack of trust, and a CYA mentality.

  3. An administrative chart that looked like Dante’s trip through hell? I think we have one of those where I work…

    I recall one particular occasion years ago when a corporate jobsworth was intrusively trying to ascertain how long the average promo/programme took to put together in my department. He simply couldn’t understand that every project was different and therefore the length of time to make them varied so wildly that an average figure was pointless.

    Because he consistently ignored my reassurances that everyone was working as hard as they could, I did what you advised here – I ignored him.

  4. Great post, Sir Phil.  However, your advice to “ignore these people” should be “look for another job”.  In my career, I’ve come to the realization that these people are loved by senior management, and often they actually are the senior management.  So ignore them at your own peril.  They will get you.  My advice? Find another job, then ignore them as much as you like in your final two weeks!

    1. Good point Joe – you can’t always ignore the boss.  So yes – there comes a time when you have to go to where you’re voice and creativity is heard, appreciated, and respected.

  5. Could not agree with you more, Dr. Phil. As a free-lancer, I am blessed to pick and choose which projects – and people – I choose to work with…and I can usually spot these analytes within the first few conversations. THEY are the ones who nit-pick my Independent Contractor’s agreement – even though it was developed by a top-notch infomercial attorney. They are the ones who question every other word in an NDA…and then change it to their heart’s content. I just finished a PBS pitch show in which the client actually asked me to write (and this is directly from their email): “write up how you would communicate the problem and the unique solution in the
    show in “consumer language” (1-2 pages);  what it is, why it is different and why you’ll get result; tagline or statement to repeat throughout the
    show (thread); theme for each segment.” I put my foot down and said no – that is not my creative process. I then went right to a complete half-hour script and their reaction – “over the moon” with happiness (again their words.) I truthfully think these people are trying to CYA every step of the way. My philosophy? “Life is too short to work with or for a–holes…so I don’t.” 

    1. Yes Colleen – I’ve discovered over the years that obsessively detailed types tip themselves off early on in the relationship.  Wanting to argue over minor points, dates, or other inconsequential issues is a good warning sign to move on to another project or client.

  6. You caught me on a rant kind of day! Where I work, corporate is obsessive, policy driven, and micromanagement is the name of the game. Limitation is what you are expected to work in; the box keeps getting smaller and the materials fewer, but you have to do bigger and better than what you’re doing, ha! ….. right!!! … and with no expanded budget! But that’s the policies the production dept. is currently expected to follow.  Even when I play by the rules of policy, I’m still questioned and sometimes threatened. They’d rather see failure than change. The rules of which I’m required to follow are ever changing and based on emotions. To ignore the “new” rules or any policies would put me in direct line of fire.
    My manager will give me the “speak up after you’ve produced a successful project to ‘remind’ you that some incredibly minor detail wasn’t totally accurate” from time to time, not because of rules, but because she’s in a bad mood in general. She works in the exact opposite of our corporate office – insubordinate of policies/rules (and limited thinking), which costs our shows consistently: bad lighting, bad camera shots, bad director, lazy crew/staff, incompetence, etc. Her personally revised “rules” have tanked our shows. Corporate policies and rules that should be followed are not. I’m working with two opposites sides of a coin which makes for a no win situation. The standing motto is, “You can’t beat city hall, so why try.”… and all are resigned to defeat. I’m frustrated beyond words. Many employees here just don’t care; they work in survival mode. I can’t seem to get out of this rigid stupid policy driven network vs. “make up your own production rules that kill”, along with the “I don’t care” attitude. But I still care about my work and the quality of the product. It’s “my baby” and I watch it all fall apart right in front of my eyes on global TV repeatedly, and can’t do anything about it! You’d think I could find another job, not! Thanks for the space to “let it RIP” Phil!

  7. In 2010 I retired from the Navy Military Sealift Command as a civilian mariner physician assistant (Medical Service Officer). Combine military and medicine and you have the very essence of nit picking BS. Thank God I had enough time in to retire before I imploded! My favorite quote is from Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said, “Foolish consistency is the hobgobblin of small minds.”

    To this day, the words, “We’ve always done it that way.” makes me see red.

  8. I agree that most of the specific examples you list are not worth the time and hassle of indulging them, but lumping all of that together as perfectionism/anal retentiveness is a bit of a hasty generalization. Although in many people these traits overlap, there is a difference between anal retentive/perfectionist/obsessive types and rigid types.

    Rigid adherence to rules or to protocol “as it’s always been done” is definitely a problem, and I agree with the comment that some people do this to micromanage, even to power trip. People should always allow wiggle room to develop better ways to tackle a problem.

    Anytime accuracy is in question though, no matter how minor, why shouldn’t that be addressed? Not that a project needs to be redone or that somebody should be reprimanded. Simple feedback, a heads up to keep an eye out for similar things in the future, etc.

  9. I have been in Japan for 25 years now, anal retentiveness is a working norm to expect from them, the false imagery most have over Japan’s creativity and high-tech society amazes me.
    They got where they are over sheer volume of work I guess, the militaristic top to bottom work pyramid, senior to junior sense of automatic respect ownership, oh Dr. Phil there are so many stressing facts of working in here one should write books about it.
    But, most do not believe this image of Japan because it does not match what you see from the outside, so bad luck to us stuck in this island.
    Anyway, ignoring them causes alienation, it is a homogeneous society and misbehaving is quickly attended, most looking for freedom buy themselves a nasty situation, so conforming to the rules is basically what we do.
    I understood that was indeed causing my own quality of life to be very poor so I also started working for myself 4 years ago, couldn’t be happier.

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