Updated: Dec 2, 2021
With this post, I'm going to kick off a series that examines some behaviors that in my experience are common in the workplace. I worked for decades in IT and I believe control freaks are more common in this industry. Even if you don't work in IT, this article will help you understand control freaks better which will give you more knowledge and power to deal with them. I will talk about the behaviors of control freaks from the perspective of various psychological models. I will also provide strategies for dealing with each behavior.
What does a control freak look like?
First, we will examine the "control freak." What behaviors does the "control freak" exhibit? They need to be included in every discussion. They want to be CC'd on every email. If they miss work, which they rarely will, they will tend to be extra controlling when they return because they will feel like their grip on things has slipped. They will interrupt others if they are threatened by what they are hearing. They will try to use a critical laser to point out the tiniest of flaws in anything suggested by someone who is even remotely threatening to them. They will do this even though no one is even remotely as critical to the suggestions they make. They will make subtle or overt comments to make others feel they aren't as capable. This serves two purposes, first he is sending messages to others that he, the control freak, is in charge, and two, he is pacifying his own insecure ego. This behavior can vary from slight to outright bullying depending upon the severity of the ego insecurity and the sophistication of the "control freak."
Now we know some of the behaviors we can use to identify a control freak, but why are they this way? Insecurity is one reason. John Bowlby studied what is known in psychology as attachment. Attachment describes how we bond with our parents and others. One reason the control freak may behave as they do is if he didn't securely attach as a child. If a child didn't form secure bonds with the mother, or mother figure, the child may not know how to form healthy attachments with others. As a result, the control freak might not know how to form healthy relationships with others. In the end, they feel like they can only depend upon themselves. The mind of the control freak might be saying, "I can't depend upon others, so I must take charge so that their neglect doesn't hurt me."
The Big Five
Can there exist control freaks who are securely attached? Certainly. We can look at another model of psychology to describe why a control freak is the way they are that doesn't involve looking at childhood experiences with a mother figure. One model of personality is called The Big Five. This model considers most of people's personality of consisting of five factors. The Big Five Personality Traits can be remembered as OCEAN. Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Within this model, perfectionism is extreme conscientiousness combined with neuroticism. The control freak, to satisfy the ideal self-image they maintain, must exactingly control their environment.
Agreeableness may also be problematic with people we perceive as being control freaks. Agreeableness is composed of six facets, one of which is trust. If someone has low levels of trust in others, they may see others on their team as incompetent. As a result, the control freak believes they are the only person who can do it and do it right. They will look at everything through the lens of their competence and others' incompetence. It will be tough to convince a control freak that the effort can survive without them. They likely perceive the situation as requiring their constant presence to prevent everything from falling apart.
Another facet of agreeableness is cooperation. Someone with low levels of cooperation will not like working with others. Combined with low levels of trust, low levels of cooperation will imply the presence of the stereotypical ivory-tower developer. They want to wall themselves up in their tower where it’s just them and their thoughts. They will emerge from time to time to grace everyone with their accomplishments.
But why do some people have grandiose images of themselves where others don't? A wounded grandiose self-image is a symptom of what Freud and other psychologists call a narcissistic wound. A narcissistic wound or wounds suffered earlier in life can be so deep, that the person experiencing them no longer has a healthy ego strength. Without their constant cultivation of perfection, they feel they are just the broken little boy or girl that was injured so long ago. This is certainly a reason to feel compassion for them, even if working with them is incredibly painful. We all have some narcissistic wounds to some extent, the control freak just likely has more, or deeper ones than most, or they are particularly susceptible to them.
There's also another psychological model that wouldn't necessarily see the control freak of a victim of childhood wounds, or genetically predisposed to hyper-conscientiousness combined with neuroticism. From a developmental model, the control freak may have been overly indulged. Child psychologists recognize that when a child is shown preference over his siblings and has every wish and desire catered to, parents can create little God-emperors. Over time, this treatment is internalized. The little God-emperor will grow into an adult and feel entitled to anything they want. Some of you are likely imagining someone familiar who fits this description.
Dealing with control freaks
How does one deal with a control freak? In psychotherapy, we challenge the irrational thoughts they have. The irony of the perfectionist is that their way of thinking isn't perfect at all. They suffer from cognitive distortions, usually around black-and-white thinking. If something isn't perfect then it is horrible. There is no in-between with them. This all-or-nothing thinking can sabotage every aspect of the control freak's life. For example, the control freak may tire of tending to every detail. In this state of exhaustion, they may start acting like a martyr, or complaining that others aren't doing as much as them. This will be their perspective even though when others try to help they are either heavily criticized, or pushed away for fear that their influence will wrest some control away. Others can't win with the control freak because too much contribution is seen as threatening, but then eventually the control freak tires from tending to everything. No one will be able to find the just right balance of what the control freak determines is help and what they determine is overreach.
But co-workers aren't therapists and can't typically find it inappropriate, or too risky to directly confront the perfectionist with their behavior. However, subtly pointing out other alternatives can have some impact. For example, often times if I suggest an idea when a control freak is around, they will start attacking the idea from the fringes, giving reasons why is won't work. Many times, these are very extreme examples or rare events. So I might start by saying something like, "That is a very valid point." This validates the person with the narcissistic wound. I might follow-up by saying, "I wonder though if that isn't a very unlikely occurrence. I might get hit by a car walking to get coffee, but I wouldn't let that keep me from doing so because the odds are so low. It doesn't mean I shouldn't stay aware of that possibility though." This is an attempt to iron out the cognitive distortion that the perfectionist is communicating. He is saying, "There is a tiny risk in your proposal so it has no value at all." I respond with something along the lines of, "Yes, no situation is perfect, yet we keep on living and doing things we need to do to live a satisfactory life." They might resist this, they might not, but it's one way to attempt to take some of the air out of what they are saying which is that anything less than perfect is unacceptable.
The main thing to remember is that the control freak is wounded. Any reaction or attempt to handle the situation by saying or doing anything that causes even the slightest bit more harm, will only further disturb the hurt little boy or girl inside. That being said, it's not your job to take care of the control freak's psychic wounds. Take care of yourself by not engaging them on their controlling level of functioning. Steer clear of them as much as possible. If you need to engage them, use kid gloves and be gentle with them. If you validate them, but also make your points clearly and firmly, you might be able to get through to them.
Many times, if you are wounded also, dealing with another wounded person can prove very difficult. If both people are rubbing up against each other where they are raw, the outcome isn't going to be great. This is why it's very important to learn and discover more about oneself by doing one's own reflection and insight building. Understanding others' personalities and behaviors does little good if one doesn't know anything about one's inner world and why one behaves the way they do. Keep this in mind before judging others or feeling like you have one up on them. Others are able to see through you as well, so if you don't know what they are seeing, then your position is tenuous.