When a boss tries to control everything, it’s a sure way NOT to get the best work out of employees. And yet, so many bosses can’t stop themselves. Why is that? For me, it comes down to lack of two basic things: trust and vision.
People who need to be in control do it because they don’t trust other people. They can’t imagine that letting others take charge of the details can actually create a stronger workplace. Or that it can result in new methods the boss on his or her own might never have thought of. The greatest bosses know how to trust and delegate. But not the “Control Freak.”
Meet Olga’s control freak boss
When Olga took a job with a plastic surgeon, she thought she had found a pretty good place to work. He was successful, nice looking, and had a beautiful office. And he began confiding in her from the moment they met.
She felt pleased by the instant trust and rapport. Up until then, she’d been pretty unlucky in her work experiences. So this was a pleasant surprise. But she was so happy to find someone who seemed nice, she missed some important cues in the initial interview.
The initial interview
Rather than asking her questions, he kept her laughing with story after story of his previous secretaries. Oddly enough — he called it “bad luck” — they all seemed to be idiots. Or at least that’s what he called them in the interview.
Feeling honored by his “trust”, Olga got caught up in how well the interview seemed to be going. The doctor complimented her many times on her excellent skills and obvious intelligence. With all this positive attention, it was easy for Olga to miss the doctor’s basic message: everyone else was an idiot.
Her new boss tries to control everything
Olga began working for the man within a week. But the job was more than she expected. The doctor expected her to handle everything in his life, not just work-related things.
And he got upset if things weren’t done perfectly. Meaning exactly the way he would have done it. Not that he ever gave explicit instructions.
Rather than guiding her when things went wrong in his mind, he stored up his anger at her perpetual “incompetence.” And then, as she puts it “KERWHAM!” He let loose with blame galore. And enough curse words to make a sailor blush.
As if this weren’t enough, he would vanish for hours at a time, with his cell phone turned off. Meanwhile operating rooms, hospitals, and frightened post-op patients would be trying to find him. And Olga was expected to make all of this magically right, somehow.
He instructed her to book six patients per hour (a scheduling nightmare), and then he expected her to straighten out the mess when he gave more than a few patients thirty minutes of his time. Afterwards he was furious, blaming Olga when he wasn’t able to leave the office at 5:00 p.m. as he wanted.
You mean reading minds wasn’t in the job description?
Dealing with his impossible rules, his temper, and his personal needs wasn’t the whole of it, either. He expected her to know what he needed without explanation. And then he showed his resentment and disdain for her when she couldn’t be, do, or get what he wanted. All the while, Olga was expected to smile and say, “Yes sir.”
Clearly, her boss had control issues and unrealistically expected Olga to meet his every need. But blind subservience only irritates a control freak. So when Olga was doing her best to “yes sir” him, he was thinking “what an idiot” despite all she did for him.
But if she had tried to meet him eye to eye as an equal, that wouldn’t have worked either. Like an alpha dog being stared at, he would have felt the need to squash her threatening attempts at equality.
So what’s the answer?
In a case like this where a boss tries to control everything, you have to find a non-threatening way to show respect. And you need to convey the message that you are there to help make him look good. It’s about him and his needs after all. At least enough to keep him from going rabid.
You also need to handle your suggestions cleverly, and approach this type of boss as if you’re a junior partner, not a servant. He needs to understand you are there to make things easier and better for him. But you are not a doormat.
In Olga’s case, the doctor’s controlling personality meant that Olga needed to present her ideas for new office procedures and such as if the ideas were mostly the doctor’s own. Or at least inspired by him. This is no loss to Olga, since she isn’t getting credit for anything anyway. PLUS if it can improve her work day, she might as well go for it.
How to handle suggestions without raising his hackles
Suggestions for possible improvements could be made as if she were asking for his advice. Making sure she does her best to really mean what she is saying, her approach could be something like this:
“I know you’ve been unhappy about the way I’ve been doing the scheduling, so I came up with some ways to improve the situation that would make it easier for you. I need you to tell me which solution you like best. Here are the three possibilities …”
Hopefully, the doctor will choose one of the suggestions you present. But if he doesn’t like any of them, ask him how he might improve on your suggestions. Don’t let him leave until you come up with something that will make things better, even if it’s just a little better.
And if he starts his belittling behavior, remember to be positive in your attitude. Do your best to convey a sense of “we can make this better together.” And really believe it as best you can!
Carrying the changes forward
Whatever he chooses, make sure you reinforce the changes by pointing out that it’s working and thanking him for his help. Always give him the credit where possible. When dealing with a personality like this, remember it’s never going to be about you. It will always be about him.
If you learn to do this well, he’ll gradually begin to trust you. Especially when he realizes you exist to make him look better — a goal you should make sure he knows you have.
Eventually he will even look at his cell phone when he’s somewhere else to help you keep him in check. (A form of managing up, best practiced gently and consistently, similar to training a dog.)
The warning you can take with you from Olga’s story
But if you’re already in the job, this is one of those cases where leaving may be your best choice after all. Although it’s worth at least trying to reshape the situation to your advantage. Some of Olga’s methods may help you.
Still, you should try your best to recognize this type of boss BEFORE you take the job. If you meet someone who can only tell you about idiots and people who failed him in the past — or if everything is about him — run, don’t walk, to the nearest exit.
Even things like the way they sit in the interview — towering over you with implied distance or leaning toward you in a welcoming way. Or if there’s real eye contact and clear communication. And whether or not they leave enough space for you to talk about yourself. These clues can all offer signs to help you spot a control freak boss before saying “yes”.
And please don’t take the job thinking you are the one who can save the day. In most cases when a boss tries to control everything, you can’t. The effort required to help make the situation tolerable is way too great. As is the chance that he or she is simply nuts. And you’re not going to solve that!
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