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Strategies for working harmoniously with a boss who’s a control freak

“My boss is a control freak—I don’t need him to tell me in detail how to perform simple tasks, yet he can’t resist. What’s more, he is insisting that I be a control freak over my people and I simply won’t do that. I have a high-achieving young staff working for me, and micromanagement is the last thing they need.

“I’ve tried talking to him about it, but his answer is almost always, ‘I want things done right.’ By right, of course, he means getting them done his way. How do I manage my boss and still protect my team — they will leave if they feel they are being micromanaged. Short of quitting my job, what can I do?”

Speaking from personal experience, ’control freak’ bosses can cause unrelenting stress and frustration. Even the most meticulous, detail-oriented employees can feel demotivated, undermined and full of self-doubt working under micromanagers. The stories about these bosses abound:

“I remember how most of my processes were incredibly slow since my boss simply wouldn’t let anything pass unless he checked it several times,” says Josh Wardini, co-founder of a search engine optimization startup called Serpwatch, who recalled working for a ‘control freak’ boss before starting his own company.

“While this is a great strategy for preventing mistakes, it is quite unsustainable in a rapidly-developing business. I was also stressed all the time because the majority of my suggestions couldn’t pass my boss as he was convinced that his way of doing things was the best,” he says. “We would have very long discussions in which I’d have to convince him that we should try certain tactics, and, more often than not, we’d end up arguing and eventually aborting the idea.”

Remember that studies consistently show that people quit bosses, not jobs. A study cited by Forbes last year, for example, showed that 79% of people who quit their jobs did so because of a “lack of appreciation.” Another study by Tiny Pulse, an employee engagement software company, showed that “poor management performance,” lack of recognition and overwork were the top three reasons why employees quit their jobs.

And a 2018 survey on bosses by Robert Half International, called the “Managers Report Card,” reported that 23% of workers considered their supervisor a “micromanager,” with 16% concluding that their boss is “incompetent.”

Situations like these can be very difficult to manage not only because you are frustrated by the boss, but you’re also caught in the middle, dealing with your own staff. With that stress, it can be difficult to shake the negative mindset.

“The tone of what you’ve shared makes it sound like you are seeing your boss as an obstacle,” says Carol A. Walker, president of Prepared to Lead, a management consulting firm in Boston, who has consulted on this issue. “Regardless of who’s right or wrong, your current mindset probably isn’t positioning you well for this negotiation.

“Undoubtedly, this has been going on for awhile and you are frustrated. Fair enough. But you don’t negotiate well when you are frustrated, and he won’t negotiate well if he feels you think he is an obstacle.”

If you can, try to reframe your thinking, Walker says. “Think about what you really value about your boss and accept that he’s doing the best he can right now.”

It might help a little to learn more about your boss’ definitions and chief concerns, says Bobbie Goheen, president of Synthesis Management Group in Rochester. “What goes into doing things ‘right?’ You need to ask ‘what are the indicators that you’re looking for that will make things come out right?’”

Sometimes people who are “control freaks” are process-oriented, Goheen says, and if the company is in a growth mode, they will develop processes that are needed in the company. “As part of that, it will be important to understand the leader’s back story,” she says. “Are they trying to ensure quality? What is generating this detail?”

“Understand what he’s going for, what’s his past story and what is he looking to achieve here?”

Recalling her own experiences with a micromanager, Goheen says she learned to meet with her boss each week about objectives that had been agreed upon. That meeting enabled her to explain what worked and what didn’t and receive feedback from him. “The minute I started managing the conversations, that created a better relationship and helped me lead better,” she says.

In her work as a management consultant, Goheen says she’s coached highly detail-oriented executives to take a step back and let go a little in some areas, once they’ve seen some indicators of progress that they’re looking for or that they believe that a particular area is solid.

So it might pay off to analyze the areas that seem particularly sensitive for your boss. Is he insecure, worried about his own status? If so, why? What can you do to address specific areas that he’s worried about?

“One of the biggest fears of my boss was that someone would jeopardize his work, so he felt the need to control everything. He had issues with people who had ideas but lacked relevant evidence to prove that this would work,” Wardini says.

“So, one thing I learned over time was to arm myself with patience and hard facts. I tried to always approach him with some strong evidence which supported certain strategy. Even though this killed creativity on one hand, it still allowed me to have some autonomy and maintain credibility with my boss,” he says.

Elea Carey, a communications consultant with Bee Partners in San Francisco, says she thinks control freak bosses are like goats: “They need something to chew on,” she says.

“I once had to present some data points on the success of our communications to my control-freak vice president of marketing. In my first effort, I just grabbed the key data points and dropped them into a spreadsheet. Although the data points were those requested, to the vice president, this just didn’t look like enough information,” she says.

“In my next round, I completely filled the page of the spreadsheet with data points that were never requested. And when I ran out of data, I organized the empty places on the spreadsheet by filling them with colors. The result was a visual field that gave my boss plenty to ruminate on.”

If things haven’t gone well, Carey advocates adjusting your language. “If you are blindsided by your control-freak boss, consider this phrasing: ‘It sounds like I’ve disappointed you, and I’m sorry that’s the case. Can you share what your expectation was so I can understand how I can help make things better?’

“That opens the door to discussion without you sounding defensive and gives you more to respond to other than being told you’re just plain disappointing,” she says. “It can also help you have a little compassion for your disappointed boss. “

Holly Perez, branch manager for Robert Half International in Rochester, agrees that taking a proactive approach might be effective. “Keep your boss in the loop on projects and offer progress reports before you’re asked for them,” she says, noting that you may want to discuss expectations with him directly.

If he is open to doing that, Walker suggests that you be prepared to outline two or three specific changes that would help you going forward. “Then say that you realize he has needs too,” she says, “and ask how you can ensure that his needs are met.”

“Make it clear that you really hear him and are committed to working with him. Be prepared to positively negotiate,” Walker says. “If your boss says he needs something that is overly controlling, acknowledge what he is saying and ask if the two of you could agree to focus on the outcome rather than the process. Clearly state that you are accountable for the outcome if he can give you a little freedom on the method.”

Managers at Work is a monthly column exploring the issues and challenges facing managers. Contact Kathleen Driscoll with questions or comments by phone at (585)249-9295 or by e-mail at kadriscoll@aol.com.

About Kathleen Driscoll