The Control Freak Boss

Adrian Furnham

What is the underlying psychology of the control freak? Can the control freak boss be helped or changed?

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One of the commonest accusations made by desperate and frustrated staff is to accuse a boss (or colleague) of being a control freak. Of course, the fact that the label is used so soften means the person cannot be a freak because freaks are, by definition, extremely rare and rather bizarre.

But what does it mean to be a control freak? Why are people like this? Can they be helped or changed? How can you best manage a control-freak boss?

Controllable or not?

The best place to start is to consider those things that are controllable and those that are not. We all know that the small print in insurance companies noting an "Act of God" means an uncontrollable physical event. We can't control the weather, nor earthquakes, nor the sea.

But what about personal health? Dentists tell you that they can easily differentiate preventive vs restorative patients. The former believe they have control over their dental health. By brushing, flossing, a good diet and general oral hygiene they can control tooth decay. Further with technical help and marvellous new whiteners they can, if they want (and can afford it) have beautiful teeth; a winning smile. Dental excellence and self-confidence are within one's control.

Restoratives are much less sure. They don't have a dentist and do not make regular visits. They only go when the pain drives them to the man who is famous for the epithet "drill, fill and bill". They don't go for three reasons: costs, anxiety and beliefs about control. They believe dental health is a function of chance: inheritance, childhood diet, the tap water, all of which are uncontrollable.

Because they don't believe their dental health and attractiveness are within their power or pocket to control, they tend to be lackadaisical about personal hygiene. They are, in a sense, controlless freaks.

Dentists are eager to convert restoratives into preventives. It's better for their business and, they argue, better for the client. But they have equally significant problems with those who believe they can totally control their dental health. These dental control freaks refuse to believe that nothing can be done to achieve their particular desires. Something can be done; a lot can be done; but for genetic, historical and structural reasons, there are limits.

Fear of being out of control

And so it is with wealth as much as health. There is a concept psychologists use called locus of control. It goes from extreme internal to extreme external. Those with an internal locus of control believe things are fully within their control. They are captains of their ship and masters of their fate. Their health, happiness and success are controllable and predictable. They can, they believe, have what they want because it is controllable. They tend to be optimists. And they tend to react very badly indeed when frustrated; when their beliefs are challenged or reality impinges on them

Such 'Internals' believe they can have control, but they also want control. To be out of control is to be terrified. If you believe the world is orderly, predictable, just, and controllable, you do your damnest to control it.

Control freaks believe things in business are perfectly controllable. They are made extremely anxious when those beliefs are threatened. They are just like phobics. They don't fear heights, the dark or needles, but they do fear being out of control. And to cope with this anxiety they try - all the time and everywhere - to control panic attacks by exercising control.

Knowing how to control

It is here that the most frustrating feature of the control freak is important: knowing how to control. We "control" other people by charm, carrots and sticks, threats and punishments, incentives and rewards.

Influencing people is a skill: it is a skill that salespeople learn. They know that people are neither totally controllable nor predictable but with a decent cocktail of sensitivity and flexibility one can go a long way toward influencing them.

The control freak is usually low on insight and charm and high on suspicion and mistrust. Control freaks are not people-people. They don't delegate or empower - why? Obviously because if they were to do so they would lose control. They tend to be frustrated absolutists: they want complete control but can't seem to get it.

Control freaks can get very nasty

Under these conditions, control freaks can get very nasty indeed. They may spy on their staff and unjustly accuse them of manifold sins and wickednesses. They may explode with rage at being unable to get what they want. Or they may suddenly dump on people. That is why they are known to be such horrid beasts.

So the marks of the control freak are threefold:

  • belief that things/people are (totally) controllable
  • a morbid fear about being out-of-control;
  • absence of skills to exercise what control they do have.

There is something worse: the controlless freak. These are your fatalists, who believe that luck, chance, fate, God, the IMF or Tony Blair controls everything and nothing can be done...save perhaps pray and await your fate. But, inevitably, they never make it to the top because they don't take action where necessary.

How to manage the control freak boss?

You have to work on three things: their beliefs, their anxieties and their skills. Start with the last: send them on a "Influencing people" "Negotiation skills" or "Emotional Intelligence course". Create a safe environment to practice their new skills. Give them a very positive experience any time they delegate. Show them that control is not all or nothing. And that, paradoxically, they achieve more power by letting a bit go.



  • This article was first published in Psychology Today on March 15, 2017. Link to article: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sideways-view/201703/the-control-freak

Published 4. April 2017

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