Controlling Perfectionists in the Workplace

Dealing with hypercritical bosses, and other incredibly picky coworkers

Posted Aug 01, 2013


Yelling Boss

by Dr. A. Cavaiola, PH.D. Do you dread going to work on Mondays, not because of your job, but because of your boss or co-workers or other annoying people you have to work with? If you’ve ever had the misfortune of working with, for, or alongside of someone who was a “control freak”, a “micromanager” , “workaholic” “a “know-it-all” or a “nitpicker” then you know how frustrating it can be to get through the workday without throwing up your hands and telling these people to “take this job and shove it”.  Dr. Neil Lavender and I refer to this type of co-worker as controlling perfectionists and they are the topic of a book we had written called Impossible to Please (Lavender & Cavaiola, 2012). When we wrote this book, our goal was to provide a survivor’s guide for people who find themselves subject to the impossible demands and unrealistically high standards that these controlling perfections often place on others. When you find yourself working with or for a controlling perfectionist it often common to feel angry and frustrated or even worse is when you feed into their hypercriticism and you begin to feel inferior or feel like you can’t do anything right. Indeed, there are a whole range of emotions you may feel in these situations and the stress of working with or for a controlling perfectionist becomes at times, overwhelming.

Before talking about some basic strategies for dealing or managing controlling perfectionists, let’s talk a little about who these individuals are and what makes them tick. The controlling perfectionist is similar to what psychologists or psychiatrists would refer to as Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD).  (not be confused with OCD or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder which is characterized by obsessive thoughts and compulsive rituals). Instead, an individual with OCPD is often preoccupied with details, lists, rules, order, organization and schedules often so much so, that he or she loses the major point of what they’re trying to accomplish. This rigid adherence to perfectionistic standards often interferes with their ability to complete tasks. So, if you have a co-worker or someone who reports to you who cannot get work done on time or cannot meet deadlines, it’s possible that their perfectionism prevents them from completing tasks because they feel their work must be perfect.  Controlling perfectionists are often overly devoted to work and productivity to the extent that they will not allow themselves any leisure, fun time or friendships. These are true workaholics who see work  as their main purpose in life. They have difficulty taking time off for vacation or cutting out early on Friday to spend time with friends or family.   In addition, these are often overly scrupulous, inflexible and overly conscientious when it comes to matters of morality, ethics or values. It’s as if God went on vacation and put them in charge. This is also an instance where the controlling perfectionist “can’t see the forest for the trees” because they’ll often get lost in some minutia on an issue of morality and end up losing the main point of what’s really right and wrong.  A case in point, recently the Senate had voted down on much needed jobs bill for veterans. Those who opposed the bill stated that the way the bill was written was in violation of some budgetary rule therefore these Senators felt justified in voting against the bill.  However, these Senators never bothered to propose another bill that would have conformed to the budgetary rules.  Our illustrious Senators lost the main point of the bill, which was to provide funding for jobs for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. If anyone is deserving of jobs it’s these brave men and women right? Not so in the warped mind of a controlling perfectionist.  Controlling perfectionists are also unable to delegate tasks to others. Their motto is, “if you want something done right…do it yourself”. However, they will then complain about having to shoulder most of the work and will then criticize those working for them for not working harder…a classic “no-win” situation. The inability to delegate is where the “control freak” nature of their personality comes into play. Controlling perfectionists are also miserly, stubborn and rigid in their world view. Another classic personality trait is that controlling perfectionists lack empathy for others. Therefore, they have difficulty putting themselves in other’s shoes or seeing things from their perspective. As you can see from these traits, controlling perfectionist have a unique talent for draining the morale out of an organization or corporation.  

We don’t want to paint a totally negative view of controlling perfectionists and those who manifest Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder traits. After all, if you’re having surgery you want to surgeon to pay attention to small details right? You don’t want them leaving a sponge or clamp in you as their suturing you up. Same with your accountant, you don’t want them missing deductions or reporting your income erroneously right? So there are occupations (e.g. engineering, law, medicine, accounting, military, architecture and construction trades) where attention to details is essential. However the distinguishing factor with controlling perfectionists and those with an OCPD personality style is their knack for being hypercritical of others and  for making others feel inferior. In other words, a person can still pay close attention to details in their work or profession without being a micromanager or control freak.

If we were to come up with an example of the quintessential OCPD personality it would be Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dicken’s well-known novella A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is best known for his miserliness but let’s go beyond that trait. Scrooge is also a workaholic, and he is overly scrupulous when it comes to issues of morality or ethics. For example, when asked to donate to the poor and hungry of London, he responds, “Are there no workhouses and prisons? Don’t I pay taxes to support these institutions!” (Scrooge would probably have made a good US Senator! He would have had no problem in voting down the jobs bill for veterans). Also think about how Scrooge treats Bob Cratchet. He criticizes him for “watching the clock” and chastises him for wanting to spend Christmas with his family. Scrooge may have been a successful accountant but he is a classic example of an Obsessive Compulsive Personality style.

How Do They Get to Be This Way?

So what makes these individuals tick? How and why does someone become a controlling perfectionist?  The answer often lies in upbringing, environmental influences and parenting. Most hypercritical people and controlling perfectionists were often raised by controlling perfectionist parents. In reaction to feeling inferior, these individuals often overcompensate for these feelings of inferiority by becoming hypercritical adults. The term used by psychoanalytic theorists is “identifying with the aggressor”. So rather than saying, “I’m not going to become like my hypercritical, verbally abusive father or mother”, they cope with their emotional pain by becoming like them. This is only one theory of course but it’s one that makes sense and also is important to keep in mind when dealing with someone like this in your work life.  Although you may be dealing with a controlling, critical bully, beneath this veneer is often an insecure child who tries to overcompensate for these feelings of inadequacy by making others feel inferior.

Coping Strategies

This brings us to some coping strategies you may try. Think of these coping strategies as mini- experiments. Some ideas may work, while others may not or you may need to modify the experiment in order to bring about the best results. But first and foremost, be aware that you’re not going to be able to change them!  Even with intensive psychotherapy, it is difficult to bring about change and this occurs only when the controlling perfectionist is truly motivated to change their behavior. So rather than expecting massive personality change it’s better to think about these mini-experiments as ways that you want the controlling perfectionist to treat you better or at very least to refrain from treating you badly.  So don’t expect this person to wake up on Christmas morning as Scrooge did and all of sudden becoming empathic, caring compassionate individuals!  Here are a few mini-experiments to try:  1) Agree with the criticism being thrown at you, but with a twist. If your boss is being hypercritical instead of defending yourself or defending something you did, better to agree but then ask what your boss what like you to do differently. Convey that you are willing to learn and that you are open to their mentoring you. Maybe this is a teachable moment. 2) If your goal is to keep your job, convey that you’re a team player.  Often anger and frustration may override your willingness to work with your difficult boss or co-worker. Here it’s better not to express these frustrations in the workplace (better to talk out your feelings with a trusted friend or therapist), instead, you may want to convey that you’re a willing team player. 3) If you feel you’re right, stick to your guns. Better to simply state your view and then move on. Do this without criticizing your boss or co-worker. This is especially helpful with “know-it-all” types of controlling perfectionists. Remember, under their veneer of being knowledgeable about EVERYTHING, is an insecure individual, so don’t go toe-to-toe to prove your point. You’ll only end up losing in the end. Better to take a collegialapproach and simply state the facts as you know them and move on. 

A Few Words about Self-Care

In terms of your own self-care there are also things you can do: 1) Don’t buy into their criticism. It’s better that you remain grounded and that you have a realistic self-appraisal of your own strengths and weaknesses. If you base your self-worth on the controlling perfectionist’s appraisal of you, you’ll always end up on the short end because NO ONE IS PERFECT.  2) Set your own work goals and agenda.  Because controlling perfectionists often get lost in minutia, they will often lead you down several different paths. Better to ask the controlling perfectionist to help you prioritize the tasks they’ve dumped on you or even better yet, set your own goals of what you need to achieve and what you need to do. By doing this, at the end of the day, you’ll at least walk away feeling like you’ve accomplished something rather than feeling like a dog who chases its own tail. 3) Seek mentoring and support elsewhere. Controlling perfectionists are not good mentors because they often lack the ability to offer praise or reinforcement for a job well done. So it’s better to seek advice, support and mentoring from others whether it be within your organization or from without.

For other strategies, please read our book, Impossible to Please!!!!