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Controlling Perfectionists in the Workplace

Dealing with hypercritical bosses and other incredibly picky coworkers

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,” a “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 the controlling perfectionist, and they are the topic of a book we wrote called Impossible to Please. 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 perfectionists often place on others. If you work with or for a controlling perfectionist, it is common to feel angry and frustrated. Even worse is when you buy into their hypercriticism and begin to feel inferior or feel like you can’t do anything right. Indeed, there is 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 someone with Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD). This is not to 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, they 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.

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 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 worldview. They tend to lack empathy for others. Therefore, they have difficulty putting themselves in another’s shoes or seeing things from their perspective. As you can imagine, controlling perfectionists 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 the surgeon to pay attention to small details right? You don’t want them leaving a sponge or clamp in you as they're suturing you up. Same with your accountant: You don’t want them missing deductions or reporting your income erroneously, right? There are occupations where attention to detail is essential. However, the distinguishing factor with controlling perfectionists 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 Dickens'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!” Also think about how Scrooge treats Bob Cratchit. 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.

How Do They Get to Be This Way?

So what makes these individuals tick? How and why does someone become a controlling perfectionist? Hypercritical people and controlling perfectionists were often raised by controlling perfectionist parents. In reaction to feeling inferior, these individuals may overcompensate 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 worth keeping 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 may be an insecure child who tries to overcompensate for 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. You may need to modify the strategy 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 to get the controlling perfectionist to treat you better or at the very least to refrain from treating you badly. Don’t expect this person to wake up on Christmas morning as Scrooge did and all of the sudden become an empathic, compassionate individual!

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 would 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. Don’t go toe-to-toe to prove your point. You’ll only end up losing in the end. Better to take a collegial approach 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 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 minutiae, 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, better yet, set your own goals. 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 elsewhere.

More from Alan A. Cavaiola Ph.D.
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