Control Freaks in Management

Guest —  January 30, 2012

After interviewing more than 10,000 employees at 600+ companies, you start noticing patterns in management, as I’ve written about in Managing (Right) for the First Time. One of the most fascinating to me is the overwhelming presence of control freaks.

Management seems to attract control freaks in inordinate numbers. My own experience as a control freak was a bit hilarious. I decided that it was time to research my OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) tendencies, and so I went online and ordered three books. Right. Not one book, but three. As I explained this to someone, she just laughed, rolling around on the floor. Ordering three books on obsessive compulsive tendencies seems to confirm the diagnosis before even cracking one of the books, no?

Laugh along with me about that, but being a control freak is not pleasant. For the perpetrator or the victims. Let me make two observations that might get you thinking—as kindly but directly as I can.

Quality vs. Control

One common line of reasoning I frequently hear from control freaks is that they are fixated on quality and unless they act like a control freak, too many things slip through the cracks. It’s as if no one quite measures up to their own standards, and so they’re trapped inevitably in the loop of approvals, sign-offs, corrections, and always touching things at every step. It’s no surprise, then, when they become a bottleneck and get even more frustrated.

This idea that the control freak acts in this manner to preserve quality is really just a ruse, though. Because if they were really that interested in quality, they’d put more systems and processes in place to ensure better quality. No, what’s really happening is that they want control, and so they define the standard as how they would do it (and that can change on a whim).

If you’re really concerned about quality, put the right systems and processes into place, along with the right people, and manage that way. Otherwise you’ll be a bottleneck, and that is frustrating for you and frustrating for them.

In the bigger scheme of things, your standards probably aren’t that important anyway. Frankly, you probably have people noodling the life out of projects, perfecting areas where no one notices except you.

The Terrors of Delegation

Take that bottleneck illustration above: the insistence on seeing everything before it’s approved. What’s really at stake, here? To answer that question, I want you to picture something with me.

Assume that you’re leaving on vacation tomorrow. Given that, what do you think you’d be doing tonight, capping off a long day in the office? We know the answer to that: you’d be putting everything you can in writing for one purpose, and that’s to ensure that people wouldn’t need to bother you on vacation. As a control freak, you’re probably so inundated with detail while you are at work that you really need a break when that vacation rolls around.

So you go on vacation and sure enough, all those notes explaining things worked. No one had to bother you and things went pretty darned well, right? They didn’t need you like they normally do.

But the story doesn’t end there, right? You get back to work and everything goes back to the way it was before. A little bit of chaos. A lot of scurrying around. You touching everything like before, ensuring that things are done well.

Stop for a second and think about this, though. You put everything in writing so that you wouldn’t be bothered. So it stands to reason that you don’t put things in writing because you do want to be bothered! What other explanation could there be?

This explains some of your control freak tendencies and your reticence to put better systems and processes in place: it’s designed so that you are kept inevitably in the loop. That’s an issue for your therapist, really.

David C. Baker lived in Guatemala until he was 18 and now lives in Nashville, TN. In addition to owning a thriving management consulting practice, ReCourses, David is a frequent speaker and author. His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Inc. magazine, Forbes, CBS Business Network, MarketingProfs, BusinessWeek, and dozens of other national publications. He enjoys travel, racquetball, photography, and flying airplanes and helicopters.

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7 responses to Control Freaks in Management

  1. Great post, David! Here are two things I believe to be little understood universal truths–also built on hundreds of observations across companies: (1) Management includes control freaks because “Management draws insecure folk like med school draws introverts!”; and (2) Management and anything labeled management “science” is ALL ABOUT CONTROLS. (…as are the “systems” you ask insecure and freakish managers to install.) Today, a greater focus on leadership and new organizational models are (thank goodness) challenging the limits of “management” and “systems” and how they add value (or not). It’s kind of like developing an “Innovation System” and other fashionable nonsense that is oxy-moronic at best and a waste of org. assets at worst…dooming the dabbling co’s into repeated cycles of disappointment.

  2. All I can say is “YUUUUUUUUUUUUP!”

  3. I think attention to detail can make somebody really good at what they do as an employee which can lead to a promotion to being a manager. However, this can also be a big problem when the person becomes a manager if the attention to detail results in micromanaging.

    I believe the key is to manage the result and not the process. Employees should know the result that needs to be achieved. And then they ought to have some freedom to accomplish the result.

    And as was mentioned in the post, I think finding the right people is extremely important. I would feel much more comfortable delegating work to high-quality employees.