Once upon a time…in a far, far away place, I managed a customer support department for a bank. I had about twenty-five employees who were directed by three shift supervisors.
After just a couple of weeks on the job, I started to get anonymous notes and letters from what appeared to be several different people in my department. They all said the same thing, “Our supervisor is driving us crazy by her obsessive, demanding, and controlling behavior.”
I hate anonymous notes, but after receiving several of them I figured I needed to investigate. What I found was a supervisor that made Attila the Hun seem mild-mannered! If you know your history, you know that Attila the Hun is considered to be one of the most feared and notorious barbarians of all time. Definitely not the kind of management model you would want to emulate.
I tried to work with the supervisor. I wanted to help her see and understand what she was doing, but I failed. She refused to change, and I ended up letting her go.
So what do you do with people who can’t let go of anything, tend to be obsessive, demanding, and perfectionistic? What are some keys to understanding why they just won’t let go or let it be? What do you do with people so controlling that they squeeze the life out of you?
To begin with, it’s helpful to understand the anatomy of a control freak.
Here are five of the most common characteristics of control freaks:
1. They are often driven by fear.
One of the most predominate qualities about them is that they are afraid of losing control, so they seldom like to take risks. They may not appear fearful on the outside, but on the inside they wrestle with huge anxieties or insecurities. In most cases they are not trying to hurt you; they’re just trying to protect themselves and their interests. This is one of the reasons why they often resist change because it introduces too many unknowns that they fear they won’t be able to control.
2. They tend to be obsessive.
They might be obsessive about particular issues or standards. It could be about a procedure or a routine. They are often legalistic about doing things the right way and often the same way no matter what the cost to the people around them. They obsessively hang on to everything and refuse to delegate or release others to do anything significant. Again, this is usually tied to their fears.
3. They are bossy and maybe even bully others.
Similar to the critic (see last week’s blog), they are typically very overbearing and dictatorial. The pecking order is paramount to them, so they tend to be oppressive to those under them. If they feel threatened, they will quickly pull rank and try to crush all opposition.
4. Without a doubt, they are perfectionists.
Few things are ever good enough for control freaks. Their perfectionism manifests in more than just critical words—they are demanding and rigid with others and drive others crazy with their ridiculous standards and demands.
5. Unfortunately, they are easily irritated.
When control freaks don’t get their way, they become extremely obstinate and pigheaded. Little things become big things, and they tend to lose perspective, and then they become irrational and hot-tempered. You’ll seldom see any real joy in their lives.
I have a friend who has a business partner who can be set-off by the most ridiculous things. He’s the proverbial “bull in a china shop” who causes all sorts of havoc and destruction because he’s emotionally unpredictable.
Two things to do when coping with control freaks:
- Focus first on your character and their needs.
This relational principle is tough to practice but absolutely necessary. It’s tough because most of us tend to do just the opposite. We usually focus on our needs and their character.
Here’s what Jesus had to say about this in Matthew 7:3-5 (NIV), “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye (emphasis added).”
Jesus basically said, “Deal with your character and issues first (your 2×4 instead of their speck of sawdust) before you worry about the other guy!”
That doesn’t mean we ignore their issues, but we start with our hearts first. I encourage you to see your relationship with a control freak as an opportunity for your personal and spiritual growth.
- Pursue peace without compromising truth.
King Solomon wrote in Proverbs 19:11 (NIV), “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense.”
Remember, in most cases the control freaks are trying to protect themselves; they are not trying to hurt you. Their behavior is not a commentary about you as much as it is a strategy they use to deal with their own anxieties. Accusing them of being controlling will only make them more fearful and controlling.
Sometimes it’s wise to “overlook an offense” and move on. In other words, avoid any unnecessary battles with the person. Remember from last week the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 12:18 (NIV), “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone (emphasis added).” And he wrote in Romans 14:19 (NIV), “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.”
Again, I’m not suggesting that we pacify them or ignore what they do. However, before we engage them in confrontation, try to pursue the path of peace. Peace, in many ways, is the best antidote to fear and the best path to relational health.
Some practical advice:
- As we saw last week in dealing with the critic, it’s always helpful and wise to consider the why and not just the what. Why are they controlling? If it’s fear-based, what can you do to help them address that issue? One of the best ways to help them relax is to keep them informed. In fact, the more information a control freak has the better.
- Another thing you can do is affirm and compliment them whenever possible. Frankly, control freaks do have an up side—they are often the glue of an organization or a family because they take responsibilities seriously, and they are dedicated and hardworking. Try to focus on the good and encourage them.
- Here’s one more thing to try: If they’re just being bossy and perfectionistic, then attempt to negotiate your role by sitting down and calmly discussing with them who is best at certain tasks (them or you) and, therefore, who should control those tasks?
I once met with a couple that was having some major issues regarding managing their finances. The husband was the control freak who (because of his fears) couldn’t let go and trust his wife with any oversight of their family finances. As we talked about it, it became apparent that he had almost no skill in this area; she really was the best person for the job in their home. Once he saw this, it was easy to come up with a plan that worked for both of them and calmed his fears.
If a control freak continues to be obsessive, rigid, mean-spirited and unrealistic, then loving confrontation may be required, but be sure it is the truth spoken in love.
One last thing I want to leave you with: Never underestimate the power of God and His love to transform people into His image. Pray for change in them and you, and practice patience.