How to Manage Controlling People
Dealing With Their Destructive Impact
"You don't want to do it like that. I'll show you how to do it properly!"
We've all come across this type of person at work. The one who leans over your shoulder to check everything you do, who talks over you in meetings without a second thought, or who's your best friend one minute and a "cold fish" the next.
Would you describe your experience of working with him or her as happy or rewarding? Probably not.
Controlling behavior can be intensely toxic and damaging. It can affect a team's productivity and make people's lives miserable. It can also cause high performers to leave your team, which can be deeply destructive.
Fortunately, there are ways to manage it, and we'll show you how in this article.
What Is Controlling Behavior?
In the 2014 edition of "The Oxford Handbook of Work Engagement, Motivation, and Self-Determination Theory," researchers Johnmarshall Reeve and Yu-Lan Su describe controlling behavior as "putting pressure on a person to think, feel and behave in a particular way." They suggest it includes monitoring someone's behavior in order to influence him, demeaning or ignoring him, displaying impatience, and failing to explain things so that he feels inferior. Some people can be unaware of how controlling their behavior is, while others are intentionally manipulative.
Controlling behavior often presents itself in cycles. When a controlling person successfully takes control, she's encouraged to repeat her behavior. When she fails, she redoubles her efforts.
What Makes People Seek Control?
Researchers Lauren A. Leotti, Sheena S. Iyengar, and Kevin N. Ochsner argue that our basic need for control is rooted in biology, but altered by personal experience. If someone's life experiences have made him feel powerless, he might try to protect himself from feeling like this again by controlling the things he's able to, such as himself, his environment and other people. His defensive behavior can offend, subdue and humiliate others – often unintentionally.
A controlling person's insecurities can lead her to seek structure and boundaries, to make her feel safer. Poorly defined job descriptions and overlapping roles, for example, can make her fear others encroaching upon her work. They also give her the chance to intrude on other people's work.
The Signs of Controlling Behavior
Controlling people can be valuable team members, despite their insecurities. Their behavior can be a sign of high motivation, dedication and drive. They often show great attention to detail, are goal-focused, and work to a high standard.
Negative controlling behavior can be tricky to spot, however. It can take the form of overt bullying, but it can also be very subtle.
A "controller" can try to influence other people by:
- Being dramatically emotional, whether anger or tears.
- Insisting that they follow his lead.
- Talking down to them.
- Lacking empathy and consideration.
- Micromanaging them.
- Disregarding their experience and advice, when it conflicts with his own views.
- Being aggressive or passive-aggressive.
- Craving recognition.
She can try to control her environment by:
- Withholding knowledge to allow her to influence decisions and outcomes.
- Being overly protective of her workspace and possessions.
- Resisting change.
- Demonstrating obsessive-compulsive behavior.
He can try to control himself by:
- Caring too much about work, working too hard and for too long (and not respecting other people's private lives).
- Not sleeping.
- Abiding by the rules to an extreme degree.
- Trying to be punctual at all times.
- Following punishing diets.
Be alert to these behaviors and trust your instinct. You need to take steps to tackle the problem if you suspect that your team member is manipulating others.
How Does Controlling Behavior Affect People?
Controlling people put things "in order" to make themselves feel secure. They often behave as though their views, feelings, values, and experiences are superior to other people's, which can make their colleagues angry and undermine their self-confidence. Team members may become less productive as a result, and question their abilities.
Controlling personalities can target managers, too. People who report to you might want your job or feel that they can do it better. They might ignore your instructions or undermine you in front of the rest of your team, which can be unsettling and destabilizing. It can also damage your standing within your organization.
Controlling behavior can hurt the "controller" herself. Controllers are often perfectionists, who prioritize work above their own needs. This pressure can bring on health problems and drive others away from them, leading to feelings of isolation and resentment.
Strategies for Managing Controlling Team Members
Controlling people can be so focused on controlling the world around them that they might not realize how their behavior is affecting others. You're unlikely to be able to stop it completely but, by exercising what author Harriet Braiker calls your "countercontrol," you can help to minimize its impact, without sacrificing either team morale or the controller's positive qualities.
If you pick up on controlling behavior, it's best to take action as soon as possible by considering the following strategies:
Review Job Descriptions
Controlling people can be tempted to interfere with others' work when job descriptions and responsibilities are unclear. Review how work is divided within your team and ensure that each role's boundary is well defined and understood by everyone.
A controlling person's perfectionism can make life harder for his colleagues. Consider asking him to work on less collaborative projects that involve working remotely, to minimize his negative influence.
Meet the Controller's Needs
A controller needs to feel in control, and you can carefully use this to your advantage.
Ask for her help with a special project or an isolated task that she can complete on her own. This will make her feel important and show that you value her talents.
Motivate her by giving her some control of the task. If you're pleased with her work, then give her credit for it. Acknowledge her and encourage her to keep performing well.
Always be genuine when offering praise. If you're insincere, you could unsettle her and break the trust between you.
Take advantage of his perfectionism by giving him important but non-time-sensitive projects. He'll relish the prestige of working on something critical and having the time to give his best.
Take the Initiative, and Talk
Hold a series of performance reviews to discuss your team member's behavior and provide honest feedback. Ask her why she tries to control others, and explain how upsetting this can be for them. Suggest some stress management techniques and establishing a support network to help lessen her anxieties. Explain the importance of flexibility in a team environment and encourage her to look after herself physically, too.
A controlling person can thrive on undermining others, so prepare yourself for aggressive replies. Keep your responses professional. The less you react, the more you'll be able to exercise sound judgment: you don't have control over her behavior, but you can control yours.
Believe in what you say, too. If you suggest something that you're not convinced about, she won't hesitate to find fault with it. Win her over with the strength of your convictions and she is more likely to accept your ideas.
Knowing a controlling person's motivations and insecurities can help you to understand and empathize with him. Remember that his behavior is a result of an internal struggle, and his way of making himself feel better. Building your emotional intelligence skills will help you to understand this but still address his behavior effectively.
Assert Your Own Control, and Terminate If Necessary
Make clear what behavior is, and isn't, acceptable. Be watchful and, if the negative impact of your team member's controlling behavior outweighs her positive attributes, you may need to consider terminating her employment. Request HR support if necessary.
Controlling behavior can be a person's response to her feeling of powerlessness, and her attempt to regain control in ways that she believes are achievable. It is not necessarily intentional or manipulative, but it can often come across like this.
A controlling person can try to control things about himself, his environment, and the way that other people think, behave and work. His behavior can severely undermine his colleague's confidence, provoke their anger, and destabilize the team. It can also have health implications for the "controller" himself.
Personality traits are difficult to change, so the key is to manage the negative behavior and limit its impact on your team. You can do this by asserting your own control, assigning work effectively, showing empathy, and speaking about the issue openly. If this doesn't work, you may need to remove the controlling person from your team before she does too much damage to others.
Apply This to Your Life
Perhaps when you read the list of controlling behaviors, you recognized some of them in yourself? Your first step should be to accept the problem, and then to try to tackle it before it harms anyone else, your position, your personal standing, and your long-term employment prospects.
Here are some goals to aim for:
- Don't try to control everything. Accept that some things are out of your reach and focus on what you can control. Stop wasting your energy on hopeless struggles and save it for the worthwhile ones.
- Delegate. Other people may work differently to you but trust them, boost their confidence, and allow them to shine.
- Lessen your anxieties. Learning to cope with stress and worry will help you to stay calm and reduce your need for control.
- Confide in colleagues that you're trying to change your behavior. This may be hard but, if you acknowledge your behavior, they're more likely to help you.