The truth about controlling boss behavior

This month is all about working through letting go some control so you can build a stronger business. In Part I of this series, we created a list of scenarios to help you see if you’re a control freak. 

So you might be a control freak. As a small business owner, you see it as survival; it is your job to make sure you correct everyone’s mistakes. And any time someone does something different from the way you would, it’s a mistake.

Understanding the control freak

No one should tolerate incompetence; but the gap between an honest mistake and blatant incompetence is wide; and in this arena, control freaks don’t see straight. The painful truth is that the control freak’s behavior is not rooted other people’s incompetence…

What’s in it for me?

No one is a controlling boss because it’s fun. In fact, it’s exhausting and lonely. But there is a pay-off; or else we wouldn’t work so hard at it! Acknowledging the pay-off is another crucial step toward leaving that hyper need to control behind us.

Part of what we do as control freaks is to set ourselves up as the authority — on everything. We keep our team so focused on running around keeping us happy, that they don’t have a chance to see any ways we don’t have it all together. They are less likely to question us, or (ahem) judge us. Ever hear that the best defense is a good offense? Control freaks are masters at this strategy.We judge and control our environment and the people in it first, before they get a chance to judge us.

There’s the pay-off: our outward controlling nature protects insecure and vulnerable feelings we already feel inside. When we project a strong, dominant, “right”, persona, not only do we succeed in masking our vulnerability in front of other people but, more importantly, we hide it from ourselves. We need to perceive other people as wrong, incompetent and failing – so that we won’t feel, or be discovered to be, wrong, incompetent, or failing. Controlling boss behavior has it’s roots in our own fear.

By revealing the underlying fear of the control freak, I’m not trying to challenge your confidence — in fact, I want to build it up. I want you to have real confidence. Real confidence allows us to take our weaknesses and imperfections — our humanity — into account. I want to build up real confidence in your decisions, and real confidence in your team. I don’t want to continue to prop up the control freak’s confidence; it’s a house of cards. That kind of confidence is based on a distorted perception of strength (the control freak’s perfectionism) on top of a bogus perception of weakness (the failure of the employee to meet that standard of perfection).

What’s it costing you?

One of the dangers of control freak behavior is that it prevents us from really having confidence in anyone. Our fear makes us hypervigilant. We are waiting for (and watching for) any slip up, any misstep — and, wonder of wonders — we find them! Each time we find a misstep it undermines our confidence in that person’s (and ultimately in any person’s) ability to perform. That’s the insidious nature of controlling boss behavior — it’s self-fulfilling. We expect people to fail, and they do. Now we expect them to fail more, and they do…

And that’s not all. Once we discover we are surrounded by a bunch of failures, we take more work on ourselves; and — whether by doing their work for them, or double-checking their work — a lot more ends up on us. “Over-functioning” (doing more than our fair share) is nothing more than a hiding place for our weak and scared alter-egos. When we over-function, we have all this “proof” that we are better than others around us, (we get so much done, after all). It only makes sense that we are more important, and deserve better treatment. It’s us and them. We bundle our staff (with the occasional exception) into a package with labels: “incompetent”, “lazy”, “not invested”, “disloyal”, “doesn’t get it”…etc. etc. These judgements are a giant wedge between ourselves and the very people who can help us!

The truth is that nobody likes to be in relationship with a control freak, much less work for one. It’s exhausting. It burns people out. As people get burned out and quit, the control freak’s belief that people can’t be trusted is reinforced. And the cycle continues.

Are you following? Controlling bosses have a distorted perception of incompetence; therefore they take on more work than is healthy and alienate the staff that could lighten the load.

We are going slowly through this journey. If this is you and you are screaming “Make it stop!” you need to know is part of bringing your control freak behavior to an end is sitting with it right now.

Take some time to think about how you express your control freak behavior, think about what the pay-off for you is. And then ask, “What is it costing me?” And write your answers down.
Photo credit: jurvetson


  1. Excellent insight. These lines are really illuminating and convicting – ” “Over-functioning” (doing more than our fair share) is nothing more than a hiding place for our weak and scared alter-egos. When we over-function, we have all this “proof” that we are better than others around us, (we get so much done, after all).”

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