How to Disarm a Controlling Boss
Three surefire steps
A controlling boss can transform the best job into a dreaded daily routine. She causes deflated self-esteem, unnecessary fear and frustration, and overly cautious work performance, as well as a tendency to keep one eye on the door for an exit strategy. Yet, stifling your talent, harboring bad feelings and job-hopping are not the best solutions to deal with an incorrigible superior at work, especially in today’s challenging economy.
By learning why your boss micro-manages and how to respond more skillfully to their frustrating behavior, you can enjoy a greater degree of personal freedom in a more relaxed work environment. Here’s how to identify and disarm a controlling boss to regain your confidence and autonomy at work.
Spotting control issues
On the surface, controlling bosses are overly critical and appear insensitive. Compliments on positive performance, if uttered at all, are often paired with slights, sowing seeds of doubt and insecurity about the outcome of future tasks.
Their most frequently communicated message is that “everyone is incompetent and untrustworthy, and I’m upset about it.”
Carey S., an online producer at a large advertising agency, works in a department headed by a controlling boss and says that her work environment is stressful because of it. “After-work get-togethers are gripe-fests because our team’s morale is just so low.” Yet she admits that they don’t know what can be done and have just accepted it.
The psychology behind it
Controlling bosses may seem like they enjoy being in charge and exercising power over others, but it is less about wielding authority for its own sake and more about needing to manage intense amounts of personal anxiety. Beneath the critical veneer, a controlling person is a fluctuating sea of extreme emotions that flows toward imagining worst-case scenarios. Numerous personality conflict-based “battles” are simply a distraction from the core problem: controlling bosses have poor anxiety management skills.
Tina T., an executive administrative assistant at a financial consulting firm, works for a controlling boss. “For the first six months at my job I used to think that I was a horrible assistant even though I’ve always done well everywhere else, because my boss constantly criticized me. I really felt bad about myself and got angry a lot. Then I realized that his behavior had nothing to do with me — he was a stress case.”
WHAT TO DO
Step 1: When provoked, stay calm to build trust.
It seems counterintuitive to remain calm when on the defensive from repeated verbal attacks and slights, but this is the golden rule when defusing a controlling boss. Because they are driven by fear and insecurity, maintaining a sense of consistent, unwavering calm will put them at ease. Over time, this dependable calmness creates a foundation of trust that will reduce the frequency and intensity of their micromanagement.
Step 2: Foster neutrality with kindness and inquisition.
Because controlling bosses often feel alone in their “battles,” offering service-based kindness will establish you as a “safe ally.” Becoming a trusted staff member ensures less controlling behaviors toward you and your work. This ultimately means a better working environment and more personal freedom to do your job well. So instead of employing a passive-aggressive attitude toward a controlling boss, ask questions that show concern and give your boss an opportunity to vent: “What are your concerns?”, “How can I help?”, and “Is there anything I can do that would make things easier for you?”
It is also especially helpful to restate your boss’s instructions or feelings with a restatement such as, “So, if I understand correctly, you have concerns about being able to complete this aspect of the project on time.” More clearly understanding your boss’s goals will help you meet them.
Medical assistant Joe R. tried a new approach with his supervisor, and says that it created a more relaxed environment. “It was tough at first to be nice to my supervisor, especially because of how she treats everyone, but once I started trying to talk to her more about what she wanted to see happen, she definitely loosened up a lot — not totally, but it has made things easier for everyone; especially me.”
Step 3: Stand and deliver on time to prove yourself.
View each assigned task as an opportunity to prove your reliability. Clearly state realistic deadlines and concerns about a task firmly, and then deliver your work when promised. If your work methods are questioned during a project, ask what your boss’s concerns are and then reassure him or her that everything is right on target. From this experience, your boss will walk away feeling calmer because you have everything under control.
Reminder: Extinguish flare-ups with consistency.
No matter how much trust is established with your controlling boss, frustrating situations will erupt from time to time that can feel like your relationship has taken a giant step backward. Remember that these flare-ups are not personal and simply indicate that your boss is experiencing increased anxiety levels. Similar to building an initial trust-based relationship, remain calm and offer supportive kindness, and then retreat without resentment to do your work.
Just because your boss lacks emotional self-control doesn’t mean you have to as well. By consciously working toward a more manageable ground with a controlling boss, you have the power to create a more enjoyable and less stressful work environment. And with a much calmer boss, your coworkers will thank you, too.
Chrissy Coleman Miles is an L.A.-based writer and editor, and expert workplace conflict negotiator. Visit her blog at chrissycolemanmiles.com.