Overcontrolling Bosses Aren't Just Annoying; They're Also Inefficient
March 30, 2005
One of Ken Marcus's former bosses was so reviled by underlings that when he dropped dead, a colleague went up to Mr. Marcus and shook his hand. Unlike some others, Mr. Marcus never danced on his old boss's grave. But the soft-spoken reference librarian still smarts from the travails of working under a tormenting control freak.
The former boss wouldn't let his employees order personalized stationery or even use up the stationery they had left. "A lot of paper went to waste," Mr. Marcus says. The man also spent days trying to get in touch with employees on vacation and then had nothing much to say to them -- except "keep me posted" -- once he got them on the phone. And in a gesture that Mr. Marcus found impossible to believe when he first heard about it, his boss assigned middle initials to employees who didn't have middle names. "I guess it offended his sense of order," he speculates.
Mr. Marcus still struggles with the illogic of it all: "You get up to that level," he says, and "you don't need to worry about these little things."
But the problem is that a control freak most certainly does worry about the little stuff. Deeply untrusting and puffed up with some devil-in-the-details justification, control freaks wrest tasks from colleagues, along with the colleagues' sense of self worth. It's as if they were burned by someone or something long ago, and everyone they come into contact with is a walking evocation of the past demon. The irony is that in the name of efficiency and cost savings, these managers are often the most guilty of operating far below their pay scales.
Overcontrolling "can cost more money in a whole bunch of ways," says Richard Kilburg, senior director of the office of human services at Johns Hopkins University. They create, for example, a culture driven by the assumption that everyone can't perform. "If everybody's covering their tail ends," says Dr. Kilburg, "you have all kinds of processing losses. You also have a tendency to lose your most creative people. They're able to say, 'Screw this. I'm not staying here."
Just ask Rich Dowd, the founder of executive search firm Dowd Associates, who learned that lesson the hard way. He says he used to hover over employees and interrupt them because they weren't working "in the way I saw fit," even though their work product at the end of the day was "outstanding." He recalls that one employee told him that if he wanted to do her job, fine, she'd quit.
Asked by Mr. Dowd to describe some of his annoying behavior, colleague Stephanie Bates cites his yellow-legal-pad rule, which dictates that anything other than a yellow legal pad "doesn't work." Mr. Dowd questions whether he ever imposed this rule on anyone else, so Ms. Bates reminds him of the time she had the temerity to use a blue binder. "Yup," Mr. Dowd says sheepishly.
And another colleague, Lauren Hendrick, recounts how Mr. Dowd once sent her home from the office for being three minutes late.
So what taught Mr. Dowd to let go? "It's got to cost you money," he says. "I've lost people that way."
Most control freaks, though, can't laugh at themselves. Don Shobrys used to work for a boss who argued that the office should remain open during a blizzard even though the governor had declared a state of emergency. That boss also spent valuable time trying to scrub a stain out of the office carpet. And he even threatened to fire someone for leaving computer boxes stacked in the hallway in advance of the company's relocation to a new office.
The worst thing about his behavior was the corporate paralysis that resulted. The company had planned to paint the men's room in the new office, including the wall behind the urinals. The painters recommended using tile on that wall, but midlevel managers were afraid to approve the $1,000 expenditure. They eventually went with the tile, but "the whole organization was intimidated," Mr. Shobrys says.
What explains the penchant of many control freaks for performing menial tasks? "At some level of consciousness they don't believe they know how to handle the demands of the job they're in," says Arthur Freedman, director of organizational development and change at American University. "So they revert or regress down one or two levels to the level where they felt comfortable."
Marilyn Helms, a professor at Dalton State College in Dalton, Ga., says she has seen too many managers waste valuable time taking attendance. There was her boss at the Rotary Club in Memphis who always dreamed up an excuse to call the office at 4:59 p.m. to make sure no one had slipped out early. At a university, she had a department chair who would "come by with some stupid excuse just to do a bed check," she says. And still other managers have required her colleagues to produce business cards as proof they were soliciting new clients or to staple their name badge to travel receipts to prove they were at a conference.
"Don't they need to focus on the big picture?" asks Prof. Helms. "It seems like they don't know how to do their upper-management jobs."