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Is Your Coworker a Control Freak? 4 Steps to Standing Up for Yourself

Plus, 5 subtle signs to watch out for

Upset woman facing away from the camera
Photo courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez

There are few things as aggravating as working with someone addicted to knowing, or even controlling, your every move. According to Dr. Robert Sutton, Ph.D., Stanford professor and author of The No Asshole Rule, “control freaks” are one of the 10 archetypes of a terrible boss. “The control freak not only asks all of the questions, he answers them all too,” Sutton says. “He’ll give you advice even when he has no expertise.” The control freak believes that if they aren't holding your hand, you’re probably going to screw it up—and that’s true whether they’re your boss, your peer, or a client.

At first, it might not have felt like the person was a control freak. They may have come off as thoughtful or thorough, eager to set you on the right track. But over time, you probably noticed some subtle signs that their “support” was having the opposite effect. 

Fauzia Lala, a women's self-defense and empowerment coach who most often works with women in STEM fields, says controlling behavior can manifest lots of different ways. “Controlling can be someone saying, ‘This is what I want you to do’—like a micromanager. That’s one way of controlling. Another way of controlling is if someone doesn’t think you’re doing a great job, and they take credit for your work.”

Is this reason enough to quit your job? What if you like your work and don’t want to leave? How do you deal with a difficult coworker who insists on doing everything their way?

Let’s delve deeper into these tendencies, explore the subtle signs of a control freak, and learn how to deal with a coworker who perpetuates this behavior.

What to do when your coworker is controlling

Because there are so many ways people can be controlling, Lala says it’s best to tailor how you respond to each situation (we help you with that below). However, there are some benchmarks you’ll want to hit regardless. 

1. Know your worth

“All scenarios, regardless of what kind of scenario it is, it always starts with us first. That’s the key,” Lala says. Confidence is apparent in the way you walk and talk. Lala says if you work to identify the root causes of why you might not value yourself, you’ll be better at standing up for yourself, and people will recognize that you’re not someone to be messed with. “The majority of people who have really strong self-worth usually are not the people who are bullies.”

2. Ask questions 

Approaching a controlling person takes extra care. Lala says the conversation should always start with questions in order to keep the tone from shifting to accusatory. “Start with the questions so it’s not ‘you are doing this’ and invoking that aggression,” she says. Plan on “starting with curiosity and then taking back control.” If you work in tech and someone is trying to take credit for your work, for instance, use questions like: Why are you checking in this code? I know you said you want to check it in, but why? 

Lala also recommends using escalator question steps to drive the conversation, meaning you start with generic queries and, as you continue talking, your questions and statements become more specific. An example might be:

  • Step 1: I noticed something’s going on. What’s going on?

  • Step 2: It seems like there’s some amount of anxiety. Can you tell me more about it?

  • Step 3: This is what I think is happening. What’s going on with that?

3. State what needs to be done

Asking questions is one thing, but asking if you can make a decision is another. Lala says once you’ve worked your way through the escalator questions, shy away from phrases like, Can I do this? or Do you think I should?

Instead, be firm. “I know exactly what I’m going to do, and I’m going to state it,” she says. “That puts us in a leadership position. Even if you’re not a manager at work, you can always be a leader.”

For instance, in a situation where you’re new on the team and someone is micromanaging you, try: I know you want updates on this project. I will get those to you on X date by X time. 

If your coworker says your way doesn’t make sense or they want more frequency, ask them to elaborate: What do you mean? How would that help you?

Lala says, “Keep asking questions to get to the root cause, then repeat it back to them, ‘What I’m hearing is you don’t trust me because I’m a new employee, is that correct?’ And that’s fine if that’s correct. I just want to understand it so that I can help you.”

4. Reframe the conversation

Once you’re through the initial conflict and you’ve laid out your plan of action, Lala says you can soften the conversation by making it more positive—for them. Flip the script by explaining how your plan will benefit the controlling person or your company or both. She suggests trying phrasing like:

I’ve noticed there’s a pattern here, and I just want to make this better for everybody. How can I help?

5 subtle signs your coworker is a control freak

1. They're dependent

A controlling coworker tends to stifle professional growth and development. Encouraging success and independence among you and your coworkers is not their goal. They need to be needed. Thus the constant CCing on emails and need to be involved every step of the way. They might play a role in every task, require approval of minutiae, sit in on all meetings, take a slice of every project, or ask to see everything you do.

How to deal with a dependent coworker

Their need for dependency is a symptom of insecurity. They could be viewing you or your other peers as a threat to their job or competence. If you work closely with them, consider these tactics:

  • Encourage their strengths and let them be the expert on what they’re genuinely good at (if this person is your boss, this is called managing up).

  • Give them regular visibility into your work—Google Sheets or task managers that let them independently view progress without having to bug you all the time.

  • Communicate early and often. But also be aware that their love of frequent status reports can lead to critique or complete revision, so proceed with caution.

  • Try not to take controlling behavior criticism personally. If the behavior is this severe, it’s likely that they treat everyone and everything this way. It’s not you, it’s them.

2. They don’t trust you

Maybe they put all their instructions to you in writing and ask that you confirm everything you do in writing as well. They might follow up on deadlines a million times even before they arrive (and even though you meet them every time). They insist on reviewing/approving everything you do (much like the dependent coworker above). Maybe they assume it's your fault when something goes wrong or ask, What did you do wrong? instead of, Let’s talk about what happened.

This behavior can create an uncomfortable or even toxic work environment. But don’t let this hold you back from your work or allow it to tear down your confidence.

How to deal with a distrustful coworker

This lack of trust may come from a level above them—perhaps your coworker has a manager who exhibits similar behavior or gets disproportionately angry when projects fail.

  • When things go well, give them a report as to why. Show them what role you played in the good work and how you plan to repeat that success again. This can help them build trust in you and represent you well if they have micromanaging superiors.

  • When things go wrong, give them a plan for making it right. Show them that you see the error and have a plan to either correct it now or avoid the same mistake in the future.

Read more: Office Politics? I’ll Work from Home, Thanks

3. They dominate meetings

While meetings are an important tool for getting projects done in the workplace, control freaks don’t have effective meeting skills. Instead, they yell to make a point, bark orders at staff, talk on and on without involving the rest of the group, or shut down ideas immediately.

How to deal with a domineering coworker

As much as you want to roll your eyes at this behavior, don’t. One of the most effective ways to influence behavior change in a controlling coworker is to maintain a completely neutral response while they are talking, then report it when it crosses the line.

  • Stay as neutral as possible. Giving emotionally charged feedback can prolong their endless monologue as it validates or feeds their rant.

  • Document their behavior and language along with dates, times, context, and who else was present. This will be key when reporting an abusive coworker.

  • If their behavior is abusive, hostile, or discriminatory, report it. Talk to another higher-up you trust or go to HR.

Read more: 13 Signs of a Toxic Work Environment and When It Becomes Illegal

4. They don’t listen

There’s nothing more frustrating than suggesting ideas and improvements to a team member only to have those ideas ignored. A controlling coworker typically isn’t the best listener. Their arrogance and focus on themselves keep them shut off from their team and closed off to new suggestions.

How to deal with a coworker who doesn’t listen

Try positioning your needs, ideas, and feedback in terms of what's in it for them. While your suggestions might be great, if it's not a priority for your coworker (i.e., they don’t see the benefit to them), it won't be heard or acted upon.

Read more: When Your New Job Is Nothing Like You Expected

5. They don’t inspire good, creative work

Controlling coworkers rarely lead by example—even if they’re in leadership positions. They don’t motivate you to perform your best, try new things, or develop your skills in the workplace. They can be dismissive, suffocating, nitpicking, and intimidating (in all the wrong ways).

How to deal with a demotivating, control-freak coworker

  • Sometimes you need to be your own inspiration.

  • Make a personal career plan to help you track your projects and set goals for your development.

  • Look to other peers you trust to give you feedback.

  • Find a mentor.

  • Create your own conditions for motivation and success by breaking a habit that doesn’t serve you or learning a new skill that does.

Read more: How to Find Your Work Motivation...and Keep It

About our source

Fauzia Lala is the executive director and head coach of Defense Ninjas women's worldwide self-defense and empowerment program. An ex-Microsoft engineer, Lala has education and experience in neurolinguistic programming psychology and health and wellness life coaching. She has been featured in Seattle Times, NY Weekly, and others.

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