Dealing with Controlling People
How to Work With a Controlling Person
Do you have a co-worker or boss who puts constant demands on you? Do they criticize your work unreasonably but never accept responsibility for their own mistakes? Overly controlling people are often classified as “narcissists.” Narcissism is a personality disorder that breeds extreme self-absorption, need for praise, obsession with control, and a lack of empathy for others. It is difficult to live with and almost impossible to change or control. Learning how to cope with such a person in the workplace can, therefore, help you manage your stress and may even save your job.
Reading a Controlling Person
Find out about narcissistic personalities.Narcissists are pathologically self-centered. They and others with the more extreme Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) lack empathy, crave admiration, and think that they deserve special treatment. They are arrogant to the point of grandiosity. They see their ideas as the best and sometimes only viable ideas, and will strive to protect their egos and status in the organization at whatever cost.Do you have a co-worker who always needs praise or who has unreasonable expectations? Do they inflate their importance and exaggerate their contributions? Do they react angrily to criticism, is easily jealous, and uses others to meet goals? These traits are all related to narcissism, and to other behavioral disorders like antisocial, borderline, and histrionic personalities. There are many good web resources about narcissists and how to deal with them.
- See the Mayo Clinic’s website for an overview. Try visiting Psychology Today at for some basic tips about identifying and handling a narcissistic personality.
Learn the basic signs.Because they are so self-centered and lack empathy, narcissists and control-freaks commonly display behaviors that you should be able to identify. Does your co-worker listen? A narcissist rarely does or belittles opinions because, to them, your concerns are veiled criticisms. Are they quick to blame? A narcissist is unwilling to accept responsibility for the reason, again, that it would imply a criticism; they instead blame others. Narcissists are also apt to bully, especially those they see as weak, a threat, or someone who has criticized them. Keep in mind that your co-worker may conceal their dark side, coming off as charming and generous. In fact, charm may be the reason why they have succeeded in their job and in hiding their bullying from managers.
- It is important to know that narcissists are not always purely destructive. They can bring positive qualities to a workplace. For example, they tend to be passionate about “their” projects; they can be strong leaders and be highly self-motivated; and they can be great at jobs in PR, marketing, social media, or other outreach.
Learn what motivates narcissists.Narcissists are usually of two types: insecure or grandiose. It may be hard to tell from outward behavior, but narcissists often harbor deep-seated doubts and feelings of shame, fear, and paranoia. This sense of vulnerability can lead them to lash out when crossed and to swing from arrogance to extreme self-pity.But while vulnerable types care about how they are viewed, other narcissists are self-confident to the point of delusion and see themselves as infallible. Unlike “vulnerable” narcissists, “grandiose” narcissists are not making up for feelings of inadequacy but simply acting out their expectations. They truly believe they are superior and rate highly in manipulation and psychopathy (i.e. lack of remorse and empathy). More apt to meet criticism with rage or to seek revenge, they are in some ways the more dangerous sort.
Dealing with a Controlling Client
Plan ahead.If you have reason to think that a difficult business client is a narcissist, try to plan ahead in your dealings with them. It is important to avoid openly argument or disagreement. This will only make them angry or, worse, lead them to turn on or undermine you. Try instead to anticipate. Imagine what sort of demands they might spring. This will allow you to be prepared upfront without having to enter a confrontation or give ground, both of which, in view of narcissists’ inability to empathize, could be disastrous for your business relationship.
Watch what you say.Choose your words carefully. A narcissist will read criticism into very innocuous comments, resulting in a tantrum or a potentially damaging, unprofessional display. Tread lightly around a controlling business partner or client, knowing that the least word could set them off. You might not have a choice about dealing with a client, and your job may depend on getting along with them.
- Literally watch what you say, as well: take down the minutes of your meetings and telephone calls. Communicate very clearly about your project, timetables, and your client’s expectations. This will give you support in case they make new demands or accuse you of breaking an agreement.
Stroke their ego while guiding them.Controlling people are often perfectionists; some of them, like Steve Jobs, are indeed visionaries.In a business situation it may be best to play to your controlling client’s narcissistic tendencies. Stroke their ego without being servile. For example, lead them to think that your ideas and suggestions are really their own. Try to finesse them to the desired end rather than being goaded into an argument.
Do not expect to please them.The perfectionism of a controlling client will make it difficult to please. Expect constant demands on your time and to hear that your work is not good enough. Do not be surprised if the client tries to threaten or bully you or to accuse you of mismanagement. Challenging a narcissist will get you nowhere because, to them, they are always right and you are always wrong. By the same token, however, do not show hesitation or weakness. If you must, gently hold your ground and insist upon your initial agreement, using notes as back up.
Put things in writing.You may have to spend a good deal of your time and resources on a controlling client. They will feel entitled to it and put demands on you. Make the project easier by putting things in writing if you can, at the beginning, including your rate of pay and how much time you can reasonably expect to devote to the project. Be gentle but firm. You have other clients to serve. Insist also on a by-the-hour rate rather than flat-rate payment. This will give you some protection from your client’s exorbitant demands, and at the very least will mean that you won’t end up working free overtime.
Handling Controlling Co-Workers
Avoid, avoid, avoid.An obvious tactic is to avoid your co-worker if and when possible. Eat elsewhere if they take their lunch in the break-room. If they work in a cubicle by one restroom, use the other restroom. This method is not a cure-all, particularly for small offices. Even so, refuse to be entangled if you are forced to interact. If your co-worker asks you to do something outside of the office, politely decline. If they denigrate an office mate, excuse yourself and go back to work. They may eventually lose interest.
Stand up without being confrontational.As said before, a narcissist will react poorly to a direct challenge and may even turn the situation against you. Learn to assert yourself without provoking a reaction. If your co-worker makes an unreasonable demand, for example, say that you will think about their suggestion and consider if you can comply – that way, you have not committed yourself. If they try to dragoon you into an extra project, tell them that you would really like to help but are working against your own tight deadlines. Repeat yourself in a calm, controlled voice, the unspoken point being that you will not be bullied or intimidated.
Protect yourself from sabotage.Some narcissists claim disproportionate credit in the workplace or even try to steal recognition, minimizing your input. Be prepared for this sort of behavior. Protect your ideas. Record the work that you are doing and do not freely share details with your co-worker. Keep copies of all your notes and documents. Save your work online or on your computer so that it is time-stamped. Keep records of your interactions, as well, saving emails or jotting them down in a notebook – e.g. ``Monday the 1st: came late to meeting and disparaged my report.`` At the same time, communicate with your boss. Check in regularly so that they will know what you are doing and how you are specifically contributing to the workplace.
- Keep a look out for signs that you are being undermined, as well. Cold behavior from your boss, hostility from formerly friendly colleagues, or any sudden change in normal behavior could signal that your co-worker is quietly sabotaging you.
Talk to your superior.Bringing the problem to the attention of your boss could be risky. Some bosses would rather not be bothered with interpersonal problems or will see you as difficult, “not a team player.” They may also be under the spell of the narcissist’s charm, or your co-worker might try to turn the complaint against you. Be professional, calm, and constructive if you decide on this route. If you can, frame the issue so that it is about the workplace rather than you individually and present it in positive rather than negative terms – e.g. “improving office morale” rather than “my control-freak co-worker.” Bring documentation that supports your version of events. Your boss will be more likely to believe you if you can produce proof and if they see your professional handling of the situation. Asking for a transfer to a different department is another option, as a last resort.
Surviving a Narcissistic Boss
Plan ahead.Like a business client, you probably cannot afford to cross your boss openly. Try to anticipate them, instead. Do they have a habit of shortening your deadlines? Recognize this and adjust project timelines accordingly. Imagine their likely demands and be as prepared for them as you can, avoiding a situation where you might be forced to object or give ground.
Watch what you say.Again like a business client, be very careful of what you say in front of a narcissistic boss. Do not openly criticize or challenge them. Narcissists cannot take criticism and you will find yourself the target of their anger or, worse, out of a job. It may be to your advantage to stroke their ego or even to take the blame when something goes wrong. Whether you do so is your choice. After all, you are in a subordinate position and must deal with their traits somehow. At the same time, set limits on extreme behavior. A narcissistic boss will encroach on your boundaries and expect you to cater to their every whim. Be gentle and matter-of-fact: you will respond to their 2 a.m. calls or emails in the morning, not immediately. You will be in touch again as soon as your vacation ends.
- If you want to speak up, do so carefully. Schedule a private meeting. Tell your boss all the things that you appreciate about them, and then make specific and constructive suggestions. Frame the issue so that it is about the workplace as a whole and not a personal complaint about them.
Do not compete.A narcissistic boss becomes dangerous if they see you as a threat. Let them make the decisions. Follow directions to the letter and present your ideas as if they were their own, while being very specific about their expectations. Follow up and let them know how you are progressing on the task. But do not expect that good results will lead them to reward you or even treat you better. To a narcissistic boss good work is a result of their managerial skill, not your industry. You cannot win and would do better not to play the game. At the same time, however, you should not overtly complain or underperform. This too could provoke your boss’ ire.
Have an escape plan.Working for an overly controlling boss is taxing, exhausting, and stressful. You cannot expect such a personality type to change – in fact, narcissists rarely seek treatment for their behavior. Have an escape plan if you can. Look for jobs elsewhere and send out applications. Do this very discreetly, as your boss might interpret it as an act of disloyalty or even, if they are paranoid, a personal attack. Narcissists are not loyal but often expect utter loyalty in others.Protect yourself until something concrete comes up. Tell only those you really trust about your search. There is no need to be dishonest but also no need to say too much. If you have to leave the office for an interview, tell your boss you have a “personal appointment.” Having a plan in place will give you peace of mind.
QuestionHow can I satisfy a customer that constantly wants more services for less money?Senura RajapathiraneCommunity AnswerIf he's a regular customer, you should give an discount but not too much tell him that this is a business and your doing this for a living.Thanks!
QuestionHow can I get rid of a narcissist boss?Top AnswererDo not attempt to get your boss fired. Try to limit your interactions with your boss.Thanks!
QuestionHow do I deal with a 20 year old, controlling co-worker?Community AnswerAsk them questions they don't know the answer to (about the job or company) and then if they don't know, you tell them the right answer. Show them you are smart and if it continues, put your foot down and tell them nicely what they are doing and get other people to back you up.Thanks!
What is locus of control, Machiavellianism, self esteem, self monitoring, risk taking ?
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