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Controlling Employee

Many of us have had to deal with controlling managers, who like to micromanage and fail to communicate. But what about having to lead a controlling employee?

I’ve worked with several coaching clients who have been challenged by this situation.

On the one hand, it seems like an easy solution. You’re the boss, so you can just tell them what to do, and how to behave.

However, it can be much more complicated than that. We want to reduce their controlling behaviour, rather than exacerbate it.

In this post, I’ll take a look at the challenge of leading a controlling employee, including what you might observe, and some steps to try to improve the situation.

What Do We Mean By a Controlling Employee?

A controlling employee is somebody who … likes to be in control. Sounds obvious, right?

Intuitively, we might think that this situation would be rare. How can they control anything, when they work for you?

I usually see this situation arise in two main forms.

Either the controlling employee manages their own team, or they are highly experienced and influential amongst their peers, even though they may not be in a leadership role themselves.

Let’s look at how we might know we’re dealing with one.

How Does a Controlling Employee Show Up?

There are several telltale signs that may indicate you’re dealing with a controlling employee.

Here are some of the ones to look for:

  • Controlling your team - puppetWithholding information. A controlling employee may hold onto information, because knowledge is power! They won’t necessarily lie, but they may just keep important things to themselves.
  • Acting as the go-to expert. Sometimes a controlling employee shows up as the expert – the go-to person. This can introduce risk as they are the only one who knows about a particular topic, system or process.
  • Holding on, instead of letting go. If you find that someone refuses to delegate or share tasks or accountabilities, keeping everything for themselves… you may be dealing with a controlling employee.
  • Lack of collaboration and teamwork. In an effort to retain a sense of control, these employees may start to disengage from other teams, becoming less collaborative.
  • Emotional outbursts. In the face of changes in the workplace, controlling employees may show signs of stress, frustration and anger, driven by the potential loss of control. Especially if any changes could cause them to lose responsibility or their expert status.

OK, so those are some of the things we might observe.

But why do they happen – what’s really going on here?

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader Podcast #78: Want to Feel More In Control of Your Team? Try Letting Go.

What’s Behind the Controlling Employee?

Once more, I’ll refer you to the ever-useful Iceberg Model for this one. The signs that we see “above the waterline” are only a symptom of what’s really going on here.

Iceberg model components to build empathy

Beneath the iceberg, we have thoughts, feelings, values, needs, fears, motivations and much more.

This is useful to keep in mind, because even though you may find the behaviour of a controlling employee to be frustrating or disruptive, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s malicious.

There are many potential causes hiding beneath the surface. In my experience, the most common reasons are based on fear or feeling under-appreciated and undervalued.

For example, a controlling employee may be fearful of losing their job, so they attempt to be the go-to person. After all, it’s very difficult to get rid of someone who you rely on so much!

Or, you may find that a controlling employee craves validation and appreciation. It may be that the more responsibility and control they have, the more they feel as if they are appreciated as a key member of the team and organisation.

Any “empire building” behaviour you may observe may not actually be from a hunger for power. It may be to satisfy a need that is far less malicious.

Learn More:  Seeing Negative Behaviour Patterns? Here’s How to Stop Them.

How to Work With a Controlling Employee

When you observe controlling behaviour from someone who works for you, it can be tempting to try to sideline the person, reducing their influence over the situation.

However, this may have the opposite effect than what you might hope for. If we assume that the person does not have malicious intent (see the previous section above), then ideally we’d like to help them reduce their controlling behaviour.

We can try to do that by reducing the perceived threat level, to reduce the feeling that they’re losing control, or aren’t sufficiently valued.

Fear causing resistance

However, there is a balance to be struck. We can’t just let them take more control to stop them becoming upset. We need to both reduce their need for control, while taking control of the situation ourselves.

Here are some suggestions about how you might go about working with a controlling employee to do just that.

Learn More:  Power Dynamics: Are They Impacting Your Team?

1. Be Open and Transparent About Your Intent

This one seems obvious at first. We want to be open and transparent with everyone, right?

Well, yes. But with a controlling employee, this is doubly important.

Difficult conversationWhat I’ve found is that because a controlling employee can feel threatened by change, they can react badly when you’re trying to make improvements in your team. Especially if they perceive the change as a threat to their status or influence.

As a result, some leaders will shy away from engaging the troublesome team member, for fear of upsetting them. Unfortunately, this often causes greater harm in the long run when they are surprised later on.

Your intent may be to restructure your team, to improve productivity or to share skills and knowledge amongst the team. These are all noble purposes, but can be threatening to a controlling employee.

If your controlling employee is seen as an expert, then sharing knowledge amongst the team may be perceived as reducing their power and influence. It’s important to highlight what you’re trying to achieve for the team.

In this case, it would be to reduce the risk of having a “single point of failure” – a single person who knows everything.

As such, the purpose of being transparent is to keep them informed of what’s coming, while also showing them the respect of letting them know early.

Learn More:  Open Communication: 6 Powerful Ways to Create It.

2. Enlist Their Help

One source of insecurity with many controlling employees is that they feel undervalued or under-appreciated.

What better way to show that you value their contribution than to ask for their input and suggestions, or even get them to help with the changes you’re trying to make?

They may become an ally to help you improve your team, while feeling like an integral part of the process.

3. Provide Multiple Channels of Communication

Sometimes leaders take a one-size-fits-all approach to their communication.

For example, when planning a structural change to their department, they may decide to have a team meeting with all their managers, to show them the plan and discuss the way forward.

This works well when you lead a bunch of confident and secure individuals. However, if there are any controlling employees in the mix, they may feel quite uncomfortable with the situation.

This could result in a disruptive outburst in front of the rest of the team, or worse, dysfunctional behaviour outside of the meeting.

Providing 1 to 1 conversations in addition to any group discussions can enable an additional avenue to raise concerns, which can help your controlling employee feel a little more secure.

4. Show Appreciation

Controlling employees may come across as insecure because they feel under-appreciated.

The solution? Show appreciation.

Let them know that you value their input or expertise.

Don’t feel like doing it? Do it anyway.

Over time, you may find that your controlling employee starts to loosen up as they feel like a valued member of the organisation.

This will hopefully help them let go and relax, as they no longer feel the need to maintain their power base by hoarding information or making themselves indispensable.

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader Podcast #192: How to Stop Being a Bottleneck In Your Team.

5. Build Your Network

In my opinion, all leaders should be building their networks within their organisation.

However, when it comes to leading a controlling employee, this becomes even more important.


Because when you have a strong network, you’ll be more likely to hear about things going on in your area. If your controlling employee is taking some subversive, cloak-and-dagger actions, then it’s best that you know about their manoeuvring.

Consider building your network as an insurance policy – to help safeguard yourself against any dysfunctional behaviour from a threatened controlling employee.

Learn More:  Stakeholder Management Tips For the Everyday Leader.

What You See Isn’t Always All There Is

We’ll often see dysfunctional or disruptive behaviour in the workplace.

But I’ve seen this behaviour turn around enough times to know that people can change, when the environment changes.

Controlling employees are often not malicious – they may simply be scared of losing their status or the feeling that they’re valuable.

I’ll always take the default approach that a person is capable and willing – we just have to create the right conditions for them to do well. Of course, not everyone is suited to every workplace, but you’ll never know unless you try!

Have you ever had to lead a controlling employee? How did you handle it? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!

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