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Pervin Family Business Advisors


The Many Faces of Control Freaks

THE GLOBE AND MAIL – MANAGING – Tuesday, April 18, 2000, B17B

In one business family, every member had a technique to control the others.

The oldest son, who began leading the firm after his father's sudden death, frequently suffered stress-related fatigue that caused him to miss work. This allowed the mother to do many tasks to help out, which she held over the others heads.

The youngest son was an alcoholic. The daughter constantly excelled in all areas, but continually complained about her siblings to earn her mother's attention.

In this family, as in others, control is the art of getting one's own way. Everyone likes to be in control, and few people enjoy being controlled.

It's not about a quest for power; it's about a fear of change. Whether it's overt or sneaky, here are the types to beware.

There lies the fundamental conflict in every business and every family. In family businesses, control is twice as contentious - and it's in family businesses where you often find the true virtuosos in the delicate art.

Let's debunk a popular misconception about control - it's really not about a thirst for power. Instead, it's usually motivated by a drive for predictability and safety. Beneath all the manipulation, you'll usually find a frightened individual fighting the forces of change.

That's why controllers are usually manipulators rather than dictators. And that's why control mongers rarely see themselves as responsible for the havoc they cause. After all, they are trying to suppress change – and therefore it is precisely because they are not in control of others that bad things happen.

So with this understanding that the need for control arises from fear, not power madness, let me introduce you to the four leading control artists who most frequently enter my office.

Keep in mind that it's often difficult to separate these characters – they often come in as amalgams – but I'm sure you'll recognize them:

The Blamer: Everyone knows The Blamer. Whatever decisions are made in the family business, The Blamer knew better all along and is happy to share how everything should have been done. The Blamer typically focuses on the person and not the problem. He or she aggressively seeks to find fault and offer condemnation.

When The Blamer is in top form, you feel inferior, incompetent and unappreciated. But – surprise – The Blamer typically considers the exchange to be con-tructive criticism and is baffled by the declining performance that follows.

The Pleaser: Underneath The Pleaser's kind exterior is a tough character. You'll have a hard time nailing this operator. When someone is so considerate, "doing good" and peace-making, how do you tell him or her to back off? But it's a helping hand that slowly, relentlessly places a pillow over your head and presses down.

You will hear phrases such as, "I thought you needed some help," but for some reason you find yourself feeling an obligation to your rescuer. As your guilt grows, The Pleaser gets increasingly intrusive. Finally, you're in a double bind, either you capitulate to this person's way of doing things or you set yourself up as ungrateful and unwilling to accept help. The Pleaser wants family partners for whom – not about whom – they can care.

The Whiner: No one dares confront The Whiner. You will upset someone who is under stress and needs rest. Their entire being resonates with, "Poor me!" Through helplessness and sickness, The Whiner displays victimization. Decisions don't get made because he or she is unavailable. Work doesn't get completed, but it's not The Whiner's fault that no one else picked up the ball. "I wanted to do it but..." is the mantra of the character who doesn't want to take responsibility, but wants others to feel duty and obligation.

The Schemer: These types are front and centre and make no bones about it. Their needs must be met at the expense of all others. Frequently capricious, evasive and thoughtless, Schemers are often "holics" – alcoholics or workaholics who can be emotionally seductive but seldom emotionally available. But despite being self-righteous, rigid, secretive or volatile, The Schemer avoids taking direct responsibility – the earmark of a true control artisan.

The Schemer will assure you that he or she wants to share power, cultivate other leaders and so on. But when decision time comes, the phrase you hear most often is, "yes, but..." The Schemer is the owner who constantly withholds full authority, moves the goal line, and then does part of everyone else's work while berating them.

I have met many other controllers, avoiders who control through constant subject changes, seducers who control through cute-ness, superheroes who control through high achievement, and intellectuals who control through micro-analysis of all experience. The variations are countless. But it's the unifying characteristic of all controllers that is fascinating. They are never accountable. Their techniques of control are so deft that they stay out of accountability's reach. Who can take someone to task for being sick? How can you challenge someone who is only trying to be helpful? If no one ever does anything right, how can it be wrong to seize control?

It's really a tremendous waste of energy, of course, because you can never fully control someone else, at least, not forever. Letting go of the control urge frees up energy and makes the family business ownership world much more comfortable and enjoyable for all.


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