Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

How To Encourage Growth Under A Controlling Boss


One of the things I enjoy about my work is having conversations with people about the nature of leadership, and the challenges and opportunities leaders face in this continually evolving, interconnected business environment.

One of these conversations lead to a discussion about how leaders who want to push for change can deal with those above them who operate from the command-and-control style of leadership – in other words, those that subscribe to the overtly-controlling it’s my way or you’re out approach.

Since that conversation, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss and learn about how both employees and other leaders are also grappling with this organizational schism of dealing with someone stuck in an Industrial Age mindset of top-down leadership, while having to address today’s challenges and issues which require a more collaborative, inclusive and open workplace dynamic.

Based on these conversations, I’d like to share the following three measures that can help both employees and leaders who have to deal with a controlling boss who is clearly stuck in the ‘this is the way things are done around here’ mindset to ensure that they are able to promote growth and collective success in their organization.

1. Don’t focus on your value but on the value you can create
One of the common issues I hear when I discuss with clients and colleagues this issue of working for a controlling boss – especially those that operate from a top-down, win-at-all-costs leadership mindset – is how they feel like they’re more a means to an end than a valued contributor to their organization.

In discussing this situation, one thing that becomes clear is that both parties are almost speaking a different language in terms of their perspective and perception. For employees, their focus is on how to get those in charge to see them as being something more than what they do. For controlling bosses, however, their focus is simply on what they want their employees to get done in order to obtain their desired end result, regardless of the impact or impression that leaves on those under their care.

To resolve this difference in focus and attitudes, we need to shift what and how we communicate so that both parties get what they want and need.

To do this, employees and those who have to work with controlling bosses have to understand that you can’t go into these conversations trying to argue that they need to see the value you bring to the table. Instead, what you should focus on demonstrating to these controlling bosses is how we can help them to do their job well.

Remember that controlling bosses are often self-driven in terms of their own recognition, pride, and influence in the organization. And consequently, they’re not going to be interested in creating value for others.

But if you can demonstrate how the initiative you’re suggesting helps to make them look good – while at the same time knowing for yourself how this will give you that sense of value and purpose which drives our internal motivations to learn and grow – they’ll be far more likely to support your idea, and with it, your growth going forward.

2. Find trusted advisors who will help you to keep your focus and orientation
Of course, no discussion about controlling bosses would be complete if we didn’t discuss the emotional and at times, psychological toll these kinds of relationships can have, not just on our working dynamics, but on its risk of creating negative repercussions in our home lives as well.

That’s why it’s critical that you locate trusted advisors in your organization who can help to keep you grounded. These should be people who serve as more than just a sounding board, but as cardinal points on your career or leadership compass that will help you to keep things in perspective.

You can easily identify these colleagues in how they are able to help you see through the noise created by your controlling boss to understand how others view your contributions and abilities, and where you can serve the greatest good moving forward.

This is a critical measure to employ because it will help you to know how to present future ideas and initiatives in such a way as to get your controlling boss on board, while at the same time ensuring that you satisfy the innate need we all have to know that our contributions create value and benefit for our organization and to those we serve.

Also, make sure that you show appreciation for these trusted advisors as it’s very easy to get consumed with your own issues that you might take these individuals for granted. So just as how you need to feel value and purpose in your efforts, make sure that those who serve as the cardinal points on your compass know and understand the value they provide to you in keeping your focus on where it needs to be.

3. Work within controlling boss constraints to find opportunities to strengthen and grow
One of the hardest parts of dealing with a controlling boss is that we can feel like our own freedom and choices are being stifled for petty or self-driven reasons. While this frustration can be understandable, it can also lead us to focus more on what we’re being denied than on workarounds to find opportunities to do what we need to get done.

Again, when dealing with a controlling boss, it’s hard to reason with them because they are so often set in their ways or in their own perceptions that any resistance to seeing things their way will surely lead to conflict and strife within the organization.

This is again why you need trusted advisors who can help you to stay your course in knowing how to navigate around your controlling boss so you can feel some measure of success and meaning in what you do to ensure you remain an active participant in the process.

It also helps to view these constraints as similar to limitations one faces in innovation – where the goal is to find the most effective way to address the roadblock while remaining on course to what you ultimately want to achieve.

That’s why your goal here should be to find initiatives where you can make your boss look good, while at the same time having those opportunities where you can learn and grow; where you can strengthen your core competencies and experiences so that, going forward, you will become a much more valued contributor to your organization.

Or at the very least, develop those key talents, skills, and abilities sought after by other organizations where you might find better opportunities to contribute meaningfully to the organization.

Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” – Bernard M. Baruch

At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that our goal and what drives us to succeed is not to change a controlling boss we work for and frankly, the odds of us being able to change them is slim at best. Instead, our goal should be to know that we are valued contributors to our organization, that what we do matters and is making a difference, and that we have opportunities to learn and grow so we can continue to evolve and strengthen our core competencies going forward.

When we give ourselves this permission to recognize this shift in how we view these kinds of relationships – where we avoid making it all about us vs. them and instead keep it on what it is we need to achieve and what our organization needs to accomplish to succeed and thrive – we will find ourselves being in a much better, more stable and productive mindset from which to appreciate the value we do in fact bring to our organization and to those we serve.

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One Comment
  1. On November 6th, 2014 at 1:48 AM Raluca Bodkin said:

    Managers come in all shapes and colors. I think you touched 3 important aspects of the controlling managers and I like the second point best – keeping sane and serene is most important because you want to do something and keep going.
    However, there are also other types of bosses and I would be curious about your views on how to deal with a scared boss for instance.

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