5 Ways to set professional boundaries with control freaks
I can’t imagine standing over a plumber as a leaky pipe sprays him directly in the face, dictating how he should fix it. But I know of some particularly finicky (read: obnoxious, bored, Connecticut) homeowners who would.
I trust people I hire to do jobs—because I trust myself to have found the right person for the job.
Once upon a time, I decided to stop being an employee. I decided to be free. It was risky and awesome, and I’ve worked my ass off to get where I am. I have a vast, broad client roster based on reputation, skill, and longevity. My best clients take me seriously while understanding the unique value I bring to the table.
But not everyone gets it. They think they know better than me how I should do my job.
It’s a dominance thing. It’s not hard to spot and it’s annoyingly common, particularly if you’re confident. For as long as I’ve been doing this (that’s 20 years in design and web, even longer in writing and editing), it still comes up.
So I’ve had to master a few ways to create boundaries.
1. Engage less.
Control freaks need you to react to them in a timely fashion. They take it personally if you don’t, and then they become bullies. These are the clients that send message after message after message, usually in off hours… Don’t engage. This is the equivalent of letting a baby cry it out.
If you give in every time to their need for attention, the work suffers, as you get trapped in an endless cycle of revisions, trial-and-error, and wasted (likely unpaid) time. Not only that, you’re communicating from a place of weakness, which means you’re likely to react to every little thing, which perpetuates the volley of discontent.
Wait. Breathe. Respond succinctly, honestly, and move the project along.
By doing so, you re-assert yourself, focus the communication where it should be, demonstrate that you ignore over-reactivity, and gain respect.
But what if they fire you? Well, they’ve just shown you they desperately need you, so that’s not likely. But if they do, then good riddance to the drama. Be sure to have a strong Termination clause in your contract.
2. Write less.
I’ve made this mistake so many times. I write lengthy messages explaining what and why when I know I’m in a control-dominance situation.
Hold a meeting.
People with boundary issues will struggle to dominate you in front of other people, and if they do, stay calm and in control of the meeting. They may still gather their troops around them and attack from the shadows afterwards, but it’s less likely. (It’s more likely they’ll act like you were Their Great Discovery or some other nonsense that elevates them.)
A meeting that you request, organize, and present gives you an opportunity to sell your ideas, and to use your personality and grace to focus and direct the conversation, rather than emailing a lengthy writeup and closing with, “Tell me what you think!”
Even better: During the meeting, say, “Does anyone have any thoughts? Questions? Is there something I can explain better?”
The point is to keep the project moving. Keep. The. Project. Moving.
3. Beware the Middle Man.
Your colleagues will bring you in on a project because they know and trust you. Very often, these are amazing experiences that build each of you up.
But when the person intends to serve as middle-man, not partner, it’s doomed. And tricky.
Any of this sound familiar?
- Consults with you on a problem or strategy, then has a backchannel meeting with the client to make themselves look good
- Creates plans and schedules without asking you how long things actually take, so that they can prove their value to the client
- Blocks your communication with the client and/or bad-mouths you to the client to cover their own mistakes or shortcomings (e.g., saying that a phase isn’t completed yet because you were late, when in fact you did your part and they haven’t)
- Carries a weird amount of personal anxiety into the project and/or complains outright about the client
- Acts as if you should be grateful for having been invited in on the project
- Negotiates directly with or discusses your fees with the client, although you’re billing the client directly
- My favorite, and it’s happened more than a few times: Gets fired by the client (who keeps you on)
Colleagues acting as intermediaries are insecure about their roles, so they need to dominate you, rather than partnering with you to create success for the client. (These people tend to have been dumped out of Corporate America; they’re not real entrepreneurs and are probably looking for a full-time job.)
Structure the arrangement from the get-go so that your autonomy is preserved. Require that you work directly with the client, alongside but not through your colleague.
Will a control freak colleague still backchannel with the client? For sure, they have to, but choose not to engage with their emotional / anxious behavior for the duration of the project. (“Engage Less” applies here as well.)
4. Call them out.
This takes a bit of practice, but if you’re really secure in the role you’re serving and you feel the relationship is becoming aggressive, damaging, or abusive, call the person out. Not only is it empowering, it’s unexpected.
You don’t have to “clap back.” To an emotional outburst, simply state the truth, as in, “I’m not interested in engaging on this level. Let’s focus on the work.”
If you’re sensing that a project is derailing because an intermediary is mis-communicating or misdirecting—particularly if you’re being kept at a frustrating distance—get on the phone and say, “Tell me exactly what the client is saying so we can get this wrapped up.”
You will feel 100x better, I guarantee. Clarity is a gift every entrepreneur owes to him/herself.
5. Sometimes you just can’t.
I’ve been in situations where I’ve gone above and beyond for a client—like enhancing weak brand or campaign messaging, which comes innately to me—and they’ve rejected the work outright because the boss was insulted. It’s rare, but it’s happened. I was excited to gift them a kick-ass idea, but they reacted badly.
I’ve never been the kind of worker who delivers mediocre work, but I can see why people get to that point. When you’re made to feel like a jerk-for-hire by someone without an ounce of creativity, it’s hard not to take it personally.
But in these cases, maturity has taught me to emotionally disengage from the project immediately. There are probably factors involved that you will never know. Just do the work, collect the money, and devote your energy to more worthwhile projects or ideas.
It’s their loss.
They’re NOT the boss of you—literally.
When I was 10 years younger, I met women my age+ in this field who were bitter and suspicious. In my naiveté, I thought they were threatened by a fast-moving marketplace or just plain cantankerous. But now I have a different perspective: As a professional services entrepreneur—maybe especially as a woman—you have to eat shit all week long.
But I refuse to let the industry, bullies, control freaks, or narcissists ruin my world view.
The fun creative part of what you do takes a backseat to client management—ALWAYS. I love working hands-on with my clients, but it’s a delicate balancing act when a control-dominance situation is spraying you directly in the face.
I can see it coming now, that’s the main difference between how I used to deal with it (fold up and drink, many days) to how I deal with it now (just say no).
Set your boundaries. Keep a cool head. Never ever let anyone diminish your feelings of self-worth.
Share your boundary issue stories below—I’d love to help!