Most corporate cultures place a high value on accomplishment and productivity, which explains why so many compulsive, driven leaders rise to executive positions.

While compulsive leaders can claim credit for myriad workplace advancements, their obsession with tasks and goals contributes to employee dissatisfaction and disengagement.

If you report to a compulsive leader, you likely experience mixed feelings over completing great work vs. bearing the pain that comes with it.

Are You Compulsively Driven?

Compulsive leaders are appreciated from the top echelons, but not as much from the bottom ones. They expect their people to be as efficient and goal-oriented as they are. Unfortunately, it’s not a realistic expectation.

Their insistence on hard work and achievement overshadows people’s needs, suggests Beatrice Chestnut, PhD, in The 9 Types of Leadership: Mastering the Art of People in the 21st Century Workplace (Post Hill Press, 2017). As Dr. Chestnut explains, the compulsive leader is passionate about doing the best job possible, achieving the most success and looking good doing it.

The Pros and Cons of Compulsiveness

Though the compulsive mindset is hard to deal with, there are some beneficial aspects of this type of leadership style. The compulsive leader:

  • Accomplishes goals and achieves results
  • Brings a spirit of excellence to the workplace
  • Runs a tight ship and knows what’s going on
  • Is dedicated to people who do good work
  • Inspires dedication and teamwork

But the fallout from adverse effects can far outweigh the positives. A compulsive leader:

  • Can be insensitive and rough on people
  • Is intolerant of mistakes or slow work
  • Often sets the bar unachievably high
  • Micromanages “underperformers” and shows favoritism to achievers
  • Can’t deal with failure and doesn’t learn from it
  • Can overwork into exhaustion and suffer from bad judgment
  • Lacks humility and openness to vulnerabilities
  • Has a one-track mind that can reject others’ input
  • Causes dissention and disunity, stemming from a lack of people skills

These negatives can clearly put an organization in a poor position for long-term success. Coaches can help leaders take healthier approaches to success without the collateral damage to the workforce.

The Signs of a Compulsive Leader

High energy and dedication to long hours without complaint are common in compulsive leaders. Their emphasis on results is reflected in their speech and decisions. They are bottom-line people, often cutting off others to get to the main point. They take the direct and ultra-efficient approach. They refer to their accomplishments as a matter of habit and continuously cite their goals.

Compulsive leaders are obsessed with speed. Productivity looms large in their interactions, with tasks and checklists overriding feelings or emotions. They seek the upper hand and search for ways to win. Unable to sit still, they make every minute count.

Slow people, inefficient meetings and unnecessary explanations frustrate compulsive leaders. They are more concerned about averting delays than how their behavior affects those around them. They outwardly enjoy being in charge and having things done their way.

The Compulsive Mindset

Understanding compulsive leaders’ perspectives and motivations can help them transition to healthier behavior.

Compulsive leaders believe only hard work and achieving their goals will bring them personal fulfillment. Failures are downplayed or denied.

Emotions, they believe, get in the way and slow things down. They’ll do their best to ignore them. Keeping things superficial—tasks, duties, goals and appearances—is more manageable.

Blind Spots

Compulsiveness can be viewed as emphatic behavior driven by an intense internal focus. Thus, they are unaware of the personal difficulties they cause their people.

When employees’ feelings or needs go unaddressed, morale, engagement and unity suffer heavy blows. Consequently, work quality suffers, thereby fostering further unfortunate leadership responses. This downward spiral feeds upon itself, and compulsive leaders blame their employees.

A coach can help steer compulsive leaders away from damaging habits and toward healthier ones by posing some introspective questions:

  • Can you get in touch with your feelings? Why not?
  • Do you believe your people have no feelings?
  • How do you think people respond when their feelings go unaddressed? What does the eventual outcome look like?
  • How is a person’s true value determined? Is it task related?
  • What would happen if you slowed down? What’s the likelihood of this result?
  • What’s so devastating about failure? Can anything be learned from it?
  • Are you ever concerned about burning out? How could burnout affect your leadership abilities?
  • How has striving for recognition helped you?
  • What signs would indicate your people don’t trust you? Would it bother you to miss these signs?

Counsel for Compulsive Leaders

It’s difficult for compulsive leaders to identify with feelings (their own or others’) and step outside their own perspective. One effective approach involves training and coaching that focuses on relating to people.

Other key steps can help leaders reduce their compulsive tendencies and reconsider their values:

  1. Assess what constitutes real self-worth. Is it what you can gain for yourself, or is there more value in making a lasting contribution by developing others?
  2. Get in touch with your emotions and become more self-aware to enhance your leadership impact on others and the world around you.
  3. Accept people and their traits. Learn to work on a more relational level, appreciating what they offer rather than fighting it.
  4. Embrace failure and learn from it. Failure can offer the best lessons for future success. It’s not nearly as fatal as you once believed. It’s normal.
  5. Step back and make note of the responses you see when you enact the previous steps. You are strengthening your workplace culture.

Working for a Compulsive Leader

Compulsiveness is a tough trait to manage. Staff can start by recognizing the compulsive personality’s fundamental traits.

Addressing a compulsive leader’s needs requires people to give their best.  Accountability is critical.

Delivering needed information succinctly is important. Compulsive leaders should not be pressed for a personal relationship. Leaders will respond to respect and appreciation, that doesn’t veer into sycophancy or manipulation.

As leaders work past their compulsive tendencies, tensions will ease and spirits will lift. Giving leaders positive feedback and thanks will enhance the transition even further.

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