Q. I work with someone who just loves obsessing about petty details. As far as he can tell, the sky is falling, every detail will cause the end of the world, and every mistake may end a life. I find him exhausting. Is there anyone I can get him to stop flipping out on every tiny detail of my job?
A. Yes, your colleague has an anxiety disorder. People are not born wanting to alienate everyone around them by obsessing about details. The trouble is people with anxiety disorders attach Armageddon-like importance to every detail because they are terrified all the time.
Since you can't insist your coworker see a psychiatrist for some good medication, you can only work with the psychology of an anxiety disorder.
The workplace is pretty scary even for people who don't have anxiety disorders. There is the possibility of getting fired, being embarrassed or publicly failing. Even calm people have days where every detail seems like life or death.
No amount of detail management will fix your coworker's anxiety. Ironically, what works is to ask your coworker to describe his worst case scenario if one of these details drops through the cracks. All of a sudden, the details will be seen against the backdrop of an actual real problem.
Once your coworker has described this problem, you can help him find solutions if this problem occurs. The good news is we can all prepare for a specific problem. On the other hand, no one is so perfect that we can guarantee no mistake will be made on any one project.
The idea with anxiety is to take control of what we can. If we worry that we will be fired, we can put out our resume. If we worry we'll lose a client, we can market. People are good at coming up with a Plan B if they can define a problem. The trouble with obsessing mindlessly about details is a problem is never defined.
Your coworker is attempting to fix a house by learning to ride a horse (yes, this doesn't make sense). He believes that if he can control every detail, then magically some undefined scary problem won't occur. Of course, since he hasn't defined the problem, controlling every detail of a project won't guarantee anything except making coworkers hate him.
Consider that most superstitions were probably made up by people who had anxiety disorders. If you spill salt, you must throw some over your shoulder. If you break a mirror, then seven years of bad luck will ensue. If you walk under a ladder, something bad will happen. Notice that what every superstition has in common is the vagueness of the "bad" thing that will happen.
Workplace superstitions are as powerful as any other fear based belief. People will often do irrational and ineffective things for no good reason other than to avoid their fear. By requiring people around you to label the problem, you dispel the power of vague anxiety. In the old myths and legends, knowing the true name of an evil magician meant you had power over him. In the modern workplace, defining the true nature of a problem has the same effect!
The last word(s)
Q. I have a coworker who has done a lot of therapy. She goes around saying mean things and says she learned to be honest in therapy. Is therapy about running other people over with honesty?
A. No, therapy is about improving yourself not about sharing all your feelings. Mean people will find any excuse (even therapy) for hurting others.
(Daneen Skube, Ph.D., executive coach, trainer, therapist and speaker, also appears as the FOX Channel's "Workplace Guru" each Monday morning. She's the author of "Interpersonal Edge: Breakthrough Tools for Talking to Anyone, Anywhere, About Anything" (Hay House, 2006). You can contact Dr. Skube at http://www.interpersonaledge.com or 1420 NW Gilman Blvd., #2845, Issaquah, WA 98027. Sorry, no personal replies.)