dealing with difficult people :: obsessive compulsives

Be perfect as your God is perfect.  This is the motto of the obsessive-compulsive.  With a penchant to criticize and a gift for seeing things everyone else misses, the obsessive-compulsive is the ultimate Monday morning critic.

Dear Pastor:  I’m concerned.  I couldn’t help but notice that you failed to highlight the importance of Reformation Day this year once again.  This is the third year straight.  I mentioned this in my letter dated November 5, 2008.  If you recall, that letter stated my firm belief that Reformation Day helps counter the false messages our youth receive this time of year, and also highlights the most important moment in Christian history – that time when Luther corrected the Papists.

On and on it goes, noting your failures, highlighting missed opportunities, asserting a message with a one-two punch of moralism and certainty that can be a knockout punch to a young pastor or leader.

I’ve received many emails like this over the years.  But the word I hear over and again is this: concern.  I’ve had so many people concerned with something I said or did or taught over the years that I likely would have been burned at the stake in an earlier time.  But today, Obsessive-Compulsives tend to use words as the sword.  They catch something you said, perhaps inadvertently.  Or, they see you sliding down the slippery slope.  Or, they see a flaw in your budget numbers.  Or, they notice a neglected area of ministry in your church.  Whatever the case, they are detectives on the job, catching every flaw, ready to prosecute.

I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth retelling.  I chaired a Presbytery committee for quite a few years, introducing potential candidates for pastoral ministry.  During one meeting, I introduced a young candidate, saying, “I’d like you to meet John.  I’ve known him for some time.  He’s a really good guy.”

A Presbyter stood and raised his hand: “Point of personal privilege!”

I had no idea what was going on.  But he continued, saying to me, “Brother, can we say that anyone is good?”  I was speechless.  Perhaps I grunted.  Or maybe I just moved on.  I had no idea what to say.  In fact, there have been times when this kind of concern has become white noise, so ludicrous that it can be easily dismissed.

But if you are a leader, working with an Obsessive-Compulsive can be exhausting.  You find yourself constantly watching your back.  You check your email, noting certain names, names which seem to reappear with consistency and with the inevitable concern.  I was talking to a CEO recently who told me that a particular employee was both brilliant and brutal.  He loved his tenacity, but loathed his constant barrage of criticism.  Eventually, he sacrificed the man’s contribution to the company for his own sanity.

Obsessive Compulsive behavior manifests in different ways.  It can manifest in a kind of moralism that sees the faults in everyone else.  It can manifest in a penchant for certainty that refuses to acknowledge gray areas.  It can manifest in a perfectionism which makes everyone else around feel uneasy and inadequate.  It can manifest in performance-driven leadership that majors on measures and minors on mentoring.  It can manifest in theological arrogance, which demonizes all who don’t “get it” (seen on both sides, among liberals and fundamentalists).  It can manifest in organizational filibustering, where certain people simply stall processes in order to prevent change.  Clearly, it shows up in many ways.

I’ve found that dealing with Obsessive Compulsives can be very, very difficult, given the high degree of certainty maintained.  They can be confused with narcissists, at times, because of their penchant for power and lack of empathy.  They live for control, which minimizes any opportunity for mystery or uncertainty.

That said, I’ve found that simply being honest instead of engaging in a power-play with Obsessive Compulsives can bring about some meaningful conversation.  You must respect their need for a high level of detail, and behind that a need for respect.  Show respect.  Acknowledge their contribution when and where you see it.  But also invite their trust.  I’ll end with a letter I sent to an Obsessive Compulsive critic several years back:

Dear Bob (not the real name):

Thank you for your letter.  I wondered if you might be concerned with that decision, and I see you were.  And I respect your thoughtful response.  Thanks for emailing me right away, and thanks for trusting that I’d receive your criticism.  I want to be that kind of leader, though it’s always hard to be criticized.

You probably already know that I don’t see this the same way as you do.  But I want to make sure that when we disagree, we can still maintain a relationship, and even have a give-and-take debate over the issues.  I thought it was important do this now.  And I want you to know that I consulted with a few of my closest colleagues, men and women who are not apt to simply say ‘yes’.  They gave me some constructive feedback, and I even decided to implement the plan differently based on that.

That said, it would help me, at times, if you also spoke to what I did well.  It seems that I only hear from you when you are critical.  I’d really value bringing you into the process more if I knew you could bring both praise and criticism, encouragement and concern.  We all need that.  God knows I do.  One of my main personal policies, from the very beginning, was to be very aware of my own capacity to screw up, and to own that when I do.  I am very willing to acknowledge my own limitations.  But what I want you to do is to trust me to be a leader who you may disagree with, but who you can respect.  Can you do that?

I do hope so.  I feel like you have much to contribute.  But I’m also aware that I’ve been placed in a role where I’m called to give you some hard feedback at times, too.  I hope I can do that.  Please do let me know if that is invited.  And let’s continue this conversation at our lunch next Tuesday.  I’m looking forward to it.

Peace,

Chuck

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