Working With Obsessive People

Employing or working with obsessive persons can be challenging and rewarding.

MENTAL HEALTH Do you envision someone with Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) as a fast-food employee discarding a dozen hamburgers because the meat is not centered on the bun?

Though mental health professionals may try to "fix" them and the uninformed attempt to avoid them, people with OCPD are generally very high-functioning individuals. Because of their attention to detail, many become entrepreneurs. In fact they are, quite justifiably, ideal candidates for most employers who are privileged to find them and know how to manage their temperament.

Don't Confuse OCD With OCPD

To allay apprehension of these special individuals, first distinguish the difference between OCPD and OCD. Those with the former will quickly recognize the omission of the "P" in the latter. As a "personality" trait, it's designation relates more to a tendency to focus on extremely high standards. They are self-starters and generally do not require nagging to get a job done. Doesn't that appeal to employers? People with OCPD are generally efficient software programmers, architects, designers, accountants, engineers and mechanics — ones said to have type-a personalities.

Though OCD and OCPD share some symptoms of compulsion, the two disorders are only distantly related. People with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder are often aware that their compulsions (multiple hand washings; repeatedly circling the block) are abnormal but are compelled to perform them anyway. People with Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder, however, believe their need for strict order and rules is perfectly normal. [1] It is possible, though not common, for an individual to have both traits.

Those with OCPD generally feel their actions are quite normal and justified.

Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder is characterized by a preoccupation with orderliness, perfectionism, and mental and interpersonal control, at the expense of flexibility, openness, and efficiency. Individuals with this disorder usually express affection in a highly controlled or stilted fashion and may be very uncomfortable in the presence of others who are emotionally expressive. [2]

Nevertheless, OCPD employees do require commendation for their often over-the-top efforts. An employer might say, "Your hard work really paid off. The immediate benefit that comes to mind is how easily it will now be to maintain this list. And I'm certain you can point out many other features." Just don't be surprised if he diminishes commendation by showing indifference or listing personal errors.

Don't Go "There"

Because OCPD describes a personality, and those with it generally feel their actions are quite normal and justified. It does little good to tell them they are paying "too much attention" to quality, are "too efficient" or they make "too many lists." This would be akin to telling a comedian he is odd because he tells jokes or a minister is fanatical because he is religious. However, someone whom they trust can interject an outside perspective when they are awkwardly transferring their obsessions.

Avoid making it sound as though he [*] is deficient, saying: "Since you apparently have OCPD, you need to just do it this way." In fact, any criticism is best if constructive — not a list of condemnatory faults. It is better to praise his good qualities and share ways in which they are beneficial. "This is good as it is; but how much better do you think it will be if you…" Remember, a person with OCPD does not think he has a problem. Though behavior may strongly suggest the conclusion, medical diagnosis is best left to a professional.

Benefits of OCPD

The fact is, companies require structure, organization and lists. It is therefore prudent to assign such responsibilities to OCPD employees. This doesn't mean they must rein absolute control over every department. But they may receive relative authority to make schedules or maintain detailed information. They can work well in accounting or human resources departments or be ideal executive assistants. Accurate job descriptions may be important since OCPD employees will vigorously strive to follow established rules.

If they question the logic of instructions, it may be that they genuinely can suggest an improvement. In a large company, policies and procedures must be properly documented, so an OCPD employee can be reminded of this while assuring him that the suggestion is noted and will be given consideration.

Relationships With Others

Those with OCPD can manifest traits of outwardly- or inwardly-focused perfectionists. IFP often prefer to work isolated where they can enforce extremely high personal standards and obsess over details. OFP tend to be concerned about how they appear to others and may expect perfection from coworkers or subordinates. Both tend to have difficulty delegating — preferring to maintain control by doing everything themselves.

People with OCPD can't be "cured" of their "personality."

In attempting to control outcomes by doing the work themselves or spending time and energy worrying about or checking the work of others, perfectionist are prone to waste time and offend others. By doing so, they inadvertently communicate that they do not trust the work of others or believe their work is good enough. [3] Those who understand their trait are less offended.

People with OCPD can't be "cured" of their "personality." So when their behavior gets in the way of relationships, they may shift the focus of their obsessions on what appears to be more important (intellectual) things. There are aspects of engineering, architecture or programming that require extreme personal discipline and concentration. Hunting down who didn't rinse out a coffee cup in the break room is superfluous.

While excelling in most areas, he is actually a procrastinator by choice, who might cope with compulsion by intentionally limiting the time he has to work on assignments. This way he gets a greater number of smaller projects done to the best of his ability, "given the available time." As an OCPD employee learns to delegate, he can be assured that the individual who has the responsibility he relinquished will do the best that he can. It may not be as good as an OCPD would like but it will free him up to focus on more important things.

Since they are the risk-takers and will push themselves beyond the typical worker, people with OCPD are often elevated to managerial positions. If surrounded by well-qualified individuals, things can work out well. Conversely, when he must depend upon those who do not excel, there will be a transference of incompetence leading to frustration.

When Help is Needed

It is possible for someone to have an obsessive personality without it being characterized as a disorder. As with most personality disorders, individuals seek treatment for items in their life that have become overwhelming to their existing coping skills. [2] Someone with OCPD may begin the use the expression "overwhelmed" to signal work is piling up or people are not responding kindly to his work ethics. Perfectionists expect themselves to perform perfectly and to rarely make mistakes. Their preoccupation with details can sometimes paralyze them to the point where they are not able to make decisions or move things along.

The creative ones have characterized periods of intense obsession as "being in the zone" or "going down the rabbit hole." It is like "letting open the valve of a water hydrant." During a euphoria, one with OCPD is incapable of dividing his focus on other people or assignments. As other important tasks mount, he may feel "trapped" in his own creativity or methodical processes. When a large project is 90 percent completed (there is always another 10 percent), it can be followed by a feeling of elation and then by calm.

Sometimes self-imposed standards are unattainable. Or a certain task may remind him of a past failing he wishes to avoid, so he emotionally distances himself from the undertaking, even if he has the ability to complete it. With sufficient pent-up anxiety from a heavy workload or prior criticism, such situations can send a hard-working OCPD employee retreating into a cocoon of isolation, negative mental rumination or depression.

To curb this, perhaps excessive workloads can be redistributed. A supervisor might ask him to separate the tasks that can be assigned to another department or to subcontractors. Since the time he spends is exponential in relation to other employees, likely, he will prefer to take on many small tasks or those for which he already has "a system" and relinquish larger ones (he is capable of fulfilling but would absorb his valuable energy away from others).

Since someone with OCPD may not be prone to take vacations, a supervisor or spouse should not ignore signs of irritability, frustration and anxiety (compounded negative emotions). When individuals with OCPD feel the need for therapy, they truly need help — since it's their nature to figure out everything themselves.

Individuals with OCPD see the world in a very "all-or-nothing" manner.

Individuals suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder often are not in touch with their emotional states as much as their thoughts. A qualified therapist can examine social relationships, reinforcing strong, positive relationships while having the client re-examine negative or harmful relationships. One important aspect is to try and have the individual examine and properly identify feeling states, rather than just intellectualizing or distancing himself from his emotions. [2]

Is There a Need for Professional Help?

Therapy with people who have this disorder can sometimes be trying, since they can see the world in a very "all-or-nothing" manner. The client may be helped to see that instead of something being absolutely brilliant or utterly worthless, there are degrees or percentages of good. Something can be 70 or 90 percent well. Clinicians must be willing to undergo verbal attacks on their professionalism and intellect, as such skepticism about a therapist's treatment approach from the client with this disorder can be expected.

OCPD is diagnosed based on symptoms and personal history. As other medical conditions can mimic obsessive compulsive personality disorder, it is imperative to differentiate and rule out other causes, including: [1]

  • antisocial personality disorder
  • chronic substance abuse
  • narcissistic personality disorder
  • obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • schizoid personality disorder
  • underlying medical conditions

Hospitalization is rarely needed for people who suffer from OCPD unless an extreme or severe stressor or stressful life event occurs that increases the compulsive behaviors to an extent where regular daily activites are halted or they present possible risks of harm to the patient. Hospitalization may also be needed when the obsessive thoughts do not allow the individual to conduct any usual activities, paralyzing them in bed or with accompanying compulsive behaviors. [2]

Related: Narcissism May Be Your Most Outstanding Quality

There is no drug for OCPD, though medication may be required for OCD or depression, if severe. Long-term use is rarely indicated, appropriate, or beneficial. [2] In the end, an OCPD client can rebound from a low spell or burnout through cognitive behavioral therapy or self-help support groups. Afterwards, they will not be "cured" of themselves. They may just acquire better coping skills, as should those with whom they work.

* Since twice as many men are treated for OCPD, this article uses the male gender, though information may equally apply to women.

Tags: emotions, management, productivity, psychiatrists, psychiatry, rds

  1. Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder: Don't Break the Rules! Psychiatric
  2. Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder Treatment.
  3. Never Good Enough — Freeing Yourself from the Chains of Perfectionism, Monica Ramirez Basco, PhD, The Free Press