Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder

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The Workplace Effects of OCPD

Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (abbreviated OCPD) is considered an exemplar of a personality disorder that represents a common problem affecting workplace performance.

By definition, OCPD is a chronic and maladaptive pattern associated with excessive rigidity, preoccupation with perfection, overly stringent personal and moral standards, inflated concern about matters of control and order, extremes in emotional control and constriction, interpersonal reticence, and indecisiveness that affect all domains of an individual’s life (Pfohl and Blum, 1991).

The DSM-IV (American Psychiatric Association, 2000) lists eight personality traits that characterize OCPD:

  1. rigidity,
  2. perfectionism,
  3. hypermorality,
  4. overattention to detail,
  1. miserliness,
  2. an inability to discard worn or useless items,
  3. excessive devotion to work, and
  4. an inability to delegate tasks.

Such characteristics can exert a negative influence on work performance, both in terms of the affected individual’s capacity to work effectively and the quality of their relationships with co-workers.

These issues can lead to significant challenges for individuals affected by OCPD, their co-workers and management, and a broad understanding of the condition is required in order to utilize effective strategies to maximize workplace performance.

Many of the characteristics associated with OCPD, in milder degrees, may represent significant strengths for affected individuals and are often encouraged by the organization in which they work (e.g. perfectionism, attention to detail, devotion to work).

However, the disruptive effects of extremes in such characteristics support the need for furthering our understanding of OCPD within organizations, not only to help affected individuals, but also to maximize the performance of the organization and all its employees.

Numerous OCPD subtypess have been identified which may present different challenges and may require differential management strategies. Millon (1996) discusses five adult subtypes:

  1. the conscientious subtype who is generally willing to conform to rules and authority because of a fear of rejection or failure;
  1. the puritanical subtype who is characteristically strict and punitive, highly controlled, self-righteous and extremely judgemental;
  2. the bureaucratic subtype who is traditional and values formality, and who has a powerful identification with bureaucracy, which provides a set of rules, regulations and firm boundaries to contain feared inner impulses;
  3. the parsimonious subtype who protects against the prospect that others might recognize the inner emptiness that they experienced, and who is identifiable by a meanness and defensiveness against loss;
  4. the bedeviled subtype who experiences discord, as their need to conform with the wishes of others clashes with a yearning to assert their own interests, leading to chronic feelings of resentment and conflict.

While the identification of these subtypes may be useful, research has yet to establish their validity, the need for idiosyncratic interventions, or even their distinctive etiologies. Nonetheless, the profile of characteristics associated with each subtype may require that consideration is given to the placement of affected individuals within the workplace.

Individuals with OCPD are particularly challenged by the external world. They have a strong need to control their social and physical environment, and find it hard to trust others as they perceive them as irresponsible and incompetent (Beck & Freeman, 1990; Millon, 1996).

Hostility towards others develops from an assumed coercion to accept the standards imposed by others, an assumption that is derived from their early experiences of constraint and discipline when they contravened parental rules (Millon & Davis, 1996).

Fear of social disapproval evolves from such other-directedness and an assumption of rejection following any possible infringement of strict and restrictive moral codes. Hence, in order to resolve their ambivalence towards others, individuals with OCPD are likely to become preoccupied with socially prescribed perfectionism, self-control, social order, rules and regulations.

As individuals with OCPD come to recognize that others do not share their own high standards and moral codes, they experience internal conflict between hostility towards others and a fear of social disapproval (Millon, 1996).

Their perception of ‘unsatisfactory’ performance by others also results in feelings of frustration and anger, increased feelings of personal responsibility and the need to control the environment and themselves.

However, individuals with OCPD also fear revealing their internalized hostility. They experience a fear that these feelings may spiral out of control and reveal their imperfections, resulting in their rejection by others (Millon, 1981). This internal struggle results in further attempts for control, rigidity of behavior and affective restriction (McWilliams, 1994).

Interestingly, many of the characteristics associated with OCPD are considered ‘desirable’ by some organizations (e.g. perfectionism, overly high moral concerns, overattention to detail). Often, it is only after employment has begun that problems begin to emerge due to the effects of the OCPD.

For full description of the etiology of OCPD and its detrimental effects in the workplace, see here Opens in new window.

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    • Research Companion to the Dysfunctional Workplace: Management Challenges and ... By Janice Langan-Fox, Cary L. Cooper, Richard J. Klimoski

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