Obsess it like Beckham

Apr 04 2006 by Max McKeown Print This Article

So David (England soccer captain, global pin-up, worth £70 million) Beckham has admitted that he suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) saying that, "I've got this obsessive compulsive disorder where I have to have everything in a straight line or everything has to be in pairs."

"I'll put my Pepsi cans in the fridge and if there's one too many then I'll put it in another cupboard somewhere. I'll go into a hotel room and before I can relax, I have to move all the leaflets and all the books and put them in a drawer. Everything has to be perfect."

Any gaps in the story have been filled by wife Victoria, "He's got that obsessive compulsive thing where everything has to match. If you open our fridge, it's all co-ordinated down either side. We've got three fridges - food in one, salad in another and drinks in the third. In the drinks one, everything is symmetrical. If there's three cans, he'll throw one away because it has to be an even number".

And according to the newspapers, he wears white clothes to match his furniture, buys 30 pairs of identical Calvin Klein underpants every fortnight and insists on lining up his shirts according to colour.

So who is surprised? Not only is OCD in the World Health Organisation top 10 most common sources of disability, but some two million other Britons also suffer from OCD. And anyway, it seems only natural that a man who can bend a ball to perfection would be just a tad obsessive Ė even compulsively so.

That is not to say that if Beckham overcomes OCD he will never score from another miracle free-kick, nor is to claim that OCD is a sign of genius, but it is to suggest a potential link between hyper-performance and obsession. How can you possibly achieve in the top 0.1 per cent and not be a little over the top?

Now if you are experiencing constant unpleasant and intrusive thoughts about issues such as contamination and symmetry and compulsions - repetitive acts of hand washing, repeating words Ė is ruining your life, experts recommend you seek help.

But if the condition is less extreme, could it not be viewed as part of a range of behaviour that has benefits as well as drawbacks?

Howard Hughes had the condition and yet succeeded in making hit movies, innovative planes, and breaking speed records. But on the other (curly uncut nail bedecked) hand, he also helped the CIA in it's attempts to assassinate Castro, helped get Nixon elected and died in 1976 a very lonely multi-billionaire.

Other famous OCD sufferers include the fictional Monica Gellar in the TV show Friends, with her horror of dirt and compulsive cleanliness and Bree Van De Kamp in Desperate Housewives. The real world has given us Howard Stern and Ė according to retrospective diagnoses - Charles Darwin and Florence Nightingale.

It would appear that most people with OCD are aware that their thoughts and behaviour are not rational but feel compelled to act on them as a means of warding off feelings of impending doom. In contrast, people with obsessive compulsive personality disorders are (apparently) unaware of what they do but not that what they do is irrational or excessive leading them to long, complex justifications of their behaviour.

Apart from its potential link with the extreme reaches of perfectionism, another intriguing aspect of OCD is its connection with that bane of my life and a hundred million others, namely micromanagement (or nanomanagement if you prefer).

When a manager believes that no one can do an acceptable job except him or her, views employees as a necessary evil and is constantly worried about mistakes, they are likely to become overworked and overwhelmed.

The result of this is that employees become discouraged because they can never measure up to the manager's standards (or views of how things should be done) and are set up to fail. This leaves them with the Hobson's choice of either leaving or giving up while staying.

Neither is good for the organisation but are the almost certain consequences of obsessive micromanagement.

Micromanagers are often tenacious and talented but - as if drawn to the dark side Ė have given in to their fears, need for control and comfort.

Sure, some of them recognise that what they are doing is wrong, but many more would prefer to give the aforementioned long, complex justification for their behaviour. In either case, their obsessive need for control goes far beyond any useful pursuit of (mortally impossible) perfectionism.

Micromanagers also seem to love the attention and reinforcement of their own sense of importance that comes from ensuring that every process leads back to them for approval.

A case in point was Michael Eisner at Disney who combined the top three jobs so that everyone really did have to report to him - assuming (rightly) that he was a genius but (wrongly) that his genius could stretch to making decisions for the whole company.

The irony of this was that in doing so, he debilitated the creativity of the whole organisation leaving it open to attack from more creative companies (such as Pixar) lead by a somewhat more mature micromanager (Steve Jobs) who learnt to limit his obsessive need for control of his inner team by asserting it over the outer world.

Setting talent free is not instinctive for many high performers because they have got to where they are by doing things their way. But if you want to reap the benefits of talent, you need to bind it to you with cords of opportunity, freedom and satisfied potential in ways that leave talented people both free and loyal.

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.