Imagine you’re working on a new project. It’s an important project and its success will be a big win for the organization. You were chosen for the job because of your competency, skill, and effectiveness. You get things like this done all the time and have a track record for pulling it off. Now that the project is underway, you’re finding that trust and support you need from management is absent. Instead, you’ve got a micromanaging boss, who’s put so many additional requirements on your for reporting, meetings, and whatever their favorite nit-picking happens to be that management is actually an impediment to successfully completing the project!
The bad news is that this happens to all of us at some time or another. In fact, it’s so common that exit interviews show that nearly one in three professionals have changed jobs to escape micromanaging or unreasonable bosses. The good news is that you can survive and even prosper under this sort of “boss behaving badly” scenario.
The WHY of Micromanaging
The first step towards surviving a micromanager is to understand why they are micromanaging. There are three main reasons that bosses micromanage:
It’s Not the Boss, It’s You: A little people-watching should reveal to you whether the manager acts this way with everyone on the team or whether it’s just you. Yes – it actually is possible that you’re the only one (or a part of small number of people) in a larger team that are getting the “breathing down your neck” treatment from the boss. If this is the case, you’re probably perceived as not meeting the standards of professionalism where you work. I had one colleague complain about being micromanaged by our mutual boss, while never seeming to realize that she left early both for lunch and at the end of the day and seemed to arrive late most mornings and when returning from lunch. On top of that , the quality of her work was mediocre on her best days and was frequently late. Sadly – some people need to be micromanaged or the manager might never get an honest day’s work out of them.
It’s the Boss, and They Know It: This second sort of boss is probably the worst kind that you’ll ever worked for in my professional career (stints at fast-food places as a teenager excluded). This sort of boss revels in being the boss. They don’t really care if you’re good at what you do or if the team is particularly successful (though they don’t want their team to become an abject failure since this puts them in jeopardy with their own boss). Instead, this boss is most interested in the exercise of power and might do things like require undue approval, frequent reports and status meetings, and frequent revisions to the work you’re doing. This sort of micromanaging boss is also prone to publicly disciplining their subordinates. There’s seldom much you can do to make this work environment better and, almost always, the team experiences high turnover – losing most members with 24-36 months.
It’s the Boss, and They DON’T Know It: This final type of boss is one that you can work with. And if they’re otherwise a rational and reasonable person, someone you can probably prosper with. In this case, the micromanaging boss is unconsciously motivated by fear and anxiety. At some point in their past, they failed miserably due to some situation that went out of their control. Now that they’re in charge, they’ll do everything in their power (subconsciously or not) to make sure they never experience that again usually by micromanaging everyone on their team.
If the scenario is about your work behavior, then fix that first. Don’t give a micromanaging boss any excuse to watch you like a hungry hawk by being surfing the Internet, hanging out at the water cooler, or not being timely. If the scenario is about a boss who uses micromanagement as a means of exercising power, simply get out of that team as soon as possible. But what about the third scenario?
Anxiety Manifested as Micromanaging
So what are the tips and tricks needed to get past the boss who micromanages due to a subconscious but exaggerated sense of anxiety? Again, the good news here is that by properly understanding what keeps these bosses up at night, you can answer those needs out of your own initiative thereby giving them good cause to loosen their grip on your every move and show some trust in your talents.
- Prioritize: Micromanagers tend to change priorities on the fly because they get caught up in specific, very granular details on a project. They’re notorious for trying to add a multitude of tiny changes that, when taken as a whole, double the amount of effort. However, the granular details are usually unimportant to the success of the project. So it’s your job to keep the micromanager’s eyes on the prize and not focused on the minutia.
- Communicate frequently about progress on the project in general (see below).
- Send ad hoc emails summarizing any changes in scope and your understanding of the boss’ expectations regarding those changes. Make sure that you also estimate a change in scope to the teams overall ability to meet its objectives. One big change or lots of small changes are equally likely to derail a project or make a team ineffective. Make sure that you explain that sort of impact in your recap email.
- It’s even more important to provide recap emails if a scope change comes out of a verbal exchange. Verbal exchanges, after all, don’t have a paper trail if there’s ever a dispute.
- Develop a shorthand or code for prioritizing work that makes sense to you both. Any time the micromanager tries to pile on too much work or make too many changes, make sure that they rate such work on a scale of importance. It doesn’t matter what the scale is, 5-stars or 5-alarms for urgent, as long as you both agree. If you have 30 low-priority action items on your list and 1 top-priority item, you both already know which one you should be working on.
- Perhaps most importantly, use the micromanager’s nit-pickiness to renegotiate priorities to your advantage. If they ask for such big changes that it impacts the project deadlines or ask for so many small changes that you can’t make any forward progress, don’t say “Yes, I can do that”. Instead, any time they suggest more than a very minor change, tell them “I can do that, but only if one of these other changes drops of the list. Which of these do you want me to put on the backburner?” They’ll feel engaged and see your own level of engagement and dedication to the project as a positive.
- As an add-on to reprioritizing, you must put double-emphasis on any action items that you need from them. In a sense, you should micromanage them! By making clear where you need their help to make the project a success, you keep their eyes on the big goal. Plus, by forcing them to refocus on their own responsibilities, you gain a little extra space to get your work done without them constantly looking over your shoulder.
- Overcommunicate: Micromanagers, whether they’ll admit it or not, are afraid of not knowing what’s going on. You can conquer the micromanager’s need to be constantly “up in your stuff” by providing them timely updates on your projects and activities.
- Provide email updates more often than you might normally like, a couple times per week at least. The emails should not only detail progress on the project, but also provide a steady stream of reassurances that you’re on track regarding timelines and that you’re aware of the importance of the project. This alone will go a long way towards quelling their inner anxieties.
- Make sure that they call meetings that accomplish a specific goal: deciding on an important strategy, setting the priority on a bunch of work orders, anything but mere status updates. Status meetings are a huge waste of time. Everyone at the table waits and wastes 50 minutes in a 60 minute meeting, since each person talks in turn and usually try to hard to make themselves look good in the process.
- Don’t hide behind email. We have many types of communication available, each with their own degree of intimacy and immediacy. Email is distant. If things aren’t going well or your own stress-levels are going through the roof, sit down with the micromanager for a talk. If you’re not geographically close, ask for a phone call. It’s easy to turn a blind eye to an IM and to procrastinate on an email. But an in-person meeting sets a very different tone.
- During this conversation, remind the manager that you’re there to make their projects (and by extension, them) a success and that “administrivia” has reached a level where it’s impeding your ability to engender their success.
- You might want to appeal to their sense of propriety – every business relationship is an implicit contract (if not an explicit one). That means both parties have certain responsibilities. The agreement between superior and subordinate is “you do want I ask and I’ll try to make that as easy for you as possible”. You can appeal to the micromanager’s ingrained desire to keep an agreement by gently showing where their side of the agreement has gone off course. Demonstrate how much work you’ve accomplished using your email paper trail as evidence, then use the same evidence to show the degree of unneeded or additional work heaped on you. Refocus the micromanager on the project goals and deadlines, and then point out that there’s simply too much micromanaging, er, work required to meet the deadline. In a sense, you’re steering them to the decision that you want them to make – more trust to get things done, a little less ad hoc reports, fewer boring and unproductive meetings.
- Use inclusive pronouns like “we” and “us” to set a collaborative and consensual tone, something like “We’ve got way too much on our plate to get all of this done by the deadline. We don’t want this to be a flop. Which of these can we drop to get us back on track?”
- Tenacity: Keep at it. Micromanagers act the way they do literally because of who they are. You can very likely build enough trust with a micromanaging boss to earn a few feet of breathing space and less scrupulous attention detail. But you’ll never fully escape it if you work for a micromanager. You’ll have to build attention to detail and overcommunication into your daily routine. As it says on the shampoo bottle, “lather, rinse, repeat” then get up and do it again tomorrow.
Gimme the Cliff Notes
Micromanagers make us feel untrusted and stymied by their constant need for tediously detailed and frequent updates, constant changes to minor details of our work, and overly developed attention administrative details that really don’t matter in our daily job. But there’s hope! By proactively micromanaging the micromanager, you can build trust and earn their respect. Overcommunicate on the details of your work. Constantly seek their explicit prioritization for changes to your scope of work. Make sure that any changes are rated for importance and evaluated against the overall goals of the team. And when things get bad enough, schedule a meeting to realign project tasks and to get the project back towards accomplishing your mutual goals within a defined deadline.