Have you ever been in a situation where you love what you do, but you have to navigate a boss who micromanages employees? Maybe it was a boss, or maybe it was a peer— either way, you've maybe felt smothered or overwhelmed by another employee that can't seem to exist without knowing what you're doing at all times?
That's a micromanager.
What does micromanaging look like?
Micromanagement might look like a constant flow of emails, texts or in-person conversations that yield excessive amounts of status reports.
A micromanaging boss is usually somewhat of a control freak who insists on being involved in every last implementation decision in a project. It might look like your boss hovering over your shoulder as you make tiny adjustments to a PowerPoint deck (this has actually happened to me). However it shows up, micromanagement is a frustrating problem that hinders employee engagement.
Is it good to micromanage?
Micromanaging has its positive and negatives.
On one hand, it’s a good way to open the lines of communication and be in constant contact with employees and peers. This will ensure you know what’s going on at all times. If there's a big project coming up, micromanaging might be one person’s way of managing stress by knowing what’s going on at every stage of the process.
On the other hand, it can be discouraging for workers who think this constant barrage of emails is discouraging and distracting and actually doing more harm than good for the project.
So what causes micromanagement, and what can you do to minimize it?
Micromanagers might have an overdeveloped need for control for a variety of reasons. The ones I have encountered generally include managers who are new to managing others and lack project management skills. A difficult boss whose management style is overbearing might also have a deep lack of confidence or lack of trust in their team. Micromanagers might also feel insecure or threatened about a dynamic at work and don't have a way of expressing it, so they overmanage the people that report to them.
Whatever the reason for the micromanaging, it's important to focus on what you have control over. The main thing you can control is your reaction. Three tips I've found (both as an employee of a micromanager and as a coach helping people through it) include the following:
1. Determine if there is the ability to collaborate.
The first thing you need to do is figure out your own priorities. It's also important to write down for yourself what conditions you need to feel like you are able to collaborate and reframe the situation. If you're ready to explore changes, ask questions. Using open-ended, diagnostic questions with your boss can help surface information around their preferences for making adjustments. If your diagnostic questions hit a wall, there might be a larger and unsolvable issue at hand. But if the manager responds with information on what her or his preferences are, adjustments can be made to get the work back on track.
2. Find project management methods that are transparent.
Figure out a way to periodically revisit or check in about your project plan with the manager to allow you to control the volley. One solution could be to have a standing weekly email that details tasks, or sharing a Google document that everyone can edit. There are also tools like Evernote or Trello for task tracking. Don't wait for the manager to start this process. Even if your first attempts are not perfect, by responding to feedback from the micromanager on how to tweak the progress reports, you are starting the process of building trust and clear communication. Increased trust generally helps decrease micromanaging behavior.
3. Get ahead of the problem and over-communicate.
Regular communication is key. Talk to other employees on your team, and collect ideas on what information can be reported up to show progress. Hopefully it will also relieve uncertainty, pressure or stress that a lack of information can create. One way to do this would be to schedule short weekly, in-person check-in meetings and one regularly scheduled email with a link to a list of tasks (pending and completed.) Over-communicate with the boss until they let you know you can reduce the frequency. Acting with excessive transparency will help increase objective and clear communication, which in turn can support your manager in stepping back their micromanaging.
How would this play out in the real world? Let's consider the case of my client Jessica (not her real name). Jessica needed help developing strategies for navigating her own micromanaging boss.
Jessica worked for a large, well established public relations agency. Recently, the firm went through a leadership change. The agency merged with another larger firm. As the departments went through the transition, Jessica got a new supervisor named Taylor.
Jessica had increasingly difficult interactions with her new supervisor, Taylor. From a few tense, in-person conversations, to email exchanges initiated by the new boss that could be seen as passive aggressive in tone, Jessica felt stressed out about how to move forward. Taylor started hovering over Jessica's desk, asking random questions about a few on-going projects. None of the behavior of her new boss seemed strategic. Jessica was at her wit's end.
As the quarter winded down, Taylor sent a meeting request to Jessica to discuss "work product" with no meeting agenda. Jessica heard from a coworker that Taylor suspected Jessica is looking for a new job. While Jessica wasn't actively looking for a job, she did receive a few phone calls from a recruiter.
It was unclear what Taylor's goals were for the meeting, but Jessica suspected it might be a conversation that could lead to her being put on work probation. Jessica was proud of the work she accomplished at the firm; probation would be a huge demotion. Despite the tense situation, Jessica wanted to stay at her job.
So when she prepared for the meeting, Jessica first got clear on her goals. She wanted to see if it was possible for this situation to be reframed. She suspected that part of the negative dynamic might be due to the companies merging. It might also be due to some other factor she didn't even know about. Jessica also wanted to figure out methods to collaborate with Taylor. At a minimum, she wanted to find a way to interact with Taylor so that projects could get completed without hostility.
Jessica prepared for the meeting with Taylor. The three things she focused on include:
- collecting previously used project management documents
- writing a list of diagnostic questions to help collect more information about the situation
- sketching out two options for project management processes to present to Taylor.
Jessica assembled previous examples of planning documents, and also gathered a few questions to have handy. Diagnostic questions Jessica wrote down included "what would better assist you in keeping tabs on a project?" as well as "what were the best practices used previously that I can replicate for you?" and "how can I best support the flow of open projects for you?"
At Jessica and Taylor's meeting, Jessica presented the options she created. Taylor skimmed the document and made it clear that this was not at all similar to how Taylor's firm-managed projects. Jessica then asked diagnostic questions to get more information from Taylor about what those process were. She also asked questions to find out what Taylor preferred for future project and task updates.
Finally, Jessica asked questions to get a sense of what criteria Taylor might evaluate on. Jessica then presented her two workflow options, noting that she would need to edit the processes to include elements and preferences Taylor brought up.
Directly after the meeting, Jessica sent an email summarizing the meeting, being sure to clearly include Taylor's preferences. Taylor wrote back that the meeting was useful, and the micromanaging situation in the office eased up.
Ultimately, Jessica found that Taylor expected a totally different method to managing projects. She might also have not trusted that her new subordinates, including Jessica, would trust her decisions. By Jessica being extremely transparent and helpful in figuring out Taylor's preference, Jessica helped steer everyone into a situation with increased communication and consensus on what the process should be.
Tanya Tarr helps people connect with the power of negotiation. Since 2000, she has supported executive leaders in government and public education, and managed political and advocacy campaigns across the US. Tanya has a masters of science in performance measurement from Carnegie Mellon University and is a certified health coach. She is currently writing a manual and curriculum on collaborative negotiation technique and adaptive leadership skills.