Wednesday, July 23, 2008

How to Deal with a Micromanaging Boss

Bosses are tough to deal with in general. They represent authority, and they often bring back memories of what we hated most in our relationships with our parents and teachers growing up. The micro-managing boss is especially hard to handle if you are creative, innovative, and want to make a contribution of your own in an organization. But since quite a few people in management positions fit this profile, chances are you will end up with one at some point in your career. Here are some tips to help you get the space you need to thrive:

1. Understand that micromanaging behavior is driven by the positive characteristics of conscientiousness, diligence, and responsibility; it’s just that they have been taken to an extreme. People often confuse themselves with the quality of the work they produce. As long as they can control the quality of their work, they are ok, but as soon as they have to depend on others for results, they are faced with the fear of representing sloppy or substandard output. Since putting out less than excellent work is SO personally humiliating, they need constant reassurance that the team is performing. Keep in mind that behavior such as constant checking on your progress or reviewing your work has NOTHING to do with how well you perform. It is about your boss, who has gotten so caught up in his or her fears and needs for reassurance that he or she is not aware of how this behavior may be impacting you.

2. You can give yourself space by playing to their standards for excellence and needs for reassurance. Initiate a conversation about expectations and standards of work output, and make sure your boss is clear about where your standards are. If you have a difference of opinion, get it talked out and come to an agreement about what standards you are both comfortable with. Then COMMUNICATE. It’s natural to react to micro-management by doing everything possible to avoid communication. But that just plays into the vicious circle of mutual mistrust and escalates the problem. If you develop a habit of sending a short e-mail on a daily or weekly basis that gives your status on a project and how you are handling situations, the boss gets a stream of continuous reassurance, and wont feel a strong need to check in.

3. Once you have developed a certain degree of trust with your boss, you may want to take it to the next step, and that is providing feedback on the impact of the micromanaging behavior. For example, “I notice that you have redone my last three powerpoint presentations. I understand your desire to have us represented in a positive light, but you may not realize that you are sending a subtle message, that I can’t do powerpoint presentations, and that makes me feel less excited about doing them well in the first place. Is there something specific you are noticing about the way I do my presentations that does not meet the standards we agreed on related to our work?”

Unfortunately, the micro-managing boss ends up fulfilling his own fears. As he takes more responsibility for the work of the team, the team feels completely disempowered and loses the motivation to produce their best work. Soon they are complaining and doing very little, and he is fretting about how they don’t care and he has the weight of more than one job on his shoulders. It may take several attempts to help him turn around, because he needs to let go and allow himself to look bad in order to re-empower the team, build trust, and get to the point where he gets results that are better than he ever dreamed.

If you are a micro-manager, or you work for one, anything you can do to facilitate the change will be a positive learning experience. Giving your boss feedback that enables him to become a better leader is a gift he will be forever grateful for. And if you are that boss, imagine getting rid of the experience of being overworked and not being able to trust anyone, and moving to a place where you get to work with people who consistently go well beyond the call of duty, and you are so honored to be their leader that you would never consider taking ownership for the phenomenal work they put forth.


Chuck Brooks said...

Customers can be 'bosses' as well, and can have even more insecurity and control issues when the work is being done off-site. Consistent communication can often contain these problems, and the increasing availability of interactive technology can be used very effectively as aids. Services like Skype for instant messaging, voice and video communication, and GoToMeeting for live demos and reviews, are easy to install, configure and use, with prices that can't be beat. Being live but on the other end of a wireline, with very flexible contact times, can remove the control issue very quickly, and being able to see progress in an open discussion takes care of unfounded insecurity problems.

Ashutosh said...
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Anonymous said...

We had one and tried everything, moving up the management chain to no avail. People like this need to learn to stop. They have issues just like an alcoholic has issues.

Our manager went to the point of preventing colleagues speaking directly to any of us, directing who should answer the phone each time it rang. He had our most experienced female member of staff with an MBA doing his typing, making the coffee and cleaning the kitchen (with instructions and public demonstrations on how to clean)

As we looked for new jobs we played along with him while 3 out of 10 staff were on sick leave with stress. We reported the contents of every, and I mean every communication. When the directors asked any of us to do something, we'd sit there waiting in line to ask this line manager if it was OK for us to do so and when would he like us to do so. etc. Just the way he had been forcing us to do. The work for clients became shoddy and the complaints from them spiralled. The company lost the people who had been there for years, knew all the clients, the history and held the experience.

He couldn't cope with his job, and created a situation where no one else could. It is not OK to treat a group of highly educated adults like idiots; it is highly damaging to everyone. The company faced considerable expense dealing with the stress and illness this manager created. Containing the problem isn't dealing with it. It is avoidance and leads to physical illness. The failure to deal with this one manager finally led to the company entering bankruptcy.

Nahid Casazza said...

Annonymous - it sounds like you were facing an extreme case. It's interesting sometimes how long it takes organizations to recognize and deal with behavior in one individual that damages the organization. Sometimes it's not healthy to wait it out, and you have to move on.

Anonymous said...

Hi there,

Hoping you can provide guidance. Not only am I faced with a micro-manager but I am his only direct report. He passes on his workload to me and then takes credit for it on every occasion possible.

I work in an organization that promotes working from home to reduce the carbon footprint and reduce $$. Great for employees but not those with micro-managers! He often calls my house phone to communicate and has even sent me text messages while I have been on vacation.

In my situation, I believe it is his nature to be very controlling...My concern is, I love my job-can't handle my boss anymore. It is extremely stressful and uncomfortable.

Any idea how to approach this? It's not about him being a perfectionist with work (remember he passes everything to me) it is a controlling mentality. I need it to stop.

Any advice is helpful.

Nahid Casazza said...

In this case it sounds like the constant calls, texts and check ins are the most disturbing to you. One way you can protect yourself is to take control of this process by letting your boss know when you will be communicating and being consistent.

For example, I might call in each morning at the same time. Then, each evening send an e-mail with an update and progress report. Between times, I would try to "train" him to not contact me. The way I would do this is not answer the phone or reply to texts as they come in. Instead, if there are a lot of messages in the morning, I might pick one time to respond to all of them at about 1pm, then wait again until my evening e-mail to address the rest. IF you are consistent, then he will begin to subconsciously "expect" your call each morning and your e-mail each night. He'll also subconsciously expect that he will not get a response if he tries to call you between times. If the pattern is consistent over a period of three weeks and you've set the expectations verbally as well, I would expect his behavior to die down and even stop.

Where you will trip up is if you become insconsistent in your check in calls. I would make them the most important habitual thing you can do and think of them as your defense strategy to protect yourself from all his incoming queries.

Please let me know if this works!

Nahid Casazza said...

Oh - forgot to mention, it sounds like you are never going to be able to enjoy working for this person, so you may also want to plan a strategy to find a new boss. Sometimes you can do this at your same company by networking within the company. Other times it's a matter of looking for a new job. The good news is if you like your current work, getting a job for someone else doing the exact same kind of work tht you are doing now is the easiest kind of new job to get.

Anonymous said...

Thanks very much. Your advice has been extremely helpful. I will definitely try your approach.

Anonymous said...

I found your article while home on stress leave due to a micro-managing boss. It was a welcome insight into what I was going through. The biggest message was that "it isn't me". How desperately I needed someone to point that out.

My boss is actually a nice person and while working for her, I was always conflicted between liking her & being on the edge of madness because of her micro-managing style. Reading this article put her personality traits into perspective for me and made it much easier for me to understand why everything I tried didn't change her behaviour. Her ego and insecurities and ultra-critical behaviour were undermining all her staff and, as her office manager, I was caught in the middle. She also viewed me as her "project" to mentor me but would not provide direction. Once I started forward with a task, she was quick to pull me back in & criticize what I was doing. I came to realize that after 30 years of working like this, she would never change. I also realized that I could no longer work in that environment.

That realization enabled me to go back to work & I quickly found another position with one of her managers but I no longer report directly to her. Fortunately, a little collaboration with the manager allowed us to propose the change as a great learning opportunity for me and portrayed it as a benevolent gesture and the next step in her mentorship. In the end, she viewed this new position as her idea and was happy to see me move on.

She now has set her sights on the next "Golden Child" and the micro-managing continues - the Office Manager position will always be a revolving door as long as she's the boss. But the managers have strong foundations in their positions and band together (and protect their staff as much as possible), so they are less susceptible to her tidal waves of criticism and controlling behaviour. I have been in my new position for a few weeks and am loving this quiet and easy-going job!

Thanks for giving me a bit of information to ponder and get myself back on track!

Anonymous said...

I recently (7 days)took a job for 4 hours a day-part time. My boss expects me to learn everything about the product I am selling, everything on spec sheets, company pricing on product. I am a very experienced sales person. His demands are unreasonable. He even wants me to call him and act like I am cold calling a client. He gets agitated when I don't know everything he taught me in 7 days, I have been working lots more just to keep up with his micro managing testing me to retain very detailed information? Yikes

Nahid Casazza said...

Yikes is right! Sometimes it is SO stressful starting a new job with a new boss! Hang in there and take some deep breaths - it should get better in the next few months.

Anonymous said...

I work in the health care field and while I appreciate my boss's knowledge of the subject matter I feel like she may be trying to manipulate my personality. She will often have me go up to other medical professionals basically having memorized exactly what she would say to them and have me repeat it back to them. She also edited a text page I sent to another professional word for word, coma for coma, including making me take out the word, "Hi" b/c that made the age to "Casual". I'm a casual person and I would typically engage another professional in a discussion rather than just state the facts. How do I manage this type of personality and yet not lose my own?

Nahid Casazza said...

The most important thing to remember is that when a boss starts micro-managing, they are coming from a place of fear about their own reputation. When you manage people, their behavior and results are a reflection on you, so it's scary to feel like you don't have control over what other people will think of your work. The problem arises when you and your boss have quite different styles and ideas of what constitues credible work and results. Your boss may define "professional" as somewhat less casual than you, and may be trying to get you to follow scripts because there is something about your natural communication style that feels too casual - and she doesn't want to be judged for it.

The trick here is to reassure her and also show how your style gets results that will make you both look good. You can do this by reporting to her frequently about how you are handling certain situations and what results you are getting. This is a way of "training her" that your style works, while also "keeping her informed" which helps her build trust in you.

Ultimately, once she no longer fears that she will be judged negatively by your behavior, she will have no reason to try to change your behavior.

This is a tough process to go through when you are feeling judged and controlled by her, but if you keep in mind that it is not personal, you will end up getting more out of it at the end - you will always have the skills to deal with difficult people.

Anonymous said...

I’m dealing with one right now and she laughs about being a micromanager like it’s a good thing. I want her to keep her distant and I do the same, because I don’t have a problem with speak my mine. I’m getting ill just hearing her voice which is very polite.

Anonymous said...

I am somewhat comforted by your post - it's so 'on the money' in terms of my experience and that of my colleagues. Prior to moving to my current company I had a really solid track record of success and frankly, that's why they hired me, but my boss micromanages me to the point where none of my abilities or experiences are being utilized. I'm at the point that I can't even order sandwiches for a meeting on my own!

During private meetings, I try to communicate the impact this is having and her responses are always that I must adapt, I must change, I must "collaborate" with her, except her defnition of collaboration is... do what I say, how I say it and then I still have to approve it.

Its really getting out of hand and the team is suffering. The experience amongst my colleagues is the same - she constantly states that her reputation is on the line - but ours is as well!

What do you do when you just can't seem to get it accross? She's now starting to take stuff back from me, stating that I can't 'handle the pressure', but it's her constant undermining that is driving me down.

Nahid Casazza said...

This is very typical of the dynamic that happens with a boss like this. Although in some cases the situation can't be changed, here are a few tips you might try if you haven't already:

1. Don't let the undermining get to you - do this by reminding yourself that the behavior is caused by HER fear, NOT your competence. We tend to incorrectly assume that when people behave badly towards us it's because we have done something wrong - but more likely it's their own coping behavior and we are just a trigger.

2. The tendency with this kind of a boss is almost to retaliate to save your personal dignity. The way people retaliate is to avoid the boss, to withhold information, and to do it just a little bit differently than the boss wants it. It's kind of a "sticking it to the man" behavior that helps us survive. Unfortunately the energy behind that behavior exacerbates the situation because the boss picks up on it and feels even less trusting. If you can, rise above the urge to retaliate and try to go into reassurance mode instead. Remember this isn't about your competence - it's about HER fear. So if you can USE your competence to get to the core of what she needs to feel safe, she will start trusting you and leaning on you more.

Here's where the hope is in a situation like this. The mircomanaging boss lives in fear that things will get out of control, and it is completely exhausting for them to try to control all these things they can't control. So even though it takes a long time for them to build trust, once they DO trust you, they will feel so relieved that you will usually get as much freedom as you want and need and more.

Good Luck!

Anonymous said...

I wonder if you have any.ideas for me? A little background.... I was the.only employee.other than the owners,, doing.all the ground work etc I thought I was going to be the manager. Right at the last.minute when.a great majority of the set up was complete, they bring in a new manager over me. I am trying very hard gracious and professional as the assistant manager but am being micromanaged through the eye of a needle! I have been promised the next facility once they have "moulded" me into.a manager, so really.want to do my best work. The constant undermining, and voicing my ideas as her.own from my manager is making this even harder and is.undermining my confidence daily.

Anonymous said...

Good posts its nice to know others are dealing with this. I have a new micromanaging boss after having one at the same company who was totally the opposite. I have gone from one extreme to the other

Your idea that you tend to avoid communication with micromanaging bosses is exactly right. I definitely am. Maybe I will instil your idea and communicate wit her 2 times a day once in the morning and once in the afternoon, let her know exactly what I am doing. I sit right next to her so it will be a challenge not to answer questions all the time

The stress is affecting my Health so I have to do something

Must remind myself that I'm a good worker.

Nahid Casazza said...

I absolutely understand how hard it is to keep up a great attitude when you feel like you are being undermined. The most important thing to remember is that the intention behind the behavior is usually not to minimalize you - it just comes out that way because the person is anxious about controlling things - as they fear something bad will happen if things go wrong. Remembering that the problem lies with the micro-manager can help you from taking it personally. Then you tend to look at the "boss" from a place of compassion and wanting to reassure them that they can count on you to make them look good or not embarrass them or whatever their particualar tends to be. I absolutely know this is easier said than done - you just have to keep reminding yourself it's not about you - and that can give you the confidence to manage the situation. A boss is just a person with a title trying to do their best job - and we all have a lot of growing to do.

batatas said...

Nahid, finding this post saved my day, and most likely might as well save my job, and I'm not exaggerating :).
Many thanks for this, now I won't take it personally anymore.



Anonymous said...

Beautifully said. Thank you! Very very helpful.

Anonymous said...

What a fantastic article. I have worked for micro managers for the majority of my professional career. Until not so long ago I came to the realization as to what they were doing!
I am currently working for someone who has recently taken over a small business, first time owner for approximately one year now. I have been there for close to that one year mark and never had taken onboard her controlling ways until I have moved up to a managerial role where I work one on one with her. Personality traits certainly contribute to some of her micromanaging ways and being apart of the new experience of owning and running of the business. The word "micro" certainly fulfills the description all questions, demands, remarks & criticism she continually gives to me, as though there is no room for human error I have to be continually told what is expected, right & wrong - as though I don't have the common sense to think about these situations for myself? For some piece of mind, and time spent working with her, I have realized her micro managing ways comes down to the fact that her fear does control her actions & words, responsibility of running a business and managing staff is challenging and exceeds her capability skills. Meanwhile, until I have had enough it's paying the bills & saving for another holiday!

progressive said...

Plz help! My boss has been my boss for 4 yrs, I've been there for 10. Her getting the job was a lot of tension between us fr the start.. I have played nice with her for 4 years..just recently she has become extreme with her micromanging! Watching me on the cameras, constant emails and the worst is sending me emails saying that she gave me deadlines and saying things that she didn't..I have so much anxiety before going to wrk.., missing meals and sleep! I've been looking for another job but its been difficul...

Anonymous said...

interested in your take on boss is the ultimate micromanager he calls and asks if I have read an email that is 2 hours old. He calls my desk and if I don't answer because I'm in a meeting, he calls the secretary and tells him to stop the meeting so that I can stop and take his call. At the end of a recent meeting, I had 15 count them 15 follow up actions. I worked on nothing else to complete these before she asked for the status only to have her call in all the staff that I gave credit for assisting me with the answers to answer the same questions. I had enough and turned in my notice shortly after; she begged me to rescind and come up with a list of my needs, allow her time to address the needs, and train my replacement if I still decide to leave. I know that I still have plenty of room to grow, but I feel like he wants to groom me to be a duplicate version of himself and while I admire his diligence and discipline, work ethic, etc. I have a hard enough time being me and I would rather work on me than work to be him. How can I protect myself? It doesn't seem like I can do anything right!

Nahid Casazza said...

The most important thing to remember about these micromanaging bosses is that their behavior is based on lack of trust. That does NOT mean you are untrustworty - simply that your relationship isn't ideal. Of course you can always walk away and look for another situation - but if that is not an option for you, or if it's going to take some time, you need to think of a pro-active way to make things easier, and the key to pro-actively fixing the situation is the exact opposite of what you will feel like doing. Most people try to avoid the boss as much as possible which creates more distance and erodes the trust even more. The secret is to take it upon yourself to try to understand the boss better, see things from their point of view, understand what they care about. DON'T make it about you - trust yourself and know that their behavior is about them. If you can let go of needing them to respect you or trust you or have any feelings at all about you, it will be easier to do the work of understanding them. Once you understand them, you can take the initiative to do your work in a way that will calm them down, and their trust of you can grow that way. I'm not saying it's easy. IT takes a lot of personal awareness, and also a huge dose of personal confidence. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

I get 18 PTO days a year. I rarely take time off. I regularly work 60 -70 hours a week to complete project deadlines. I bought my phone which the company pays a portion of and the monthly contract.

Recently, I took a vacation and I received calls from my boss and clients. I was informed that as they pay for my phone that I should respond to all calls within an hour and be at their beck and call 24/7 in case of emergencies.

I decided to shut my phone off during my vacation and when I turned it on, I had emails asking if I had read their emails, texts asking if I received their emails, and voice mails to check my texts. One of the "emergencies" was that I had a practice presentation due on the day I get back from other words work on it during my holidays.

I have the typical micromanager boss who calls for "emergencies" on weekends including but not limited to: problems with heating, lighting, snow, bathrooms, cleaner cleanliness, policy, report due dates, someone left a light on, someone left a piece of paper in the lab and lectures on clean up, phone etiquette, calendar updates, returning/answering emails and responding within an hour of receiving them.etc.etc.etc....if it bothered him, it should bother everyone, all weekend.

This manager regularly lectures people on how to answer phones, how to write reports, how to rent a car, how to dress, how after 5 days on a project site, your stubble is not professional, collared shirts and professional dress on a loss location as.a.potential client may see you, how not to answer phones, how to sharpen a pencil, how to screw in a screw, how to remove a screw you screwed in, incorrectly, how to dispose of a screw that you removed after you screwed it in incorrectly, how to use the screwdriver/tool and how not to store the tool. This is not a complete list for one day.

We have all tried to educate, work around, train, meet with him, but it fails miserably. Then we must have a meeting to discuss how we meet. I have decided to resign and go into the paper folding business which requires one to fold a paper in half. I hear they allow you to make up your own mind as which direction you do it.

By the way, I haven't answered my phone on my vacation and expect that there will be repercussions when I get back. Any advice how to handle this difficult situation? Obviously humor doesn't work...

Nahid Casazza said...

Since I got to your post late - I'm assuming you are already back from vacation. But I can see that you and your boss are in a reaction cycle. He / she is going into fear mode and continuously trying to reach you, while you retaliate by turning off your phone, and he/she retaliates by coming up with more orders and reasons why you "should" be available. As long as he can't trust that you are reachable he will continue this behavior. If you want to try to manage it you can try a couple of things:

1. Think about the story you are telling yourself. I see a lot of indignant emotion in your writing, which is definitely understandable, but that is a reaction, and your reaction can make you appear to your boss as defensive, resisting feedback, un-manageable, that sort of thing, which he then reacts to by trying to control you even more closely. If you can change the story to something that gets you out of reaction mode you will have a better time handling this. Such as wow - what a poor person to have grown up with such a high need to control his environment - he must have had a horribly abusive and chaotic childhood. If that were the basis of your boss's behavior, would it make it a little bit easier to understand? Saying that, you still have to deal with it, so here's one idea
2. Propose to your boss that you will check e-mail and voice mail one time per day on off days, tell him what that time is, and then stick to it religiously. This puts you in control. If he is leary, you might suggest two times and then work him down. The only way to work him down though is to be extremely reliable in terms of being available when you say you'll be available.
3. During the time you are available, respond to all e-mails and texts - but do so with very short responses, such as "I might be able to put together a draft presentation the morning I return and will do my best", or "I hear you and would you like to set up a time to talk about this when I return?"
When you retaliate, the situation escalates; and we usually retaliate because we are resentful. If you can change the story in your head to think of your boss as someone who lived in a chaotic environment and is panicked all the time about the negative repercussions of not doing a good job, then your compassionate side takes over and instead of feeling "demeaned" by the behavior, you can understand that you have a lot more confidence than the poor man (or woman), and that makes it easier to manage the situation.