update: the micromanaging boss who wanted all calls taken on speaker phone

Remember the reader two years ago who asked if her micromanaging boss could be rehabilitated? Among other problems, the boss wanted to review our reader’s emails to colleagues and wanted her to take all her phone calls on speaker phone. She sent in an update a few months after that, but here’s a more recent one:

The wise commentariat were right, after all! Since my promotion almost two years ago, things were, for the most part, ok. The overt micromanaging never got as bad as it had been, but things seemed to fluctuate based on my boss’s mood. For example, if I had to make a teapot, one I had made hundreds of times before to her liking for the same customer, she would sign off on it if she was happy. If she wasn’t, things got crazy fast. “Why is the teapot red? Let’s make it blue this time.” When I made it blue, she would say, “It’s still not right. We need to really wow this customer. I think we should make it green.” “No, green with stripes.” “Maybe stripes and dots?” Then, the next day, when I brought the teapot around for final approval, she would get annoyed and demand that it go back to blue. The next time we had to send teapots to the same customer, she would be surprised that they weren’t red!

Those were the bad cases. But even the “good” times were never that good. She nitpicked on emails I sent to colleagues (think “thank you” vs. “thanks”), what I said in meetings (if I deferred to her, I wasn’t owning my knowledge; if I took the reins, I was making her look bad), and even my facial expressions (the same response to identical situations was called “too pessimistic” and “too upbeat of an outlook”), all in the name of “helping me reach the next phase of my career.”

Commenters on my original post wondered how she was able to micromanage so much and do her own job as well. Well, it was because she had no idea what she was doing! By the end, I was doing the majority of the work, explaining to her what was going on, managing all the projects, and meeting our goals. I was basically doing my own job and much of what she was supposed to be doing. At my last review, I asked for a promotion. She said no, because I still had room to grow in my current role, but said that instead, I could take off a little early on certain days of my choosing. The few times I was able to, which were rare because of my workload, she would make remarks like, “I wish I could leave! You know how lucky you are, right?”

The last straw was when she announced that she would be implementing a new email policy because she was feeling overwhelmed by her inbox. We were not to email her or any of our colleagues to thank them for things like sending us status reports, or to ask quick questions. When anyone forgot and wrote an email for the “wrong reason,” she would email them back and remind them of the new policy. (Yes, instead of doing actual work.)

Several months ago, I left that job and moved to a different department within the same organization. I think it was a good move. My new boss doesn’t nitpick at all; she seems to trust that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. (Just the other day, I had the out-of-body experience of asking her if a tea strainer should have 10 or 12 holes, and getting the answer, “whatever you think is best!”) Also, since I am still working with many of the same colleagues, I’m having the weird (and delightful) experience of receiving after-the-fact acknowledgements. Many, many, many colleagues, from the assistant to the senior executive level, have gone out of their way to tell me how much I am missed in my old position, and how concerned they are that the teapots won’t be as high quality as before. (Too bad none of them have any power over Old Boss.) It’s also a little odd being in a normal environment after being in such a dysfunctional one. It’s almost as if I’m relearning how to interact with normal people and trusting my abilities.

Thank you, again, for the great advice on your site, and also for the vibrant commenter community; I have learned so much since I started reading the site! (Any tips on how not to second-guess yourself after years of micromanagement are welcome!)

{ 55 comments… read them below }

  1. AMG

    Man! I was getting stressed just reading about her! I am so glad you are in a better environment. I know what you mean about re-learning how to interact. What a great feeling.

  2. The Artist Formally Known As UKAnon

    I’m glad you’ve been able to escape OP! It sounds like you’re a superstar and will go far. It also sounds like you have a brilliant boss now; perhaps your first step in managing life-after-micromanaging could be to talk to her about where you now struggle and see what she can suggest for you to help readjust to normal business life?

  3. MashaKasha

    I started reading the original letter and had to stop when I got to the part about OP’s boss “telling us that if we have downtime, we should recreate our database on Excel sheets so she can decipher it”

    recreate our database on Excel sheets

    WHAT.

    WHAT.

    I wonder what the company DBA has to say about this terrific idea.

  4. Lanya (aka Camp Director Kim)

    OP, read some of Alison’s articles about Imposter Syndrome; those might be helpful in terms of getting some confidence back after years of being micromanaged.

  5. LA

    Re: Recovering from being micromanaged – If your new boss seems supportive and normal, I’d be upfront about it: “My last manager liked to have a lot of involvement in every stage of decision-making, so it’s still going to be my default. Help me understand when you’d like to weigh in?” A good manager will appreciate the context & can give you explicit cues on which decisions she trusts you with – you’re charting new rules of the road with the new manager now!

    I also think you should, if you haven’t already, discipline yourself to coming with a suggested answer even when you want to run the question by your boss. “I think the tea strainer should have 10 holes because x, y z. Do you agree?” Enough yeses & you’ll start to feel more in sync. This is not a bad practice with a new boss even absent micromanagement concerns – you’ll learn a lot about what’s important to her and hopefully some nuggets of context from the broader organization!

    1. AnotherHRPro

      This is very good advice. It will give your new boss needed insight as to why you may ask for more guidance than they think you should. You don’t want your manager thinking you lack confidence. You were just trained to always second guess yourself. Asking permission to check in on what your boss want to be involved in and what they don’t is a great way to build up your independence and reduce any second guessing you may be experiencing.

      Thanks for the great update!

      1. Kate

        THANK YOU. Just what I needed to read. I’ve been told repeatedly at new workplace to be ‘more confident’ and I never understood, since I felt pretty competent and confident doing my job, and now it all clicked. My former boss was only happy when I communicated in a certain way that would make her look/feel better (e.g. saying something, then questioning, is that ok? so I won’t step on her toes, etc.), and my 2 co-workers whom I worked with closely.
        Gosh, it’s been 1,5 now. I think it’s time for me to let go of this.
        Thank you, thank you, for opening my eyes!

        1. ArtsNerd

          Coping habits from dysfunctional situations can be really hard to break (or even notice.) I’m so glad you figured out what’s going on with your feedback!

  6. Anon for Today

    As someone who was just informed she will be recommended for termination at the board meeting next week by a micromanaging boss for not reading Boss’ mind, thank you for a glimpse of what lies beyond the light at the end of the tunnel. Glad it worked out for you!

      1. Anon for Today

        Thanks – I know better things are coming. Just got home and realized it’s Boss’ Day . . . ;)

    1. Jen S. 2.0

      I am reminded of having once read that most people are at least a little bit relieved when they are terminated. Your next gig almost has to be better.

    2. 2horseygirls

      So … I will put this out for group feedback.

      Prior to this supervisor, I had 6 good performance reviews in a previous department. As far as I know, I am well-regarded across the institution – I just didn’t click with this supervisor.

      I do have the opportunity to write a letter to the president to “plead my case”. Since I have 6.5 good years, is it worth suggesting that I be moved to an open admin position in HR to see if a change in department might be the answer? (Help with phrasing the suggestion welcome!!) There would be a 15 and 45 day review, so it’s not like a free ride. I would be scrutinized and evaluated very closely.

      Or am I just having a knee-jerk reaction to not having income, and should make a clean break and move on entirely? It just seems a shame to lose almost 8 years at a company because of a personality conflict. Thoughts?

      1. Julia

        If you think you may like the new position and Boss/co-workers, why not? You could always decide you want out and look for a new job while still employed.

        But maybe the big bosses won’t terminate you because they know your manager is… difficult. (I feel for you, I have a similar one myself.)

  7. 42

    I got stopped in my tracks giggling at “too upbeat of an outlook”.

    Glad things are so much better, OP!

    1. INTP

      Seriously. How could one’s facial expression be “too upbeat of an outlook?” Holy projection, batman.

      1. NicoleK

        Oh it’s totally possible. Annoying coworker’s facial expression gives the impression that she’s overly excited, 100% of the time.

      1. Snarkus Aurelius

        She cried because she’s screwed without you.

        She didn’t make the connection between your departure and her behavior?

        1. College Career Counselor

          Of course not. Because that would require being self-aware. Congratulations to the OP!

  8. LizNYC

    As someone who also survived a micromanaging boss (who wasn’t doing really any work and just “delegating” to then nitpick), you need some time. And be upfront with your current manager (and coworkers, potentially) that you’re suffering a bit of PTSD from your last position, since it was somewhat dysfunctional. And give yourself credit for what you do know. You have opinions — and it’s OK to have them be different from someone else’s! The more you start to trust your gut instinct, the more you’ll get used to working in a place with more reasonable expectations.

    1. Betsy

      I have this exact boss, including the delegation of absolutely everything. I’ve met deadweight bosses before who contribute nothing – but then she wants to feel useful, so she ruins every project with her horrible suggestions. It’s an impressively consistent profile, I must admit.

  9. esra

    It’s almost as if I’m relearning how to interact with normal people and trusting my abilities.

    This is one of the toughest parts of getting out of a bad work situation. It stays with you in little, day-to-day ways you don’t always realize.

    1. So Very Anonymous

      This kind of crazy-making behavior can also make it tough to feel like you can even get out of the bad work situation, too, when you’re in it. Congratulations on being in a better environment!

  10. Snarkus Aurelius

    If this boss has enough time to critique someone’s facial expressions to that degree, she either doesn’t know what she’s doing or she doesn’t have enough to do or both.  I literally have 20 things to do on any given workday that I do not have the time to care if someone is “too upbeat.”  She’s also sowing the seeds for a lawsuit, but that’s a whole other kettle of drama.

    My former boss was constantly nitpicking at me the same way all the way down to how I walked.  One day when she was railing on me, she told me that I don’t ask enough questions and then 15 minutes later she complained that the questions I asked showed that I was ignorant and didn’t have a clue about the company mission.  When I asked for an example, she said I was taking a tone with her.

    That was the day I realized that none of this was about the way I did my job, which was top notch anyway.  It was all her and her kettle of crazy.  

    Both of these managers tried to hide how bad they were at their jobs, and they both failed miserably.  How exhausting life must be for these people who are in over their heads.

    1. Kyrielle

      Re “too upbeat”:

      Yeah. Only once did anyone above me in the organization comment on my being “overly perky” and that was a very tired manager who called me and got my “today is horrible so I will address it with CHEER” phone answering voice, which she’d never heard before and which seriously sounds like I’m channelling something close to Strawberry Shortcake.

      And she was laughing. :P

      1. Lily in NYC

        Our ex boss (Darth Vader divorced her for being too mean) dinged my coworker in her review for “smiling too much” and for praising her direct reports. This coworker is 28 and has been fighting cancer for years and is always upbeat and a joy to be around. Her direct reports love working with her. I have never despised anyone as much as that ex boss.

    2. MashaKasha

      If this boss has enough time to critique someone’s facial expressions to that degree, she either doesn’t know what she’s doing or she doesn’t have enough to do or both. I literally have 20 things to do on any given workday that I do not have the time to care if someone is “too upbeat.”

      Seriously!

      If she has that much downtime, she needs to go type some numbers into an excel sheet or something…

  11. Knitting Cat Lady

    As a dweller of open plan offices the ‘all calls on speakerphone’ killed me. Hell on earth!

    1. MashaKasha

      The one when two people sit a few feet from each other, one calls the other one and they both put the call on speaker!!! Or, even better – conference call. Half the people sit in the same area and everyone’s on speaker. That should go over well, right?

      1. Dr. Johnny Fever

        Was in a training once where we had to follow along on computers. That meant desktop and there was no web conferencing at the time, so we were in separate cubes with phones, all looking at the same copy of a document and walking through while our lead went through it.

        I was two cubes from the lead. Headset on, I can hear her voice. The other 7 people, all within 2 cube radius of the lead, used speakerphones. I heard her voice echo around my head over and over and over until I thought I was listening to Lennon’s Revolution #9. I finally had to disconnect, go to my manager’s office, and bring him over to check out the aural chaos.

        Oh, and I forgot to mention that we were in a bullpen area with professionals working all around us.

        The team got upset with me because now they had to use headsets all the time. I realized I wasn’t good fit and began polishing my resume.

        1. Lily in NYC

          That is insane. I know I have an irrational hatred of speakerphone but this is just not normal. And now I am hearing the words “Number 9” over and over again in my head, for which I blame you!

  12. Not So Sunny

    But even the “good” times were never that good.
    …..

    Inspirational lyrics for Carrie Underwoods’ next song…

  13. Charityb

    Either that person actually, literally works on teapots for a living or their analogy skills is incredible.

    1. Pointy-haired Boss

      “Commenters on my original post wondered how she was able to micromanage so much and do her own job as well. Well, it was because she had no idea what she was doing!”

      So what is the solution here? When a boss is promoted until they reach a point where they don’t know what they are doing anymore, how can it be fixed without someone getting fired? Demotions are a disaster, as they call into question the judgment of everyone that approved the promotion in the first place, so nobody wants to do that, while training employees in anything that isn’t useless outside their particular job at our particular firm just encourages other businesses to poach them.

  14. Amber

    “It’s almost as if I’m relearning how to interact with normal people and trusting my abilities.” After I also stopped working for a micromanaging boss, I also had this same issue. It was amazing to see what “normal” was like.

  15. Pointy-haired Boss

    “Commenters on my original post wondered how she was able to micromanage so much and do her own job as well. Well, it was because she had no idea what she was doing!”

    So what is the solution here? When a boss is promoted until they reach a point where they don’t know what they are doing anymore, how can it be fixed without someone getting fired? Demotions are a disaster, as they call into question the judgment of everyone that approved the promotion in the first place, so nobody wants to do that, while training employees in anything that isn’t useless outside their particular job at our particular firm just encourages other businesses to poach them.

  16. MissDisplaced

    I’ve been there with a boss just like this. No matter what you did, there was simply no pleasing. And yes, it can feel a bit weird at first be be in a normal situation where your boss trusts your decisions without second guessing everything. I’m so glad you were able to escape! I always wonder how people like this boss manage to get and hold their positions or run companies when it seems so clear how inept they really are.

  17. Barefoot Librarian

    I swear I think I worked for the same woman for a couple of years. I still have the occasional PTSD moment when New Boss (who is wonderful) wants to talk to me about something.

  18. cajeke

    Oh no sounds like my ex-boss since yesterday. Even with a degree in English could not trust me to draft letters on my own. Not even the ones I took from the templates were good enough. They would work one time but not the next. She fired me yesterday one week to the end my probation. Once I heal, I will keep looking and hope to work with someone who let’s you actually do what they hired you for. I was not seeing growth there anyway!

  19. Marilyn

    I had a supervisor that nit-picked me like you would NOT believe. We shared an office. It got to the point where other coworkers would come in when they knew she was gone, and basically tell me that they were repulsed by what they heard her say.

    Now, I could go on and on about the things she nit picked me for, but for brevity, I’ll give you one example. Part of my job was handling all of the social media pages (Facebook, Twitter were the main ones).

    She nit-picked my Facebook updates so much, that she asked me to email her what I was going to post on, say, Monday… and she would edit it, and give her “2 cents” which would change the entire update altogether. She was particularly nit picky about grammar.

    Next thing I knew, she convinced our director that I was unable to manage Facebook on my own. Our director decided to send an email to us, stating that I had to have 3 Facebook updates emailed to both of them by Friday, for the next week. One of those updates, she demanded that I see another Catering Manager (we’re at a hotel, and we had “Wedding Wednesday”) for all Wednesday updates, for which the Catering Manager decided that she didn’t have time for something so stupid.

    I was written up because I posted a Facebook status Tuesday instead of Monday, and I was fired not long after that for something equally as trivial.

    Every so often, I check the Facebook page. It’s obvious that she took over the social media role. It looks like this woman never completed elementary school English classes. You can literally see *exactly* when I was fired, if you look at the Facebook page.

    It was one of the many reasons why I was putting my resume out there.

  20. Marci

    I see that this post is old but I just have to jump in here because I relate to this SO MUCH. My manager is an uber micro manager, very similar to what the OP describes in this post and the original one. I feel my productivity spiraling downward day after day, because I’m constantly being told either how to do my job, or that I’m not allowed to do things that have always been part of my job. It results in me not having motivation to do ANYTHING, which results in more micro managing.

    We have had multiple conversations where I tell her that I work best with the autonomy to manage my own time, etc., and she listens for about a day and then backslides. I also think it comes from an insecurity and that she’s overwhelmed with her own job.

    Moving to a different department is a great idea, and I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for opportunities in other departments.

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