dealing with a micromanaging peer

A reader writes:

I’d like to get your input about how to deal with a coworker who micromanages laterally. I am a manager, and one of my peers, another manager, often takes it upon herself to tell the other managers how they should run their departments (even though we haven’t asked and it’s not within her realm of responsibility). It doesn’t happen all the time, but every few months or so she’ll go on a tirade and drive all of the managers crazy. For example, she’ll get on a dress-code policy kick and scrutinize every article of clothing staff wear, and then send repeated emails to department managers saying that it needs to be dealt with. The most recent time this happened, when I went to check on the “offensive” clothing, they fell completely within the code — perhaps she just didn’t like what the person was wearing?

She tells us which staff members need disciplining (when they don’t), tells us how to deal with clients, recites well-known procedures to us over and over, and will even go so far as to reorganize our service desks because she doesn’t like how they look! And I don’t mean just a little — I’m talking moving computers to a completely different location, and leaving post-it notes everywhere about why something isn’t right or shouldn’t be the way it is.

Usually I try to see where she’s coming from and consider whether she has a valid point, but often it’s just trivial things that don’t matter or don’t make sense. I’ve tried ignoring her, giving in to her, and being firm and telling her why my department chooses to do things a certain way and that we won’t be changing it. Nothing seems to help. I think she acts this way because she cares about our organization and likes to see things run smoothly, but it’s too much at times, and ultimately not her responsibility. Our organization functions well and overall our staff have good morale. I am perfectly capable of handling my team and, if I do say so myself, do a darn good job of it. How can I get her to back off when she gets like this?

You’ve tried ignoring her and you’ve tried explaining to her why you do things your way, but you haven’t tried being direct: explicitly telling her that she needs to stop what she’s doing. That needs to be your next step.

Sit down with her and say something like this: “Jane, I need you to stop advising me on how to run my department. You’ve given me a great deal of input about how to manage my staff, how to enforce policies, how to handle clients, and even how to arrange our desks. While I appreciate your desire to ensure things are running smoothly, these things are mine to handle, and it’s disruptive to me and to my team to have someone else giving direction. If you ever have a serious concern, please bring it to my attention, but I need you to give me the space and the respect to run my department on my own.”

From that point forward, if she continues to poke into things that aren’t her business, you need to clearly set and enforce boundaries, with statements like, “As we talked about, this is not your purview. I’m handling this myself.” And if she engages in actions that aren’t hers to do, such as rearranging desks or leaving instructional post-its for your staff, call her on it immediately; for instance, “I need you to put those desks back the way they were, and please don’t move my team’s things again.”

And you’ll need to do this every time, because that’s how you’ll train her to butt out. If you slip and let some things go, you’ll only undermine the efforts you’ve already made.

{ 22 comments… read them below }

  1. Frances*

    I would definitely talk to her at a time when you are both calm and she isn’t on the warpath about anything. I’ve got one of these at my workplace. It’s not quite as extreme as described here, but it’s complicated by the fact that, though she is not my supervisor, she does serve as an approver and delegator for certain processes for which I am the initiator. She kept slowly taking more and more of a “managerial” tone when she talked to me, even outside of the processes on which we collaborate. We ended up having a heated argument over the proper handling of a work situation that should not have involved her at all, and I had to get our supervisor involved to get her to back off.

  2. AJ-im-Memphis*

    I’ve seen my share of weird behavior at work but nothing of this magnitude. Makes me wonder if she has a personality disorder and just can’t control the impulse to change things or over scrutinize? Also, the question that I’d like to know is how does she have this much time on her hands? Does she not have enough work to do? Maybe that’s the core of the problem.

    1. fposte*

      Yeah, I wondered what she was supposed to be doing during the time she was scrutinizing other managers’ employees.

    2. Sascha*

      I’m also curious if someone higher up told her to look for ways to “improve” things. I remember a woman at my last job who claimed she was told by the president that she was going to be the next departmental director, and so she started going around and telling people what to do. I say “claimed” because it turned out she lied and was crazypants in many ways. Maybe this woman was given a task but is taking it way too far?

  3. Ivy*

    I’m a very opinionated person, but have learned from a young age when its appropriate to give my opinions and how strongly to press them. Beyond the fact that its generally not a good idea to step on people’s toes, it’s also making way more unnecessary work for yourself. I’m seconding what AJ above said. Does this woman have this much extra time on her hands? I’m exhausted just thinking about it!

  4. Sascha*

    She sounds like someone who works at the main help desk at my job (university). He has boundary issues. He has been reprimanded for chasing students down to “correct” them about things he has no control over and should not be concerned about. She needs a stern talking-to.

  5. Wilton Businessman*

    “Thank you for that information, I will deal with it if it becomes an issue”.

    Polite way of saying “Go F yourself”.

  6. Another Reader*

    I have this problem! Except if she ever came over and actually re-arranged anything on my team including how we have things laid out, she would have a serious problem of her own to deal with. Now she just comes along and tells me how I ought to do things. I put it down to over-active helpfulness/bossiness and ignore it.

  7. Anonymous*

    Wish I had some advice for the micro-managing peer but I don’t as my own episode resulting in my being fired during the probationary period. He was the first people hired in a new university program and had the privilege of writing everyone’s job description, including my own, his own and that of the executive director. His official title was that of Head of my position. So when I came on board, of course he trained me, but his ego could not let him allow me to alter the way I went about the job. Looking back, I really should’ve humored him until the probationary period ended, but hindsight is 20/20. In any event, right before the probationary period ended, I had to go back home to end my lease and move definitively to my new town. Before leaving the executive director gave me specific tasks to complete. I did so, emailing the results to him, without copying the guy who trained me. He, however, was also IT director who had access to all our incoming and outgoing emails, and as such, knew I had sent the email to the director without copying him. Well, when I got back, he did not speak to me at all, spending the entire morning in the director’s office. Once he came out, the director called me in and informed me that I was not the right fit and let go. looking back, I really could’ve done things much differently, being more conciliatory at least on the surface until I had firmer standing in the department to assert myself. Oh, well, what’s done is done and cannot be undone.

    1. Jamie*

      He, however, was also IT director who had access to all our incoming and outgoing emails, and as such, knew I had sent the email to the director without copying him.

      That’s bizarre. I would strongly argue that an IT Director who gave a rats behind who was copied on what email needs to have his own position reevaluated.

      Sure – access if you need it (which is rare) but you have to go to some effort to track that and that’s really strange.

      Sounds like you dodged a bullet with a boss like that.

      1. Anonymous*

        It wasn’t difficult for him to monitor emails in such a small office, particularly as he was the one to assign usernames and passwords.

        1. Jamie*

          I’m not saying it was difficult – I’m saying that for him to even set that up he was either paranoid or had really skewed priorities. He should have better things to do.

          Because trust me when I tell you I speak for the vast majority of IT people when I tell you we have no interest in going through your email. If we have to, for business reasons, we’re annoyed you did something which caused us to get involved and put this in the queue.

          So his interest is bizarre.

  8. Jamie*

    This is the kind of person I screen out when assembling an internal auditor team.

    People like this always think they’d be great auditors because they are always looking for OFI – but really they just want the clipboard to be all bossy-britches and this type will always abuse the authority.

    Auditing is supposed to be a cooperative process where everyone is on the same side – just a check/balance to make sure procedures are being followed consistently and correctly and to give a forum for employees to voice feedback and offer suggestions for improvement. It’s not a game of gotcha.

    1. khilde*

      I’m curious how you screen them out – do you ask specific questions or have them do a task or something? I think it’s a great idea to have the screening.

      1. Jamie*

        Nothing formal – but my spidey sense tingled when someone was too excited about asking to join the team who never had a expressed an interest in QC before. It’s not a big issue. It’s a much bigger challenge getting the right people to agree to it than to keep the wrong people out.

  9. Lulu*

    Ugh – it does sound like either she does not have enough to do herself, or she’s been given a directive you’re not aware of. I know once or twice I had to attempt to implement some things that were either ridiculous or intrusive because of specific instructions I was under, which was just annoying (for all of us!). I think some managers give really ambiguous “assignments” to people thinking they’re doing them a favor, but the lack of detail can wreak havoc in some people’s hands. So maybe your/her manager either told her or implied she had some level of responsibility to share her wisdom with everyone when necessary? Yes, I’m trying to give her the benefit of the doubt here…

    It sounds like you definitely need to address it with her directly as Alison suggests, to make sure there’s no opportunity for her to claim she didn’t realize it was an issue, as well as give her an opportunity to explain if she really IS under some kind of orders. I’d also bring it up with your (I assume shared) manager sooner rather than later, both so if it is something they initiated that they know the ramifications, but also because it may require a louder voice of authority to get through to her at this point. As suggested in one of the other Expert replies, definitely phrase it in terms of the impact on work, morale etc and make it clear it’s not just personally annoying.

    Also, I’m wondering if she’s been there a long time and is just antsy in her current position? If she’s looking for more challenges or opportunities to grow and not finding them, that could come out this way, too. Either because she’s trying to demonstrate her “senior” level or she’s sick of what she’s supposed to be doing, so it’s a nice outlet for her. If this sounds plausible to you, you might include that in your conversation with the boss, that it seems like she might be interested in taking on some new projects ;)

    Regardless of the cause, I would think it’s important for whoever manages both of you to be aware since it’s negatively impacting you, and there are possibly better ways they could channel her energy.

    1. Lynn*

      Even if she does have some kind of “special directive”, she should be a lot clearer about what she’s doing and why. “We have some important customers visiting the site next week, and the VP has asked me to make sure we all look our most polished.” Not just go around handing out demerits to anyone she doesn’t like the look of.

  10. DA*

    It’s interesting to note that the OP claims to be such a great manager, yet is clueless in how to handle this situation. I’m not saying that people can’t/shouldn’t reach out if they are so good. But this type of situation is so common in the business world it seems like it would be something they should have been able to have handled long ago, instead of letting it hang there.

  11. Not So NewReader*

    It would seem to me that if the Big Boss wanted this other manager doing all this stuff- then OP would have heard about the directive by now.

    Any place I have worked there is an expectation that managers would stay within their “areas”. You don’t walk into a cohort’s area and start managing.

    Perhaps OP, you might want to consider telling your team that for the moment ALL changes must be approved by you first. One place I worked I told my crew that the only people who could make changes were my bosses or me. If anyone else started making changes in our area, I wanted to be told immediately. This worked out sooo very well.
    And NO arguing- bonus. If a peer wanted to implement a change we would discuss it together. We would figure out what was needed and how best to get there.

    I don’t think that knowing how to handle this stuff is in our genes at birth. It does take a bit of doing. Two things weigh in here. One, this is your department that you are in charge of- you “own” it. The second thing is to get the point across without degrading/embarrassing your coworker.

    Draw your line- set boundaries- but don’t paint your coworker into a corner. Start the conversation off by being low key. If she does not understand or refuses to accept what you are saying then you can restate it a stronger manner.

    Lastly, the longer you allow this intrusion to go on, the more difficult it will be to stop it.
    What she is doing is really not true management. None of the activities you have mentioned here are going to raise revenues, increase profit margins, or bring in more business. It is merely busy work on her part.

  12. Gary Winters*

    The OP says, “I’ve tried ignoring her, giving in to her, and being firm and telling her why my department chooses to do things a certain way and that we won’t be changing it. Nothing seems to help.” One person above implied the OP must not be a very good manager if she hasn’t handled this already. The way I’m looking at it, in her previous talks with the other manager it probably seemed that it WAS handled, but then the behavior started up again.

    Handling it firmly but diplomatically is called for. The OP needs to make an effort to keep cool, but tell her coworker her interference must end; it is affecting your team and she does not lead your team or you.

  13. James*

    The part of this you can’t see is that in her appraisals she is probably saying that she has to tell you what to do, so she should be promoted to be your supervisor. So you need to stand up to her but you also need to raise the matter with your own manager ASAP.

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