my boss is a micromanager

A reader writes:

I have a dilemma and I’m hoping you can help me discover if I need to adjust my attitude or seek an alternative to what I’ve been experiencing of late.

I recently moved into my very first salaried position in a small company. We have about 15 people in our office (but over 1,500 globally), with three being in my department – my boss, myself, and a senior coworker. When I was first hired three months ago, I was ecstatic about the position. I thought I clicked very well with my boss, which is a huge bonus considering we travel a significant amount together.

Within the past two months, I have gone from loving this new role to dreading entering the office. My boss appears to be the worst case of micromanaging I have ever personally experienced. He will send projects to me to complete, only to redo them and discard all of my work with no explanation. If he does approve of my work and give me the go ahead to send it out to the company, he sometimes will follow up my company-wide email with a correction or revision that the whole office can see. Often these “corrections” are tiny and don’t change any point of the original context, and should have been addressed prior to me receiving his approval if they were actual issues.

I graduated college with a high GPA and in my past job I was essentially running a department. That was my first job right out of college, so sometimes I wonder if I am being too critical of my new boss. However, his overall attitude has taken a toll on my happiness and motivation to try to succeed with this company. It’s as though he wants to hold me back without actually explaining his intentions. What makes it worse is that when I happen to correct his mistakes, he tries to play it off as if he knew what he was doing all along and seems to talk down to me.

Throw in the complication that I am one of the two women employed in a nearly male-comprised industry…things don’t look too bright right now.

Am I being too dramatic about his managerial style and need to adjust my attitude accordingly or are there ways I can call out this behavior respectfully (without my usual passive-aggressive attitude)? I feel as though nothing I do can gain his trust, and if I don’t see an improvement in the coming months, I worry that I’ll have to job hop again.

I think you’re probably right that your boss is an overbearing micromanager and your dismay and waning motivation aren’t unwarranted.

That said, whenever you’re feeling micromanaged, it’s worth asking yourself whether it’s possible that there are valid reasons for the scrutiny and heavy-handedness that you’re receiving. To be clear, plenty of times this isn’t the case at all … but it happens enough that it’s worth asking the question before concluding anything definite. Sometimes there really are good reasons for managers to get very hands-on. For example, if your work quality hasn’t been where it should be, or if a project is very high-stakes, or even if you’re just new and still getting acclimated to the job, a good manager would get more closely involved.

Of course, in those cases, a good manager also would talk to you about what was going on and put it in context for you, not just leave you frustrated and wondering.

It’s also possible that at least some of this could be a case of misaligned expectations. Since you were running a department in your first job out of college, it’s possible that you’ve gotten used to a level of autonomy that isn’t quite typical for your experience level. That doesn’t mean that you should expect to have all your work redone without explanation now, but I could imagine that adjusting to a more typical level of oversight would be jarring after that.

But if you reflect on all of these possibilities and none of them resonate with you, then the next step is to talk to your boss and try to (a) get a better understanding of what’s driving his behavior and (b) see if he’d be open to doing things differently. Start the conversation by saying something like this: “I’ve noticed that you often redo the work I turn in and sometimes end up not using what I came up with at all. I really want to succeed in this job, so I wondered if you’d give me some guidance on how I can strengthen my work so that it’s closer to what you’re looking for.”

Ideally, you’d get some useful feedback from this. But even if not, you should at least gain some insight into what’s driving his behavior. For example, he might tell you that it’s just going to take more time before you’ll get more autonomy but that it will come over time (which isn’t necessarily crazy since you’ve only been there three months). Or he might tell you that he’s realized that he needs to give you more training on some of this stuff and just hasn’t had the time to do it yet.

But if he tells you that redoing your work isn’t a reflection on your work quality at all and that he just likes to put his own stamp on things … well, then he’s just a micromanager, plain and simple. If that’s the case, you could try saying something like this: “Would you be willing to experiment with giving me more autonomy with projects like X and Y? When I took the job, I was really excited about those parts of the role, and it’s important to me to build my skills in those areas. Would you consider giving me more ownership for those — with your input along the way, of course — and seeing how it goes?”

Framing your proposal as an experiment, rather than asking for wholesale changes, can be really effective with micromanagers. At its core, micromanaging is about fear of not having control, and so trying an experiment will sound a lot less scary than big, permanent changes. It’s also pretty hard for managers to flat-out refuse to experiment with something like that since they’d have to say “No, I won’t even entertain the possibility that you could succeed at this on your own,” so there’s some built-in pressure for them to say yes. (And as someone who has struggled to fight off my own micromanaging instincts in the past, I can attest that that approach would have shamed me into easing up. I’ve also used it successfully myself when managing up bosses with control-freak tendencies.)

If he’s resistant to that, though, then try asking what you can do to work toward more autonomy in the future. For example: “It’s an important goal of mine to work on getting to a point where I’m able to handle X and Y on my own. Could I keep checking in with you for feedback and coaching over the next few months, with an eye toward moving in that direction?”

You could also ask point-blank: “Do you think that’s a realistic goal, or do you think it’s unlikely that the person in my role would ever reach that point?” If it turns out that he just doesn’t envision the role ever functioning in the way you want it to, at that point you’ll have really valuable information about what you can and can’t expect from the job — and can make decisions for yourself accordingly.

I originally published this at New York Magazine.

{ 38 comments… read them below }

  1. NonProfit Nancy*

    To be fair, I have had two bosses that were fond of asking me to do something, and then completely redoing it. At first I took it very personally and assumed that my work output must not be up to quality. I found a moment to ask them both about it directly, right after I saw they had done this. They both had the same response: “oh, this is my process, you’re really helping me get the ball rolling by giving me a draft to work off of, and that helps me figure out what I really want.” I was still pretty put out and it did hurt my morale, but knowing that’s how they approached tasks helped me plan my workload, and I would try not to get attached to my products or spend a lot of time polishing them into final form once I accepted they were going to do this.

    However, I will say that doesn’t explain the public correction on minor points: that sounds like insecurity on the bosses part. I second Alison, next time it happens, ask right there in the moment what is going on or what you should have done differently.

    1. Christine*

      I think the public criticism is the manager wanting to keep ownership in the process. I think it’s petty, but you have some weird birds out there. I would with a micro manager and everyone knows it so I finally just let it go otherwise I would go crazy. It still gets under my skin sometimes, but it’s on her.

      If this was still happening at the six month mark I would be more concerned. Follow Alison’s advise and ask, than you’ll know if there a particular writing format or word usage your manager wants. Or he’s just nicky picky and controlling.

      Do not job hunt at this stage unless you are verbally abused, etc, or pick up the vibe that the manager isn’t happy with you and you feel like you’re being pushed out the door. I would stay at this job for a full year, learn everything you can. If you’re still unhappy at the one-year mark, than start job searching. But we all have aspects of our jobs that we do not like, either a particular duty or two, a habit of a co-worker or our manager’s supervising style, etc. It could be the way your neighbor laughs the next cubicle over that makes him sound like a horse.

      Please give yourself time to adjust.

    2. FTW*

      Agree with this point. What OP sees as ‘redoing’ the manager might see as a good first draft, and exactly what the OP should be doing.

      Public corrections might actually be clarifications or updates that were prompted by queries from other team members.

      1. Mookie*

        Good thread. It’d be more ideal for the OP’s peace of mind if this was done with some amount of transparency, so I’d urge her to help herself by checking in with her manager as to how the process works and what to expect from it. This shouldn’t feel insulting (unless it actually is limited to the OP and is a reflection of her current level of work, in which case the manager needs to provide guidance and direct criticism; but in either instance, she needs to ask).

  2. neverjaunty*

    LW, there are some other things in your letter that are a little worrying – you ask if you’re being “dramatic” and refer to your “usual passive-aggressive style”. It’s not clear whether you do, actually, have a problem with your communications style in the workplace, or if you’ve been given some really inappropriate criticism that you’ve internalized.

    Do you actually have problems seeing correction or supervisory directives as anything other than personal, or do you tend to see workplace relationships like personal relationships (say, that a boss must ‘hate you’ if she corrects your work)? If not, ‘drama’ doesn’t really seem to be a descriptor that makes sense. Do you have a lot of trouble communicating directly and clearly such that yes, the way that you do things like correct your boss is in fact indirect or passive-aggressive – or have you just been told by the dudes that you’re not “aggressive” enough?

    TL;DR, either you’re describing serious flaws in your soft skills or you’re unnecessarily putting yourself down, and either way you may want to take a good look at that, since those affect not only your boss but your work success overall.

    1. K*

      Interesting. The way I read it I would never have thought anything like that. The OP used some word choices that I could see myself using when writing in to AAM, as they’re just a common part of my vocabulary. I just took “am I being too dramatic” as “am I overthinking this” and passive-aggressive as being non-confrontational (I realize that’s not the true definition, but some do use those words interchangeably). It’s always interesting to see how differently people can interrupt these letters and pick up on different things.

    2. halpful*

      huh. now that you’ve pointed it out, the passive-aggressive comment reminds me of the way a friend was talking about her break-up… after a few days of talking, we realised the ex-boyfriend had been emotionally abusive, and had really skewed her perspective on what was reasonable. (hopefully that’s not the case here, but it really did take us several days of repeatedly discussing the events before we could believe it.)

      and… the article on the New York Magazine doesn’t have the “(without my usual passive-aggressive attitude)” part that’s on this page. huh.

  3. Workfromhome*

    I think all the advice regarding asking questions around what could be done to change the micromanaging dynamic is good. you owe it to yourself to at least ask and see if there is a possibility to change things and do so in a way that is asking for feedback on what YOU could change rather than asking the boss to change.

    That said I’d be very interested in a follow-up from the OP after this takes place. I do not have high hopes at all that this will turn out well. If it were a matter of the boss rephrasing your work or changing the formatting etc. it may be just a matter of him being stuck in his ways and that you’ll have to live with it or learn to present things in “his way” even if its not the best way.
    But when you are given a project that you put time and effort into and he dumps the work without even a comment? When he gives you approval and then after you send it out he repeatedly send out a correction even if its minor after? It s clear indication he’s not comfortable with someone else getting credit or being seen as responsible for these projects. Based on my experience this is someone who has to be seen to be the boss who is overseeing your work and its indirectly saying “yeah I let Jane work on this sand send uit out but be sure to know that I’m the guy who’s really behind it all”.

    Maybe you can learn to live with that. I had a boss who would drive me nuts by giving me huge projects and proposals to write all on my own (I had over 10 years experience) but then would force me to review them and change fonts or spellings etc or sometimes even reject my very well documented findings because “sales won’t like to hear that”.

    People like that don’t usually change. I think you need to ask the question but be prepared to decide if this is something you can live with long term. I hope that you get a very clear picture from your conversation if he’s open to change because if not don’t kind yourself that simply giving it time will change them.

  4. phemenut*

    Years ago I worked for an insufferable micromanager. I remember once we had an outage that took down our customer facing servers. I was on the phone with our network provider for hours troubleshooting and sent out regular updates to the company (what we know, what we’re trying, when to expect the next update, etc.). I was in the thick of fire-fighting, but noticed that each time I sent out an update, my boss would reply all with more info which was interesting since he wasn’t on the phone.

    A few years after I’d left this company, I ran into a former co-worker at a party and she mentioned, completely unsolicited since I never gave this guy a second thought after I left, that she always thought it was ridiculous how I’d send out these concise, informative e-mails when there was a problem and then my boss would confuse the situation by sending his follow up e-mails. Maybe others at your company are quietly thinking the same thing with your boss’ “clarification” e-mails.

    1. NonProfit Nancy*

      +1 I thought that when I read that the bosses email corrections were minor. Since everybody hates all office memos, I’m sure most people are rolling their eyes at his additional $.02 if it’s not critical.

      1. coffepwnd*

        Most likely the eye-roll, at least at the bottom of the ladder, and maybe way at the top. Middle managers thrive on this kind of public embarrassment it makes them feel important. Sorry OP

    2. NoMoreMrFixit*

      Sounds like we worked at the same place! Had micromanager from hell who was a complete detail freak. I learned the best way to manage this person was to use the “delegate upwards” strategy. For a mass email, write the message but send to manager for final approval and sending out. Left them feeling like they were still in control. In the end a department reorganization resulted in this manager being moved to a different role at a remote site.

      Ultimately though, I ended up leaving for a better job where I ended up working for the most easygoing laid back manager I ever had.

    3. DCGirl*

      I had one who rewrote everything I did, multiple times. This was direct mail copy back in my fund raising days, something I used to do really, really well. I”d hand her a printed draft, she’d mark it up in red ink and hand it back. The edits were always of the “change ‘happy’ to ‘glad’ variety” with a healthy dose of “change ‘glad’ back to ‘happy'” thrown in. It finally got to the point where I wrote the date and time in pencil on each draft, under the staple where it wouldn’t be seen, because her whims were so mercurial.

      1. phemenut*

        On Tue & Fri, we use glad, on Mon & Wed, happy. On Thu, glad if it’s an even numbered day, otherwise happy.

        1. College Career Counselor*

          Many years ago, I had a boss who, while not a micro-manager, was an academic and used to red-line a fair amount of the correspondence I did for her. I recall going in to her office with the third version of a particular letter one day, and she started to make additional changes.

          I blurted out, “you’re changing it back to what I had in the first version I showed you.” She grinned and said, “Sorry, it’s fine–send it out” along with something else about the “occupational hazards” of being an academic who parses words all day long. She also pretty much let me draft correspondence without review from there on out.

          TL;DR: sometimes it’s about the critical process of the boss, not micromanaging. But the OP’s sounds like a nightmare.

      2. Clever Name*

        I had a boss like this too. He was also a terrible writer, so his edits always ended up making my documents worse. At first I was unhappy my name was never on anything I wrote, but when I realized the final product wasn’t that great, I was glad my name wasn’t on it. :) He also would ask questions like, “Why did you say it this way”. I would just answer him, “Because that’s what you changed it to the last draft”.

    4. Argh!*

      I’ve had one boss-of-boss who had to write a novel to explicate something someone else had sent to customers. I just shook my head but I had to wonder what the customers thought of that.

  5. AFineSpringDay*

    The only thing that stopped my micromanaging boss was her passing away, so I have no real advice here.

    She wanted to be copied on all emails, rewrote everything we did, and then complained that she didn’t get paid nearly enough for the amount of work she did. Yeah, that’s always nice to hear when she made almost 3x what I did.

    She was paranoid about anyone but her getting recognition as well. She would promise all sorts of asinine things, because she wasn’t the one who had to execute them, we were. But then she got all the glory for being the lady who made things happen, and never even noted this was thanks to he hard-working staff. And I had to start work an hour before everyone else rolled in “in case the execs need something”. Well, no one ever did. So now I start when everyone else does. Why the hell should I keep working longer than everyone else each week when I’m not getting paid?

    She even insisted everything we wrote be one page or less, even when the topic (like our job descriptions) warranted more. Even if I just did a one line bullet point for all my tasks, it takes a page and a half, but she edited it down. So as soon as I had my meeting with my new manager, I handed her an updated, longer version of my job that accurately reflects all the work I do. She also never put any effort into getting raises for me and my one colleague even though our jobs had doubled, so we need to do that and fight for ourselves now.

    Honestly, she was so awful and controlling that the only reason I didn’t leave the job was that I have a pension, and pensions are like 4 leaf clovers now.

    1. MtViewer*

      She sounds exactly like an HR person we had. She would never take suggestions from anyone; an idea was only a good idea if she thought of it first. Or she would take the idea, change it around a bit and take full credit.
      She always ran around asking for help on the events she did but when she was praised on the success of the event, she just stood there and basked in the attention while the group who did all the work glared at her. The newbies always got caught in this while the rest of us always had an excuse not to help.
      Whenever someone went to her with an issue concerning other staff, she insisted they write a detailed email to the person’s boss and to copy her on the email. This was her way of documenting. Her first response to everything was to go over the person’s head. So frustrating and unnecessary.
      Eventually she went over her own bosses head a few too many times and they actually “let her go”.

  6. NonProfit Nancy*

    Your mileage may vary – depends on your relationship with the boss – but you could also say very directly, “I feel a little undermined when you immediately send a correction after my mass emails [or rephrase, for sensitive bosses: ‘when a correction goes out immediately after my emails’ or ‘we send a correction right after my emails’]. Can we work on making these corrections upfront so that this doesn’t keep happening?” Especially if it’s a new manager, they may just not have connected the dots on how this makes you feel, and that might make them think twice next time (I know my boss is particularly oblivious about perception stuff like this – but he’s green, and open to feedback). If your boss is actually malicious though, I’m not sure you want to make yourself appear more vulnerable by giving them this opening.

    1. fposte*

      I might even ask if those corrections can be sent privately–he may not be thinking about the audience but just hitting reply and defaulting to reply all.

    2. Mookie*

      I like this advice but I might also cautiously suggest selecting a word other than “undermined,” simply because sometimes that’s what managers do and must do in order to limit the potential damage caused by serious errors going unchecked or guiding people down a rabbithole. It largely depends on whether he uses the e-mail route with the co-worker and colleagues in other departments or if this practice is limited to the OP, in which case I’d ask for an opportunity to correct errors within the department before sending out potentially confusing follow-up e-mails to a 1,500 person-wide company. Such e-mails, especially if they’re regular, don’t shine a particularly flattering light on the manager, either. Certainly, though, the reputation of their department could be undermined if this becomes a pattern because it’s such an unproductive timesuck.

  7. Anonymous Because They Don't Know I'm Job Searching*

    This hit home for me. I’ve been dealing with the soul-sucking lack of motivation that comes from a micromanager. No real advice to the OP, just solidarity.

    My boss likes to have me make power points for presentation, but dictates what each chart on each slide should look like and what the text should say (to the point of drawing pictures and sending them to me), and will usually make minor edits afterwards, though sometimes she redoes the whole thing. She told me she doesn’t like doing the finicky part of putting a power point together, just wants someone to do it for her exactly the way she wants.

    I’ll be looking for a new job in the near future. I didn’t earn two masters degrees to be someone’s power point lemming.

    1. David St. Hubbins*

      My boss is worse. He will tell me to send an e-mail to a client or supplier with certain information, but I have to send it to him first so he can edit it. Then he sends it back to me and THEN I can send it to the recipient. But it gets worse. Sometimes he sends me a whole e-mail, and tells me to send that to someone. And I’m thinking ‘dude, you already wrote the whole thing, why don’t you send it yourself.

      I don’t like bullshit so I began attaching a line at the top that says “Orson asked me to send you this ”

      Sometimes I just want to walk out and go work in a bookshop or a florist or something

  8. Is it Friday Yet?*

    Ooof I’ve had to learn to deal with a micromanaging boss. He is so controlling over copy that he makes changes to his own changes, and typically makes changes that are grammatically incorrect. When others point this out to him or try to make them correct, he still switches it back to his grammatically incorrect way.

    It’s really maddening. It would be one thing if his changes were an improvement, but they are really terrible.

  9. Mrs. Picky Pincher*

    I actually feel you here. I’ve been in a situation almost identical to this, right down to being at a male-dominated company/industry!

    I finally had to have a sit-down with my manager and ask about his expectations for my work. At the same time, I told him how I would prefer to be given feedback (in this case, via private emails with track changes in Word Docs). I did have to cut off his “improvements” after he kept sending new revisions and suggestions. I gave him deadlines and cutoffs to send in changes before the publishing date–after which, there would be no more changes. It depends on your manager’s personality, but for me, it worked out great. It turns out that he needed structure, deadlines, and expectations.

    He was still hard to work with but we eventually got to where we could be efficient and productive.

  10. Fullton Push*

    Micromangers are often coming from a place of lack of confidence or fear of losing control. If the reasonable ideas Alison gave doesn’t work, you are working with a low self-esteem boss. The best method of working with these folks is to kill them with updates. If they don’t hear from you they think you are out their undermining them. Simply bombard them with updates, check-ins, etc and they will actually leave you alone.

    I had a boss like this when I was really young. My initial instinct was to not bring my work to the boss until it was “perfect” so that it wouldn’t have to be rewritten. That freaked boss the hell out and he stated calling me into his office each morning for updates. I switched tactics for my last assignment (thank god it was an internship) and sent the most ear splittingly mundane multi day updates for tasks and that was “the best” work I did for him and he promptly left me alone.

    1. MtViewer*

      This is spot on! My current boss is like this and I have learned to recognize the days I need to fill him in on what I’m doing. Usually it’s in between obvious tasks when my desk looks to clean. Otherwise he will ask what I’m working on at the moment.

  11. Lady Blerd*

    I had a micromanaging boss. I honestly think that he shouldn’t have been promoted beyond my level because he did meddle in our work to the point of doing it himself when he should have been very hands off. No amount of getting talked to by the higher ups or work relationship workshops helped. In the end, he was simply removed. I learned to just go with the flow and occasionally take part in a collective venting session away from the office.

  12. Argh!*

    ” it’s worth asking yourself whether it’s possible that there are valid reasons for the scrutiny and heavy-handedness that you’re receiving”

    Self-reflection is of limited use in my opinion. You can examine the two versions of “your” writing to see if there are “problems” that he’s addressing, for example grammatical errors or jargon, but otherwise it’s all in his head.

    I have a micromanaging boss who rewrites my stuff. If I had someone to proof-read for me, some of my dropped commas would be noted before it gets to her, and I readily admit to the occasional typo. Mostly, she just rewrites and doesn’t give a reason. I have started asking for specifics. “Jane, you changed the wording in my memo from ‘we are proud of our teapots and endeavor to make the best teapots available’ to ‘our teapots are a source of pride and we try to make them better every year.’ – could you tell me what was wrong with my wording so I can send you something you don’t need to edit next year?”

    Without getting specific, you can drive yourself crazy trying to read someone’s mind. One of my coworkers told me that he had to write the same thing for three different situations, and for the second he copied my boss’s wording from the”corrections” she made to the first, and she rewrote it! So he copied that second version for instance #3 and she rewrote that too. Some people just think they have to “add value” when they really don’t. If it’s just their thing then you can’t control it. If there’s something you need to learn, you need to get them to tell you specifically.

    The boss is responsible for what you do, so don’t get your ego involved. If you mess up they get the heat so let them have the last word, so to speak.

  13. EddieSherbert*

    This is a well-timed post for me :)

    Good luck OP! Update us if you try (or don’t!) Alison’s advice.

  14. The OP*

    Wow, this has been so helpful and I am relieved to find that I am not the only one out there struggling with this. While I’d like to give a real update (which I will look to do come at the six month mark- February), so far all I can is are these things:
    1.) I’ve realized that it is not me being dramatic. My boss is a control-freak, and an insecure one at that. During a work trip this past week, some of the sales guys mentioned his behaviors before becoming a manager, as well as how he got the job because his father ushered him in to the company. There’s a lot of distaste for him and his behaviors all around.
    2.) He might be micromanaging not just because he needs the control, but because he also doesn’t have enough to do in his own role so he gets bored and bothers me. I essentially took over all his time-consuming and tedious work, but some of the things he says makes me wonder if he misses being busy…
    3.) This is not a long-term role for me. While I’d like to survive to the one year mark, the company is undergoing some harmful changes and there’s an overall attitude of disgust for all management both here, and in our global offices. It’s such an unpleasant work environment, and I already know I cannot withstand the toxic people I’m surrounded by daily. I will hold out until February, but there’s talk now of PTO and bonus’ being cut without warning, and if that’s the case, I will have to move on at that time.

    I’ll give you all a full update once I get the long-awaited review!

    Thank you for the sympathy and advice. I hope to one day take this life lesson and allow it to transform me into a trusting and sympathetic manager.

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