help — I work for a micromanager!

A reader writes:

I’ve been at my current job for about 6 months. I absolutely love it here. One of the reasons I came to work here it because my boss is one of the most respected names in my field of work. However, I’m only the second person he’s ever directly managed and it shows. I can go days without him even stopping by my desk, allowing me to work at my own pace and manage my own workload. Yet when he gets stressed about a big project, he begins to excessively micromanage me to the point where he makes me feel stupid. I’ll be the first one to ask a question if I don’t understand a task, but sometimes he will explain my own project back to me (as though I haven’t already done 90% of the work and need an explanation of what I’ve spent days working on). On this current project, he’s been checking in on my progress roughly every 15-30 minutes, finding mistakes in real-time and correcting them to me. I don’t even have a chance to review my work before he’s pointed out a mistake. I’ve been either starting the day or ending the day crying for about the past week because he keeps hounding me on anything I’ve messed up, but I feel like I would have found 99% of those mistakes on my own if he just stepped back and gave me the opportunity to review my own work.

I know I’m a good employee and a hard worker (he poached my from my old job to come work for him), but I don’t know how to handle this back-and-forth management style. I’m starting to get really bad anxiety about even coming into work because I don’t know if it’s going to be a laid back hands-off day, or him hovering over my shoulder nonstop. I have no idea how to bring this up with him without offending him or sounding like I’m complaining.

I talk with this letter-writer on today’s podcast.The show is 36 minutes long, and you can listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, the iHeartRadio app, or wherever else you get your podcasts (or here’s the direct RSS feed). Or you can listen above.

Or, if you prefer, here’s the transcript.

{ 47 comments… read them below }

  1. Long time reader, first time listener*

    I always used to skip over the podcast posts on here, because… reasons? (Habits.) Last weekend, however, I had a really long car journey to make, and on the search for something different to listen to I downloaded all of the 2019 podcast episodes, binge-listened to the lot, and now I’m hooked. Love the format! This was another great episode, just listened to over a nice cup of tea and slice of cake (I’m so British it hurts) and I think I just immediately developed a brand new habit! :) Thank you for my inevitable weight gain!! x

    1. seller of teapots*

      I’m American and a good cup of tea + cake + podcast sounds like my version of heaven.

    2. Jane Smith*

      I love them too but they’re sadly coming to an end soon. Alison has said she is too busy to do them.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Right? My heart was warm and fuzzy for LTR, FTL and then it crashed to Earth again when I remembered Alison said she was stopping after this quarter ;_;

      2. Long time reader, first time listener*

        Awwww no!! Thankfully I still have a big back catalogue from 2018 to go through, but now I feel like I’ll need to ration myself. *sadface*

      3. Anonym*

        Oh no!! They’re one of the highlights of my week, and really help me get in a hopeful mindset about work when things are going to crap.

        Alison, there are great podcasts out there that only release every other week. I hope that’s an option you’ll consider! Or just doing them in “seasons” for part of the year only.

      4. BRR*

        Oh no! I missed this. Thankfully the episodes covered a lot of the topics where tone is an important part of the answer.

        1. Fieldpoppy*

          I really love them too, and I wish we could have a Patreon or something that would support Alison for them.

    3. Mellow*

      Any kitties in the scenario of cake and tea and podcasts?

      Because that’s paradise, to me.

  2. KHB*

    For bosses explaining your own projects to you, I’ve had some success with the “Yes, and…” approach from improv (not that I know anything about improv). So if my boss were to tell me something like “You need to make sure that the handle and the spout are on opposite sides of the teapot” (where that’s something that anyone who’s ever made a teapot would know automatically, and I’ve made 150 of them), instead of getting defensive or making it a Whole Big Thing about whether I’ve inadvertently given him the impression that I don’t understand basic teapot design, I might say “Yes, and I’ve been exploring different systems for using a straightedge and protractor to verify my handle and spout placement.” The goal is to show that (1) I fundamentally agree with him about what he thinks I’m supposed to be doing, and (2) subtly add a little more to show that I really do know what I’m doing.

    1. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

      +1 I would even go a step further and treat it as if they are using an “active listening” technique and repeating back to you what you’ve said. “Yes, that’s it exactly. I’m glad we’re on the same page that I HAVE already completed the TPS reports and aligned the spouts according to the new parameters. I’m about 90% done on the total project. Did you have any other questions I can answer for you?” Tone is really key though — be happy, upbeat and “helpful” and not flat and sarcastic.

    2. Anonym*

      This can also work well for blowhards and colleagues who may or may not be attempting to make you/others look bad. I frequently go with “so delighted you agree with me!” and “I am happy to reassure you that [false concern or ill informed confusion] is not the case!”

      The “yes, and” connection is brilliant! I hadn’t made that connection. :)

    3. Cassandra Mortmain*

      “Yes, and” is the best strategy for dealing with bosses and their ideas in pretty much all circumstances, I’ve found.

    4. cupotea*

      Thank you KHB, Pay no attention to the man, and Anonym. Very helpful. Just had a talk with my control freakish boss today – did not go well. Crap. But I am going to save the tools you’ve given us.

      Anyone else have good tips for those of us working for micromanagers? My boss is a relatively new manager …. I expect over time this may lessen.

  3. Myrin*

    Something that amused me while listening and which I’m wondering if I just made up in my mind or was really there: Alison, were you quite surprised by the fact that this happens via boss’s live watching through Google Docs? It felt like you were just sitting there internally going “erm, that was not what I was picturing all along” for a moment but I’m not sure if I was just imagining that!

    1. Fieldpoppy*

      that astonished me! It’s like having someone literally sitting on your shoulder and finishing your words

  4. Hold My Cosmo*

    AAM inception: the Ron Burgundy podcast ad in today’s AAM podcast made me laugh.

  5. KitKat100000*

    Hello!! I worked for a terrible micro-manager for TWO YEARS! It was brutal and I’m so glad I left, but I feel like the following are some good options for you, based on your letter (I haven’t had the opportunity to listen to the podcast yet).

    1. Set five-minute meetings with your boss at the beginning of the day and the end of the day to go over your tasks and accomplishments
    2. If your boss wants to review something that you haven’t reviewed, tell your boss that you aren’t finished and that you will send it to your boss when you are finished and have reviewed it
    3. If your boss insists re: number two, make it very clear that you’re not done and have not been able to review your work
    4. If your boss is rude or chastises you, explain to your boss that the way that they are giving feedback is critical without being constructive
    5. When your boss hovers, explain that you can’t work with a hovercraft lurking and that you will send your work product when you’re finished – and then don’t go back to working until your boss leaves.
    6. Stand up for yourself – that was my biggest regret! I was walked all over and I let it happen.

    Wishing you all the best!!

    1. That Girl From Quinn's House*

      I had a micromanager boss and I found #1 to be a *huge* problem. She wanted to do a “Five minutes before you go!” meeting and it turned into an ambush meeting full of detailed questions and assignments that I couldn’t answer or write down because I was in my coat, holding my purse, lunchbag, tote, and washed travel mug. Additionally, she’d turn this easily into a 45-60 minute hostage situation so you’d end up late to whatever your after-work plans were.

      I found out later that she did this to everyone, and everyone had started hiding from her after 4.

      1. only acting normal*

        The dreaded “have you got a minute” is *always* a 45minute hostage situation when a micromanager is involved.

        1. NW Mossy*

          Along with its partner in crime “I just have a quick question.”

          The Venn diagram of people who say this a lot and people whose questions are quick are two circles that do not overlap.

          1. KitKat100000*

            So maybe just five minutes at the beginning of the day?? It helps to have a written list of items and keep refocusing the boss back to the items on the list. A once-a-week lunch, albeit painful, could also serve as a one-time meeting for all issues.

      2. NDC*

        This happens to me so much that my partner and I refer to it as “being Jane’d” as an explanation for why I was running late collecting him from work.

      3. boop the first*

        holy cow, this is so true! I work pretty hard to get the day’s tasks done right on time, and even then, cleaning up can take me 10-15 minutes past leaving time despite being in high-strung RUSH mode the entire day. The boss always wants to tell me about next morning tasks, which is great except for when it’s so obvious (like what else would I be doing? sort of obvious). But he waits until you have already gone up to change and are running out the door for the bus!

        We could have had this conversation while I was cleaning and boss was just standing there, but no! It has to be on my time! I think it’s just a power move.

    2. coffeeforone*

      this is such a helpful list! I mentor someone who is in a micromanaging boss situation and always wish I had some more tangible actions to suggest to them.

      1. KitKat100000*

        “No” – “I’m not done” – “I don’t have that as a priority on my tasks list” – “I will follow up with you when I’m done” – “I will do X, Y and Z, and then I will update you” – and again, “No!”

  6. Lil*

    this reminds me of a boss i had at an internship. on the occasions where i would be typing in front of her on the screen (like we were composing a paragraph together) and, as one does, i occasionally made the mistake of hitting the wrong letter. instead of letting at least a millisecond to pass for me to backspace correct it, she would say it out loud in real time. “ope! the h and e are switched” “you hit the space bar twice!”. so very glad i have nothing to do with her anymore.

    1. The Editrix*

      The worst! I worked on a temp job for a guy who dictated letters and reports to me at my computer instead of taping them for transcribing — which was a bit unusual but could have been manageable. But he also insisted on standing behind me and pointing out any typos as I went. That could turn even a perfect typist into a wreck, and after about two days of it, I think it would’ve taken me three tries to type my own name. I felt like a nervous little kid at a piano recital.

    2. AnnaBananna*

      Ugh. Everybody knows it’s downright IMPOSSIBLE to type without errors when there’s an audience.

    3. Eukomos*

      Oh god, that sounds awful. My manager is similar, I once watched her tell someone they should flip to the next page in their notebook while they were taking notes on her instructions. To her credit she did realize that was bonkers as soon as it came out of her mouth, but that’s sort of her pattern, she does these obnoxious micromanage-y things and then about half the time realizes it later and sort of apologizes, then goes right back to doing it.

  7. Jerry*

    Am I being insensitive? The whole time the Letter Writer was tip-toeing around the conversation because of the death of her manager’s mother, and the issue just doesn’t seem like a big enough deal to be delicate about. This isn’t a huge confrontation, this is just run-of-the-mill necessary feedback. She says her boss isn’t defensive or oversensitive, I can’t imagine why this can’t just be a “things I need from you as a manager” conversation that happens once and everyone moves on.

    1. Fieldpoppy*

      If I have learned nothing from Ask a Manager it’s how far people will go to avoid giving non-positive feedback in a direct way.

  8. CM*

    I don’t disagree with the advice, but there was something in this story that tripped an alarm in my mind. It’s the part where the caller says she has a really, really great relationship with this boss and she’s afraid to “ruin it” by telling him something he doesn’t want to hear. I’ve learned the hard way that, if your really great relationship is contingent on keeping quiet about anything that bothers you, it’s not a great relationship.

    I’m not saying that this is definitely the caller’s situation but, when I’ve felt this way about someone in the past (and done similar amounts of stressing about when the right time was to bring something up and whether I could do it indirectly), what was actually happening was that I WANTED to believe this person liked and respected me, I SUSPECTED on some level that that might not be true, and I FEARED doing something that would prove my suspicions, because I didn’t want to deal with the blow of losing that relationship or of losing the boost to my ego that came from getting love-bombed at the beginning.

    Literally every time I’ve had this feeling — the feeling that an authority figure really, really likes me and I have to be careful not to ruin it — it turned out that they didn’t like me at all. They liked that I was easy to control, or that I doggedly had positive regard for them no matter how they treated me, or did things like “pulling two all-nighters” to save them from missing a deadline that they hadn’t planned for properly. But they had no regard for me as a person, and that always became clear as soon as our great, great relationship WAS ruined by me gently asserting myself.

    In retrospect, 100% of the time, I wish I’d just ripped the band-aid off and found out right away instead of trying to avoid it so that I could trick myself into believing I was special and we were friends.

    1. myswtghst*

      “if your really great relationship is contingent on keeping quiet about anything that bothers you, it’s not a great relationship.”

      This is a great point. Often, you either have a great relationship that can withstand some constructive feedback, or you don’t actually have a great relationship, and giving that feedback might be the best way to find out which it is. In either case, Alison’s advice on how to give the feedback effectively applies, but this is definitely worth keeping in mind.

  9. Nope*

    I had a boss just like this and I sat in a cube directly in front of his office so he wouldn’t even have to get up or walk very far to micromanage me. I quit because the stress and anxiety definitely didnt match the pay and even on my second to last day he was standing in his doorway asking me questions about a submission I had thoroughly written and carefully checked while I was eating lunch. You have my sympathy.

  10. Lily Rowan*

    So I guess it’s a moot point if the podcast is ending (SAD!!), but I was thinking that might be a great opportunity for the caller to actually practice the tone herself, rather than just listening to Alison do it. Maybe people don’t like role playing? But it actually really does help to get the right words out of your mouth in advance.

    1. Hope*

      Wait, when/where did she say the podcast is ending? At the end of it, it said there’d be another next week…

  11. Anonymousaurus Rex*

    I’m a bit late to comment, but as a long time google docs user (and a fan of them), I wanted to make a suggestion. What I’ve done in the past is make a copy of the Google doc I need to work on, and then only share that new version of the doc (or copy the new data into the existing doc) once I’m finished. That can create a version control issue, but it definitely stops the feeling of being watched. You are still in the google ecosystem, rather than switching to excel/word, etc, but you limit who can see your work until you’re ready to share it.

    1. myswtghst*

      Same! I work with some people who aren’t super Google docs fluent, and sometimes will do weird things to my docs, so I like to have a draft I work in, and a shared doc I c&p into regularly. You can always trash the draft doc later, but it might help if you only want boss looking at work you’ve already proofed.

  12. boop the first*

    Oh my, you are describing my life -sort of!

    I mean, it’s great to have some possible non-snarky and accommodating responses, but at least for ME, the issue is the annoyance itself. I can avoid a screaming match with the boss just fine, but I am definitely dying inside.

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