I manage a horrible micromanager

A reader writes:

I am having great difficulty with one of the managers who I manage, “Fern.” Fern leads a team of 16 people. Her tactics have led to poor morale and wasting time. Nearly every time a team member makes a mistake, she assumes it’s indicative of a larger problem and re-training/new processes ensue. For example:

• “Janet” once made a small math error, so Fern decided she didn’t understand how percentages work and made her do an online math lesson. Fern now meticulously checks Janet’s work before letting anyone else see it, which can bottleneck the workload for hours/days. Janet majored in math; she just made a single error.

• “Brad” accidentally forgot a step in a complicated process. Now everyone has to fill-out a daily checklist and have it approved by Fern to prove steps aren’t being missed. This isn’t the only such checklist, but they all seem to result in extra work with little payoff.

• Fern requires everyone to copy her on every email, internal and external, so she knows what’s going on, creating a huge slog of emails through which her team must navigate each day.

There’s more, but essentially Fern feels the need for massive oversight. She doesn’t break company rules, but she doesn’t treat her team well. From my perspective, she has more seasoned, competent employees than the other teams, but they get less work done. They don’t make more errors than other teams, but they do have more time-consuming preventative measures.

Several of Fern’s team members have come to me requesting transfers to other teams, but we don’t have room to do that without entirely restructuring the company. I’ve spoken to Fern about these issues, gently suggesting that sometimes mistakes are “one offs” and pointing out that people generally function better in situations in which they aren’t so closely monitored. Fern replied that she knows what she’s doing and that I don’t seem to have issues with the other managers. To be honest, I don’t. Some of them have mildly unorthodox methods, but their teams are happy, productive, and efficient. Technically, I have the power to terminate or transfer positions, but Fern is related to a family friend of the CEO.

How can I coach her into some different leadership methods?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 150 comments… read them below }

  1. Irish Teacher.*

    Interesting the difference between how Fern manages her team and how she reacts to being managed. With her team, she seems to “run an extremely tight ship” and allow no mistakes but when the LW, as her manager points out one of her mistakes, her response is basically, “hands off; I know what I’m doing.” Which is exactly the opposite of how she manages her team.

    And her comment about how the LW doesn’t seem to have a problem with other managers is…pretty oblivious because the fact that she is the only one the LW has issues with makes it more likely the problem is with her.

    Honestly, if I were Janet, I’d be jobsearching. A manager who insisted I take an online course in what sounds like basic maths because I made a single slip is not somebody I would want to work for.

    1. Charlotte Lucas*

      I think the fact that people have asked to be moved to different teams indicates that they *are* going to job search if this doesn’t get fixed.

        1. Other Alice*

          They are also “more seasoned and competent” than other employees at the company. Very likely they will find other jobs.

        2. Charlotte Lucas*

          Definitely! I have had to go to my grandboss with a similar issue, and I had already started the search by then

        3. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

          This being an old letter, I wondered how long it took for every last one of Fern’s reports to leave the company.

          My head damn near exploded when I read the very first example. I’m a math major in the sense that, out of my 5 years in school, most of the first 2.5 were required math classes. Really, really advanced math classes. The “my dad was an engineer his entire career and he looked at my notes once and could not understand what any of them were about” kind of advanced math. Then we were finally grouped by our chosen majors and I was able to take the CS classes I’d come to that school for, but those who chose to major in pure math continued studying what probably was infinitely more advanced math than even what I’d had to take. I cannot imagine the reaction if any of them were forced to take an online math lesson on percentages by their manager?!?!?!? they’d probably exit through the nearest window or wall.

          1. Emotional support capybara (he/him)*

            Yeah, that IMO would absolutely justify a Reverse Kool-aid Man maneuver (just like the original except it’s an exit instead of an entrance and instead of “OH YEAH” you yell “HELL NO” as you’re bursting through the wall)

          2. Chili Heeler*

            I giggled to myself when I saw the percentages one because I know three math PhDs and only one of them could split the check at dinner. That said, knowing when something is an error and when it is a problem is crucial to being a manager.

            1. Captain Swan*

              There is a very old joke that you never should let a math major add, subtract, multiply, or divide without a calculator. they will mess it up if they do it on their head. now integrating in their head, no problem. And yes I was a math major.

              1. MCMonkeyBean*

                I’m an accountant, and I have always thought it was funny watching my coworkers at work socials arguing over the score when playing cornhole.

              2. Emmy Noether*

                I’m a physicist, so took a few semesters of math with the mathematicians. That joke is the absolute truth: there’s not a lot of arithmetic in university math classes, and one sort of forgets how to deal with numbers that are not 0, 1, 2, pi, e or i.

                1. Clare*

                  Yep. That’s basically my response to most mental arithmetic. “Pshht! I don’t do maths with numbers!”

                2. NPOQueen*

                  I have a close friend who is has a PhD in Math (don’t ask me what topology even means in this context), and the only reason she’s still good at the basics is because she teaches. She was telling me about some of her work and it was so far over my head that I couldn’t even measure the distance.

    2. bamcheeks*

      her comment about how the LW doesn’t seem to have a problem with other managers is…pretty oblivious

      It is, but it’s also indicative of the fact that “gently suggesting that sometimes a mistake is a one-off” hasn’t landed. Fern thinks she’s being picked on and it’s not faaaair because LW hasn’t been direct about the issue is. That comment was the perfect opening for, “I don’t have a problem with the other manager because I’m not seeing [specific behaviours] and [specific results] from their team.” It was kind of a gift to LW!

      1. gmg22*

        I get a very subtle vibe from this letter that the LW was not 100% confident in their own take on Fern compared to other managers, the aside about the other managers having “mildly unorthodox methods” being the clue. Something — organizational culture? stuff internalized from a past toxic job? — could have planted an unconscious belief that “mildly unorthodox methods” can just never really be OK, even when they get the desired results (productivity + happy employees). And therefore maybe LW’s inner critic was whispering, “But but but, maybe actually what’s happening here is Fern is just the one with the highest standards who rightly expects the most from her employees!” — causing them to be unwilling to push Fern further.

      2. K*

        I mean, I think that’s a bad response. She should have told her that she doesn’t actually know wether she has a “problem” with other managers since she is not privy to every conversation that the LW has with all of her employees.

    3. hohumdrum*

      Makes sense to me- whenever I’ve been a micromanager or had the urge it was usually rooted in insecurity. A fear that if the job isn’t done perfectly it means *I* am a failure or bad or whatever. And IME anxiety has a way of eclipsing your ability to think critically/about others at all. So it doesn’t even occur to you as to how that behavior makes others feel, because all you can hear in your head is “A MISTAKE! A MISTAKE WAS MADE! EVERYONE CAN SEE WHAT A USELESS FAILURE YOU ARE YOU NEED TO SCRAMBLE AND FIX IT *NOW*” with no room to think about how your report feels. Plus also when someone tries to gently correct you, it’s confirmation of how terrible you’re afraid you are so you have to reject it and push it all away or else collapse entirely. Obviously not a healthy mindset! Not very conducive to effective leadership.

      So if that’s what’s up with Fern it wouldn’t surprise me to find that getting negative feedback freaks her out while she’s constantly doing that to her reports and not connecting that at all.

      1. alas rainy again*

        Thank you hohumdrum for giving us insight into the mind of a micromanager. From the life of me I couldn’t understand why they would do that to me. Thanks to your testimony, I can eventually connect the dots. It ain’t personnal. But it still is crappy managing!

    4. learnedthehardway*

      I’m lousy at math, and I would STILL be irrationally annoyed at someone who insisted I take remedial training in how do to percentages. I mean, come on!! And to do that to someone whose degree had a math component?!??! That’s insulting.

      1. I Have RBF*

        I went all the way up through differential equations in college as an engineering major. I still use either Excel or a calculator, because I have just enough dyslexia to scramble numbers.

        If some manager assigned me to a remedial math because I typoed/or switched digits in a calculation, I would be job hunting hard, and would already have my resignation typed up.

    5. Indigo a la mode*

      “Interesting the difference between how Fern manages her team and how she reacts to being managed. With her team, she seems to ‘run an extremely tight ship’ and allow no mistakes but when the LW, as her manager points out one of her mistakes, her response is basically, ‘hands off; I know what I’m doing.'”

      I don’t see a difference at all. Both scenarios are entirely about her desire to control.

    1. Boof*

      Thank you! Sucks the ceo doesn’t want their company effectively managed more then they want friends of family (??) to pretend things are fine when they are not, but a++ op for finding an effective way around that and i guess at least fern was kinda sorta willing to improve

      1. Boof*

        Kinda wonder is she ultimately preferred all her colleagues being aghast at her management over just her manager helping with her performance but she really forced that one. Just musing what she must think in hindsight

          1. Former Admin turned Project Manager*

            I think she should take a remedial math course, since she cannot put 2 and 2 together.

    2. DisneyChannelThis*

      What an amazing update! I love that when they said no unless everyone OP just fricking went for it with everyone. That’s going to create much more efficient teams for the whole org too

      1. Observer*

        love that when they said no unless everyone OP just fricking went for it with everyone.

        What I really loved about that update is that the OP managed to make it work!

      1. Pastor Petty Labelle*

        I know. The CEO sucks. And Fern sucks that her response to legitimate feedback is to go running to the boss to make the mean manager leave her alone. Way to undermine your own credibility and authority there.

        I remember this update although not the original. I can just see Fern being all I make the reports run everything through me and go through basic retraining every time they make a mistake, isn’t that a great management technique. And everyone else going What the What???????

        1. GreyjoyGardens*

          It states that Fern is a relative of a family friend of the CEO – I am not sure how close the relationship is, but she might think that the CEO will always be in her corner and enable her, no matter how bad her management style is.

          1. Stipes*

            The original letter says she’s the “daughter-in-law of a family friend of the CEO”. (Alison tends to remove or genericize very-specific details like that from reruns. Probably since the rerun isn’t actually directed at the LW anymore, but more for anyone who might have a vaguely similar situation.)

      2. A Poster Has No Name*

        Malicious compliance FTW

        Rarely does it seem to work out so well, but it sounds like it ended up being a big net positive for the PMs as a whole, not just Fern.

      3. Ellis Bell*

        OP deserves a real hat tip for that one. In some ways it’s a bit more scorched earth for training to make someone display their ignorance before all their peers, but in other ways it’s a more thorough exchange of knowledge and open dialogue which makes it clear to Fergusia exactly how far off target she was.

        1. pally*

          My thoughts exactly! With some folks, they take improvement suggestions better when it’s from peers and not the boss. Not suggesting this is the entire answer to this situation. But this off-site idea was inspired!

        2. AngryOctopus*

          Yes, it can be more effective because instead of 1 person in her head thinking “the boss is unfairly targeting me, I’m fine, everything I do is awesome”, she suddenly had several others saying “wait, you do WHAT? How is that a good thing? That’s terrible! You shouldn’t do X, you should do Y, to show you your team that you know they can do their jobs!”. Maybe it felt like a firing squad to her, but she brought it on herself, so–fighting fire with fire (sorry for the matched word mixed metaphor there).

      4. Sharkie*

        Can you just imagine working for Fern and this CEO during work from home and covid? It sounds like a nightmare.

        1. Billy Preston*

          Ha I worked with someone like this during covid/WFH and it really was demeaning. That manager is one of the main reasons I quit.

    3. Warrior Princess Xena*

      Honestly major props to OP for turning the “it’s unfair if only I have to do this” right back around on Fern. IDK if it counts as malicious compliance but 10/10 compliance.

      1. KatCardigans*

        I bet that it changed because this time it’s being published on Inc.—Fergusia is a bit goofier of a name than Fern is.

      2. A Poster Has No Name*

        I’m assuming Alison (or someone at Inc) changed it to “Fern” as that’s a little less…well, less than Fergusia.

    4. bamcheeks*

      Thai is brilliant! The “right, let’s have an away day with pre- and post-work so you can hear it from your peers” is genius.

      1. MassMatt*

        I usually learn at least one really useful thing at any meeting of managers like this, and it’s great to not have to reinvent the wheel whenever you encounter a problem, or have some people who have been in the same position you have in dealing with a tough issue.

    5. It's 1849 in Wisconsin*

      I understand why Alison changed it, but I did like the original name for the problem manager: Fergusia.

    6. ThisIsNotADuplicateComment*

      Depressing that the CEO sucks but 10/10 for the Letter Writer! That was an excellent solution and was probably even helpful for the managers who were doing their jobs properly.

    7. Sharpie*

      That was an amazing update and OP sounds like a great manager who got all the managers working for her to find ways to improve in a supportive environment. It sounds as though Fern was the one who struggled most with the program and stepping back from the micro-managing she was doy, but who has done so, to a greater or lesser degree, which means she has improved and taken things on board herself, however hard she found it. Which is a win for everyone involved.

      The CEO sucked for not backing OP up, but I think the workaround actually worked out even better for everyone so even that wasn’t the big deal it could have been.

      Well done, OP, you sound like the sort of manager anyone would want to work for!

    8. Jessica*

      That’s… a happier ending than I would have expected.

      What Fern was doing–especially making someone with a math degree take an online course in basic math!–sounded less like micromanaging and more like intentional humiliation, which is a problem I wouldn’t expect to be fixable.

      Glad it worked out.

  2. Pastor Petty Labelle*

    First and foremost, stop gently telling Fern that maybe she shouldn’t do something. You need to be very clear. She is not to institute new processes every time someone makes a mistake. While checklists can be useful, having her review each one is ridiculous. Again, name the pattern and tell her it cannot continue.

    If she pulls the you don’t have a problem with other managers you can say that’s right I don’t because they let their employees do their jobs without trying to control them.

    1. The Prettiest Curse*

      Currently, Fern is tossing her team into a dumpster and settling it alight. OP is gently asking her to maybe consider using a bit less accelerant, instead of grabbing a fire extinguisher and calling the emergency services.

    2. Ellis Bell*

      I feel like if the phrases: “making a mountain out of a molehill”, “absolutely no way is that an appropriate response to one error”, and “you are holding back your team”, were not used, then yeah, the feedback was too gentle.

      1. MassMatt*

        I certainly would have used much blunter language with Fergusia whe I noticed the issue, but to be fair the LW did manage a good outcome out of this, despite a roadblock from a bad CEO.

  3. Hiring Mgr*

    It almost seems impossible to be a micromanager to 16 direct reports. But maybe in a sense if she’s overwhelmed, it’s easier to focus on tiny things in wanting to feel in control.

    I have seen micromanagers change their ways so it can be done.

    1. Guacamole Bob*

      It didn’t say they were all direct reports, fortunately.

      Over the past two years I’ve gone from managing one person to managing a team of ~12. It has definitely been a learning experience on knowing when to let go and getting comfortable with not knowing every detail of everything going on and accepting that sometimes things will go wrong on your team or that people will make mistakes. It’s really hard! Especially for someone who is used to being very on top of things. But the alternative is to make everyone miserable and much less productive, so I’ve learned to get (more) comfortable with that feeling of less control.

    2. Observer*

      It almost seems impossible to be a micromanager to 16 direct reports.

      Which is why she’s getting so much worse results than any of the other managers. And why, specifically, her need to approve every stupid sneeze is *the* roadblock for tons of work.

      1. It's 1849 in Wisconsin*

        Once she put the roadblocks in place that prevented anyone from getting much work done, she then had time to review all of the work. If she gets overwhelmed in the future, I bet she can stop her reports from getting any work done.

    3. Certaintroublemaker*

      I’m thinking, require Fern to take an online management course in How Not to Micromanage.

    4. NotAnotherManager!*

      It seems that way, but, in reality, what tends to happen is that things just don’t get done. My prior organization had an atrocious, Fern-level micromanager at the C-level running the financial team, which had more people. Their department was constantly having services cut off for non-payment because the C-level had to sign literally every payment, no matter how small, which obviously backed things up quite a bit. He basically knew where the balls were not to drop on VIPs and the rest of us just had to wait until they got around to our stuff. It could get months for a regular line worker to be reimbursed for things (BY CHECK in 2018), which was asinine since those were the people least well-equipped to float the company a loan.

      When the new financial chief started, it took them a month to realize why everyone in the department was asking them to approve every little thing. They ran a lot more smoothly when the new guy allowed them to do the jobs they were being paid to do rather than being micromanaged. And reimbursements started being sent via direct deposit within 5 days or less AND department heads were issued corporate cards that could be shared and used for all company expenses.

  4. Yeah...*

    “Fern is related to a family friend of the CEO” <—- this should have the first line not the last.

  5. Artemesia*

    Re the update. I am really appalled that a CEO would whine about ‘singling out’ the problem employee and requiring everyone to be trained when the singled out person is the problem. The OP seems to hve handled that challenge brilliantly.

    1. It's 1849 in Wisconsin*

      The CEO had such a weird take on the situation! Not to mention, the *daughter-in-law of a friend* is enough degrees of separation that I wouldn’t expect nepotism to be such a problem.

      1. GreyjoyGardens*

        It could be that the CEO and Fern are from a particular close-knit culture, church, or town. I remember the letter from last week (or the week before) where the LW’s parents went to one of the LW’s coworkers with “concerns” about their daughter working alone in an office. Most of us were appalled that parents would be that helicopter-y of an adult child, but some people said this was normal in their culture, or church.

        It is possible that the CEO comes from a family where even the most extended family members, and family friends, fall under the “very close” umbrella. This doesn’t excuse his enabling of Fern, though. Good management practices have to come before family fee-fees, or soon the business will no longer be a viable business, as many letter writers can attest.

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      This is one of my greatest management pet peeves. If someone else is the problem, why am I being punished for it (or why I am pulling my productive, high-performers for remedial training)? The fastest way to deal with an issue is directly with the person who is creating the problem. When you drag everyone else into it, it both muddies the water and wastes time.

      If multiple people are having an issue, then, sure, retrain – that more likely means I didn’t train them right the first time. If it’s an isolated problem, it’s a targeted solution.

  6. Nea*

    Was there ever an update on this one?

    It’s probably too late now, but LW needs to get firm with Fern and document, document, document. Fern has practically given LW a gift because the time spent on the checklists, the time spent on remedial classes, and certainly the time delayed between Janet doing her work and Fern personally approving it are hard, cold statistics that Fern’s approach is wasting tons of company time.

    1. Warrior Princess Xena*

      There was an update! HonorBox linked it above (probably got delayed in posting since there’s a link). It was mixed since it turned out the CEO came in on Fern’s side but OP made it work beautifully.

  7. Sigh*

    Am I the only one that hates reading a letter and scrolling for the answer only to find that I’m pay-walled?

    1. DisneyChannelThis*

      The paywall articles are always old letters being revisited. You can search the title on this site to read the original answer

    2. Be Gneiss*

      Really uncool to complain about Alison getting paid for content when there is a wealth of free content here for you.

      1. Lexi Vipond*

        No, but looking like you’re giving something for free and then snatching it away is presumably the most frustrating way of introducing paid content. There’s no reason why the question couldn’t be hidden, or the post flagged as an advert for a paid site at the start rather than the end.

        1. Agnes*

          There used to be a note on the front page about the paywall. It has disappeared; therefore, I conclude the goal is to get people to go to the website without realizing there is a paywall. That’s borderline deceptive, and at the least you get to put up with people complaining about it when they didn’t realize.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            No, that’s not correct. There has never been a note on the front page or individual post pages about the paywall. I’m not going to change the way I promote my work here because I have contractual obligations to the outside publications, but I certainly understand if that means you would prefer to read elsewhere.

          2. Peanut Hamper*

            I think we are at the point with the internet where it’s safer to assume that any link that leads to a publication website is behind a paywall. That’s not deceptive, that’s just the nature of the internet in a capitalist society.

        2. Stipes*

          Yeah, I’ll admit I’m the kind of advertising-contrarian who’d be more likely to pay for something like this if it wasn’t always disguised as a normal post. But I’ve come to accept that people who think the way I do don’t make up the bulk of any target market, and that’s ok!

          1. nnn*

            “Disguised” is a weird way to characterize it when the majority of the time the articles aren’t paywalled, the paywall only seems to kick in if you read over a certain number of articles there in a month. I rarely get blocked from reading them and if I do it’s because I’ve been reading a lot at Inc, Slate or whatever that month, in which case it seems fair for them to ask to charge me.

    3. And thanks for the coffee*

      No, I’m quite annoyed by it also. I just skip back over here when that happens.

    4. Hlao-roo*

      The questions with linked answers are always posted at 12:30pm eastern time. Sometimes updates or other, non-pay-walled things are posted at 12:30pm eastern time, but if you want to avoid reading letters where the answers are linked behind paywalls, avoid the 12:30 post.

    5. Kella*

      Writers deserve to be paid for their work. Typically, content behind a paywall like that pays better and enables a higher portion of the rest of the site to be available for free, which is why 90% of the site *is* available to you.

    6. Michelle Smith*

      No. I read almost everything Alison posts and have never once encountered this problem.

    7. SnappinTerrapin*

      There are always a few who complain about it.

      There’s a lot more free content here than content that is paywalled.

      You can read the parts you want to.

  8. jane's nemesis*

    I worked for a Fern! I left the organization because of it!
    My Fern’s manager seemed just as hands-off in handling the problem as this LW.

      1. jane's nemesis*

        Good for you!! I gave ever so slightly less than 2 weeks and ignored her pouting for the entirety of it.

    1. Frankly, Mr. Shankly*

      I currently work for Fern! And because it’s a nonprofit, every insignificant typo or delay results in insinuations that the org will fail because of me. I spend every lunchbreak applying to jobs, with no luck so far. I hope the fall is better for job searching.

      1. Sara without an H*

        Hang in there! It takes time, and you want to find something that will be an actual improvement over your current situation.

    2. NoIWontFixYourComputer*

      I worked for a Fern. Only this Fern decided that the company booth on a trade show floor was the perfect time to chew me and a colleague out.

      Needless to say, that was the day I started looking for my next job.

    3. Fern enemy*

      I worked for a Fern, only she would get a notion about someone and start to micromanage them based on nothing rather than a real mistake!

    4. EvilQueenRegina*

      When I had this manager, she was managed by a guy who was her neighbour and friend, which made it more difficult for our team to feel we could go to him, and I thought he also found it a bit uncomfortable managing her because he didn’t seem to give her a lot of oversight.

  9. Sloanicota*

    Every once in a while we get a letter or a comment in the open thread about an employee who just can’t seem to do anything without an explicit checklist or a lot of hand-holding. These are the only types of employees someone like Fern should be allowed to manage. Everyone else should be restructured around her.

    1. Antilles*

      Even in those cases, I’m not sure Fern would be an effective manager because the examples make me think this isn’t a person who can do *useful* hand-holding.

      1. Sloanicota*

        Fair; it may also be more accurate to say a past manager like Fern is what *produced* those employees in the first place.

        1. Observer*

          it may also be more accurate to say a past manager like Fern is what *produced* those employees in the first place.

          Agreed. That’s where I thought you were going with this to start with.

          1. It's 1849 in Wisconsin*

            It’s been years since I worked at Toxic Workplace, and I still freeze up at weird moments! A couple of weeks ago a coworker asked me if I could do something; I had to go back to them to see if they were asking if I was capable or if they wanted me to actually do it. Which is weird and pedantic AND something I had to do at Toxic Workplace to avoid being scolded.

      2. Observer*

        I’m not sure Fern would be an effective manager because the examples make me think this isn’t a person who can do *useful* hand-holding.

        Yes, this is true. Most of the things she is doing are not useful in the least bit.

    2. Dinwar*

      In my experience employees that need a thorough checklist are the least likely to actually benefit from micromanaging. They tend to take constructive criticism personally, and to try to rules-lawyer you to death. Putting them into the hands of a micromanager is….well, look up the recent scholarship on the “Bounty” mutiny to see how well that works out in practice.

    3. AnonRN*

      Late reply but there ARE instances where checklists are an appropriate and useful tool. Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto focuses on the Surgical Safety Checklist and airline pilots. Checklisting essential processes in these industries reduced critical errors (the kind of error you don’t get a chance to go back and correct) and is now considered the “normal and expected” approach even though there was a LOT of resistance to adopting checklists at first (surgeons do NOT like to be told to do their jobs differently; it took an entire culture change to establish the idea that every staff member in the OR was obligated to ensure that the checklist was followed and yes that meant the fancy surgeon had to listen to the lowly tech or whatever).

      Since we don’t know what kind of industry this is, I’m charitably guessing that Fern may have learned about “checklists! they are great!” and is mis-applying the concept to a field or process where the benefits are marginal and the cost (time, aggravation) is too high. Not having the insight to see the difference is a problem.

  10. lost academic*

    I had a client like this. This person was also particularly abusive verbally to my team. We eventually had to soft fire him as a client for that reason primarily. His manager was very hands off and wouldn’t have been the one to correct that behavior. I don’t expect it will ever change since it does get results and he’s never going to be penalized for staff turnover, either under him or with his contractors.

  11. Weez*

    Sounds like the “unable to do her job, so creates busy work she is capable of doing, so it looks like she is working and being productive” type described in The Peter Principle.

  12. mango chiffon*

    My supervisor was a Fern who was also the EA to the president’s office and constantly kept micromanaging and delegating things to the rest of our team (all admins). This manifested in our weekly team check-ins lasting up to 2 hours, random individual calls that could last an hour or more, and some things like making us send her an email every Friday that listed out every single thing we did that week (this could take 30 minutes to write). Eventually my team went to HR to complain because it was making our lives miserable. I think that my supervisor was receiving management training but clearly it wasn’t working. The only thing that helped in the end was her leaving. No one stepped in fast enough because her supervisor wasn’t knowledgeable about the type of work we did and was removed from that in most cases. If you have the opportunity to see the problem and do something, please do something quickly

  13. Peanut Hamper*

    Fern should not be managing, period. Micromanagers tend to slip back into those habits, in my experience.

    I’m also thinking the CEO should have consulted OP after Fern spoke to him, before castigating her. It’s what a responsible manager does: get both sides.

  14. Coverage Associate*

    This is really helpful to me as an employee too. I tend to think of managers as demigods, and if they have a process, it must be the best process. But it’s true, I have totally made checklists for myself that no one else on my team seemed to need, and I have been required to use checklists that I didn’t need. I didn’t think of this as micromanaging, but I will consider that when dealing with management styles in the future.

    1. Boof*

      I think checklists are only useful if there is something which basically needs to have ZERO ERRORS and a second person is checking them off. Think; certain surgical things (like counting the items before closing to make sure nothing was left inside), certain flight things. If an error will not result in something catastrophic I can’t see any point to a checklist*
      *maybe personal lists for those more ADD prone, ok. But it’s really easy for me at least to even skip over a list.

  15. Marzipan Shepherdess*

    LW, your heart is absolutely in the right place, but in this case use your brain; Fern is going to chase away every competent, self-respecting employee under her authority and you know it. Stop being “gentle” and start being firm!

    Hold supervisory meetings with her in which you address the specific behaviors that are driving her team to polish up their resumes and document EVERYTHING: what you tell her, how she responds and the results of your subsequent observations and follow-up. It sounds as if you’re going to have to put her on a PIP and that even then it’s by no means certain that she’ll be salvageable as a manager.

    Her “position” as family friend to the CEO is a very real problem, but Fern is poised to bring down an entire team if her behavior continues. LW, can you find allies in your company? It’s hard to believe that her subordinates are the only people in your organization who’ve been driven to distraction by Fern’s behavior, or who have observed the effect she’s having on her team.

  16. Donkey Hotey*

    If anyone needs me, I will be restraining myself from making “Brad! Janet! Dr. Scott! Oh, Rocky!” jokes.

    I guess I failed.

  17. Introvert girl*

    You really should terminate Fern. Her behaviour is borderline mobbing. You’ve let it slip far too long and will loose team members. I’m talking from experience. My manager wasn’t managed properly for the two years she was managing us, half of the team left and the rest + all the new people ended up going to HR together. She was finally let go, but it cost the company clients and good employees, so in other words, money. The question should be: what are you prepared to loose more? Your team or her?

  18. Grim*

    Ooh, this would drive me seriously bonkers! One of my pet peeves is being lectured on things I already know, so being forced to take a course about a fairly basic, high school level element of a subject I majored in because I’d made a one-off error would have me quietly fuming, and if that sort of thing kept happening it might have me looking for a new job.

    1. Dinwar*

      I’ve had some quality control training, and one of the more interesting things I learned is how ineffective, even counter-effective, such attacks are. Humans are not machines and do not operate perfectly every time; the whole point of having a QC process is to catch errors. Catching a typo or error is a sign that things are working as intended–after all, it never got outside the company! Too many errors, or systematic errors, are of course a problem, but at the end of the day the whole reason quality control exists is to find errors. Punishing people for the system functioning normally is…..well, stupid.

      Another is the parallel between QA/QC and safety. No one in their right minds would punish a worker for getting injured, and this day and age it’s obvious to all but the most incompetent that doing so is stupid (there is no kind way to describe something that harms people and undermines the business at the same time). If the incident is significant enough, you investigate–methodically and rationally, not from a perspective of extreme emotions, and with the intent to fix the problem, not to assign blame. QA/QC is supposed to be the same: “How do we fix this?” rather than “Who can I blame?” And a minor typo is more akin to a minor bump that doesn’t even require first aid; any sort of investigation beyond “Hey, you okay?” is a severe over-reaction.

      1. Beka Cooper*

        Omg this brings back all my frustration at the QC process I was vaguely required to participate in at my last job. I did some work that overlapped with a department’s who had a manager like Fern. They created a shared spreadsheet with all errors caught during QC and then figured out who made the error and tagged them to correct it. Before that, they used to email everyone emails full of screenshots of their errors. They often spent lots of time arguing whether an error belonged to my department or theirs to fix based on when the document was received vs when it actually got matched to the file it belonged with. When I was still learning, I appreciated that I learned from seeing and correcting my errors, but I also felt that the time spent organizing all of that and assigning it to people was probably triple or quadruple what it would have taken for it to just be a person’s job to just fix the errors right after they found them.

  19. WillowSunstar*

    Not all managers are good and not all companies provide management training. I’ve had managers who would yell at you (actually yell with raised voice, not just sternly talking to) in front of the entire team for making a very small mistake, say, a typo. Unless the person has a huge error rate, generally it doesn’t warrant public yelling. But not all managers know this.

    When someone gets promoted to a manager role, they should at least have to take a couple of classes on how to manage people. Many companies just promote their good individual contributors, thinking that being good at one’s job means they will also be a good manager. This is not always the case, as those of us who read this blog know.

    1. I Have RBF*

      I’ve had managers that criticize and yell at people in group meetings. It leads to resentment and turnover (100% in a year).

      IMO, one thing that managers have to learn is “Praise in public, criticize in private.” Anything else just blows morale to hell.

  20. Throwaway Account*

    Question for Alison mostly, but would love others’ input. I have a friend who is an excellent manager in many many ways (I have objective evidence of that from multiple workplaces!). But she maintains that you cannot tell someone you manage how to manage.

    do others think this way in your experience? Where does this idea come from? Could it be just a reluctance to have a manager manage their style?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      What on earth! That’s like saying if you manage data analysts, you can’t tell them how to analyze data. When you manage managers, part of what you are assessing them on/giving feedback on/having oversight on is their management. You have an obligation to do those things, just as you’d have an obligation to do it with, I don’t know, legal briefs, or fundraising, or IT, or any other function you were managing.

      1. Throwaway Account*

        Thank you for answering! I wish I could explain it. She seems to feel that the things you mention in the answer to the main question are “personality” type things and you cannot manage those. Maybe she just never wants a manager to manage her? Maybe it is the setting (academia)?

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      I think to manage managers effectively, you have to differentiate between stylistic differences and ineffectiveness. I’m not coaching my managers on style points, but I am going to coach them on providing feedback if I see they are reluctant to deal with a problem or not dealing with it in a direct and clear manner or having a wild overreaction to minor things like Fern is.

      So many people are thrust into a management role with no training that I can’t imagine how on earth you would teach them how to manage without telling them how to manage. Sure, some people have the right gut instincts (and many still want that validated), but more of them require that you tell them what to do (or not do), at least in the beginning.

  21. Polly Hedron*

    Unless the person has a huge error rate, generally it doesn’t warrant public yelling.

    A huge error rate may warrant firing, but not public yelling. The only thing that warrants public yelling is immediate physical danger.

  22. Research*

    Reviewing all work befire it goes out makes sense at times. It takes several years to train someone in my field – writing first in human studies (think 100 pages) that are reviewed by the fda. I review all work before it goes out, but as I am also fallable and I have my employees review mine as well frequently

    1. I Have RBF*


      I am used to a consulting environment where all final work product needs to be signed off by a senior SME before it is printed, bound and delivered. Every time that stuff that got sent out wasn’t reviewed, we ended up having to issue a correction. But that’s a quality control step, not a punishment, because it acknowledges that even experts are human, so we look after each other.

      1. NotAnotherManager!*

        I work in a similar environment, so 100% QC is pretty normal to me – but your point that it’s a process not a punishment is spot on. We’re not inspecting Jane’s work with a microscope because she used “defiantly” rather than “definitely” two years ago in an internal email. We’re inspecting everyone’s work because sending out PII or confidential information for public consumption would be Very Bad, and everyone on the team is a human.

  23. Raida*


    Fern wants to micro manage, but doesn’t like someone managing her!

    I would… urhg argh… there’s no nice way of doing this in my head – get a full list of every preventative measure that’s taken. Get the work-hours required to do them. Get a review from every team member on each process they are involved in and are waiting for completion of to get work done.
    Confirm my assumptions that they create more work and less output.
    Remove checks and processes so that Fern has time to do her job and the team isn’t bottlenecked

    OR… If Fern cannot keep things flowing at an acceptable speed due to additional tasks she’s created then the problem lies with her not being able to complete work ‘on time’ and as such I need to review her workload. Move most of the checks to other people in her team, and remove any that are easy to remove. Fern can get access to a shared list of all checks – complete/incomplete. No other detail unless the person responsible feels it is important to leave a note.
    Get time-tracking done by everyone now responsible for a check, get feedback after a month on the efficacy and value of the checks. Remove more checks.

    OR… quietly encourage her team members to make written complaints about her treatment of them. Ensure it is always framed as insulting, not reasonable management, damaging to the team’s morale, damaging to the team’s reputation.
    Use those complaints to give her leadership training.
    Replace her.

  24. Ms. Elaneous*

    Hey, Fern — helpful hint:
    Use the Dance Captain method: do not correct a mistake unless the dancer does it twice; do not waste your – or his- time. A mistake a one off.
    Once you give them a note, only then if they still don’t do it right do you work with them to fix it.

    Someone PLEASE give Fern a job managing Teamsters. ☻

  25. EvilQueenRegina*

    OP, if you’re still reading, did F sustain the changes or did she go back to her old ways? This is one I’ve often thought about since I was dealing with my own version of this manager when it was posted (she eventually left).

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