transcript of “Help – I work for a micromanager!”

This is a transcription of the Ask a Manager podcast episode “Help – I work for a micromanager!”

Alison: Today we are going to talk about micromanagers. When you look at all the different categories of bad management, micromanagement — a boss who hovers and is just way too involved in your work — is one of the most common categories. And what’s more, a lot of bosses who micromanage do this confusing thing where sometimes they’re really, really hands off and then suddenly they swoop in and they’re really hands on, and that is the situation that today’s caller is in. Hi and welcome to the show.

Guest: Hi, thank you for having me.

Alison: So you sent me a letter saying you’ve been at your job a little less than a year and overall you really like it but there is a problem. Your boss is a very respected person in your field, but you’re only the second person he’s ever managed and it kind of shows. Sometimes you will go long stretches with no interaction with him, but when he is stressed about a big project or something important, he micromanages you big time and he does it in a way that makes you feel like he thinks you’re not competent. You wrote in your letter to me that he’ll explain your own work back to you, even when you’ve been spending days working on it. And on a recent project, he was checking in on your progress literally every 15 to 30 minutes, doing this thing where he was finding mistakes in real time and correcting them before you had even had a chance to look over your work. And those were cases where you would have found those mistakes yourself if he had just stepped back and given you some room. And you wrote that it’s gotten so bad that at times you have been ending the day crying. Am I getting all that right?

Guest: Yeah, it was very specific to that project I was working on, but I started to get the impression that this is a trend that I should begin addressing.

Alison: Yeah. And I also want to note that you said that you know you’re a good employee and he actually poached you from your old job to come work for him. So you know that he likes your work. It’s not a case where he’s hovering because your work is bad.

Guest: Right. I think that’s an accurate description, and I would even go as far to say we are friends, and that’s one of the reasons that I’m so adamant about trying to figure out how to address this properly, because I like the way that we work together and I think we have a really good working relationship and I don’t want to damage that by saying the wrong things or critiquing the way that he manages me.

Alison: Tell me more about that. What is your relationship like with him?

Guest: So we professionally have known of each other for some time. We work in a somewhat small industry so everyone kind of knows each other, so to speak. And I’ve always had a lot of respect for him and when I was looking to move jobs, his was a name that I knew and was honestly very flattered when I got the email, because I was shocked. I did not expect him to know who I was. I am a junior level staff and he’s more of a senior level management person in our field and we work very well together. Our current situation is, we’re remote, so he isn’t always in the office with me at the same times. And so I think that also plays a role in that hands off aspect where I will go a very long time without talking to him. But because it’s when he’s actually in the office that the micromanaging picks up.

Alison: And how comfortable do you feel with him? It sounds like you have a pretty good rapport.

Guest: Yeah, very comfortable. We talk about very personal things. Recently his mom passed away and that’s definitely become a consideration for me as I think about how to have a conversation with him about this micromanagement style that he has, because he is such an empathetic boss in terms of things that I’ve experienced personally. And then I have tried very hard to be there for him in this time. And so you know, we share personal facts with each other because I think he just wants to foster that kind of open relationship with the people that he works with, both his coworkers and people he manages.

Alison: Yeah. I think his mom dying definitely changes the calculation on when you might address it with him — while that is still really fresh, let’s not give him another thing that’s stressful to put on his plate. But I do think a couple of months down the road, it’s definitely something that you can bring up, but you do want to be sensitive to that timing of course.

Okay. I want to talk about micromanagement generally and then I want to get into some specific advice on what you might do here. I think the first thing to talk about is what micromanagement means because people use it to describe a whole bunch of different things. It is not just being involved in your work, because good managers do stay involved in things like getting aligned on what outcomes you’re going for, and checking in on progress as work is progressing, and giving feedback, and sometimes course-correcting when it’s needed. That’s all good, managers should be doing that stuff. Micromanagement, though, is when a manager is dictating exactly how to do the work, watching over every step in the process, refusing to delegate any real decision-making, and/or constantly checking up on work that you have shown in the past that you can do well. And micromanagers will often manage really low importance projects the same way that they will manage high importance projects. They don’t always differentiate in their approach based on what’s actually needed.

And I think there are a few reasons why people micromanage. The big one, and I think it is true of every micromanager, is that they genuinely do not know a better way. They don’t actually know how to manage when they’ve delegated work, but they’re responsible for ensuring that it’s done and that it’s done well and so they swoop in with this terrible style because they don’t have different tools, and this is the only way they can think of to make sure that things get done well. I do that there can be more to it too — of course for a lot of micromanagers it’s rooted in control. They don’t trust their staff to do good work without constant supervision. Again though, that’s not knowing how to manage because if you’re managing effectively, that’s not really something you need to worry about because you do have systems for making sure that everyone is aligned about the work at the outset. You have set checkpoints along the way where you check in on progress so there won’t be any surprises. But again, micromanagers don’t know how to do that.

Now, sometimes people complain that they’re being micromanaged when what is really happening is that they’ve given their boss good cause to doubt the reliability of their work. That does not sound like the case here, I’m just covering this for the sake of being thorough, I don’t think it’s what’s happening with you. But sometimes a manager will start managing more closely because the person has shown that they need it and then you get people complaining about being micromanaged when really their manager is managing appropriately for the situation. So in general, if someone is feeling micromanaged, it’s always good to do a gut check, ask yourself, “Is there anything I’ve done that could be leading to this? Have I been missing deadlines, or letting things fall through the cracks, or not incorporating my boss’s feedback into my work?” That kind of thing. And actually, let me pause here and ask: I don’t at all get the sense that that is the situation, but let’s make sure, does that stuff sound like what could be happening here?

Guest: No, I don’t get that impression either. And I ask a lot of questions, that’s my work style. I ask a lot of questions and I think one of the big problems that I have noticed is sometimes he misinterprets questions as ignorance. And oftentimes it’s a fact-finding mission for me, not a “let’s explain to her the ABC’s of this process.” And that’s what I meant by explaining my own work back to me. Oftentimes I’ll have spent days on a project and he knows that I’ve spent days on this project and I’ll ask just a clarifying question and find that his response involves a lot of the work that I’ve already done and if he had read that or seen that. He just jumps to the conclusion that I don’t know what I’m doing at times. And I don’t think that’s because he doesn’t think I know what I’m doing, it’s because he’s been the leading expert in this field for so long that I don’t think he thinks anyone knows what they’re doing. I don’t think it’s a personal thing.

Alison: Sometimes — not always — sometimes with that dynamic, you can kind of head it off by saying to yourself, “Okay, I know that he has this tendency. If I just ask the question with no caveat and no prelude, I’m going to get this whole long explanation that I don’t need. And so I’m going to preface it with ‘I have X, Y and Z totally covered and I’m fine there, but I have a question for you about this one piece of it.'” And then ask your question so that you’re framing it for him in a very explicit way. Do you think something like that could help?

Guest: I do. I think about that a lot in terms of conversations going forward, but it’s almost hard in the Slack IM generation where oftentimes I’m asking what I think is a 30 second question, but the nature of how we just shoot off quick questions over instant messaging, sometimes what I think is a 30-second question — it’s almost a generational thing, I’m not sure if that makes any sense — but I’m like, this five word question will be answered in no time. But he wants to write a small paragraph about it.

Alison: Yes. It might be that you just do an experiment here and try the framing that I’m talking about a couple of times and see. Be very deliberate about making yourself do it, even when you are thinking, “This is just a quick question,” and see what happens, see if it works. Because if it does work, great. Now you know that you just have to be really, really explicit about what you do and don’t need. But it could be an interesting experiment to try.

Guest: Yeah. I’ve never thought about doing it that way. I never give set up because he gives me projects to work on, so I assume he knows what I’m working on. So sometimes I just jump into the meat of it without taking a step back to be like, “If I don’t provide some context, I’m going to get that paragraph explanation I’m dreading.”

Alison: Yeah. And you know, it could also be like, yeah, he knows what you’re working on because he assigned it to you, but it might not be at the top of his mind at that very moment, you know? Especially if you’re doing it over IM or something — he’s absorbed in something else, you’re asking him this question, he’s not necessarily pausing to think, “Oh, of course she’s been deep in this stuff for the last few days. I don’t need to give her this background.” He might not even be making that connection in his head.

Guest: Yeah. I never thought about it that way. That’s a great point.

Alison: I mean, I could be wrong. You could try this and it might not work, but I think it’s worth trying and seeing what happens.

Another thing I wanted to note about micromanagers is that in general, this pattern that you are seeing with your boss where he switches from really hands off to way too hands on is really common. And what tends to happen is that a manager starts off pretty hands off, gives someone a lot of leeway to run with the project, and then maybe it doesn’t go according to plan because the manager didn’t set clear enough expectations at the start. So then they vow that they’re going to be involved much more closely next time. I don’t know that that’s what’s happening here. For you, it sounds like it could be there’s a little bit of out-of-sight-out-of-mind going on when he’s not in the office, and it sounds like maybe when something is a stressor to him he gets more involved then so I think that is maybe not the explanation in your situation, but it is a really common one.

Guest: Yeah, I do think that is partially the situation, especially for my example that I had given in my initial letter to you, because we were working under a really tight deadline. He had given me a project with a 48 hour deadline. But when I started working on it, I realized pretty quickly, no, this is 48 hours’ worth of work, but he needs me to get done in 48 hours. So I pulled close to two all-nighters and then on the third day when it was due, he became very stressed that it wasn’t done. But the reality was I didn’t feel like I was given enough time to begin with to do the project. And so then suddenly he started stepping in all the time being like, “Do you have this? Do you have this, do you have this?” On repeat every 15 to 30 minutes — which are valid questions, but I don’t know if they would have been the case if he had set a realistic timeline.

So normally I don’t feel like what you’re describing is the case, but I have seen that and I think it can be a little bit of both for my situation.

Alison: Yeah. It might be that there are things that you can do on your end to head some of this off at the start. So if we could go back in time, which sadly we cannot, to when he was first giving you that project. If you knew at the start, “Huh, this is a really tight deadline,” and it sounds like you did know that, you might do some expectation setting with him. And maybe you did, but if you didn’t, it could be useful to say, “I want to let you know, I think this is a really tight deadline. I can put in a lot of extra hours and try to make it work, but it does mean that it’s going to be kind of a rush,” and then you might spell out for him what that means. If you think about the sorts of things that he was concerned with on the last day, if you’re able to prep him for that being the case ahead of time, it might help manage his expectations.

Guest: Yeah, I try really hard to do stuff like that, but work creep is such a problem.

Alison: Yeah.

Guest: The project looked like a two-day project until I actually got into the weeds and realized that the actual expectations of each of the components were going to take so much time. But you’re right, I did figure that out probably within the first two to three hours of work and I should have taken a step back and said something, but I consider myself a very deadline driven person and really want to make them and so probably didn’t respond appropriately.

Alison: Yes, I have that same problem too. I completely understand what you’re saying. There is benefit to it. So I think again, you might just try experimenting with it if you’re in a similar situation in the future and just see if it does make it better — because if it does, that’s going to reinforce in your head, “Oh, I should speak up about this again when it happens.” Now we can talk about these strategies for getting at small pieces of this, but big picture, I think at some point you do want to try talking to your boss about this style that he gets sometimes. Before I get into how you might do that, have you tried doing that yet at all?

Guest: Not really and I think a lot of it is because we have such a good working relationship that I’m afraid to speak up. I’m afraid that I’m going to ruin our relationship, or… this has nothing to do with micromanaging specifically., it just has to do with employee/boss relationships. I’m always nervous to critique my boss because I think there are a lot of bosses out there that will take it poorly and I’ve had experience in previous jobs where speaking up had an impact on my work there and my time there, frankly. I don’t think that this is the case, I think that he wants me to stay and has no interest in finding a way to get me fired, especially because he’s the one that brought me over, but I’m still nervous about bringing it up and I don’t know how to not be nervous.

Alison: I think you will be nervous. Don’t wait until you can find a way to not be nervous as a sign, “Aha. Now it’s the time for me to speak up,” because you will probably always be nervous. It is an inherently nerve-wracking thing to do, especially the first time you’re doing it with a particular manager, because you haven’t seen yet first-hand how they react to that kind of thing. So I would say you’re probably going to be nervous. Don’t let that be a reason to not do it. I absolutely hear you on some bosses reacting really badly to people bringing up issues in their working relationships — you’ve got to know your boss. If you look at him and you think, “Okay, he’s always been pretty reasonable with me. Yes, we have some differences, but in general he is a rational person who doesn’t shoot the messenger, who doesn’t get really defensive when he hears something that he doesn’t like,” those are signs that you can probably have the conversation. If you were telling me, “Oh no, actually he’s super defensive and kind of a mean guy,” then I would not be recommending the conversation that I’m about to have. But it sounds like you respect him and you have pretty good rapport.

Guest: Yeah, I think that’s — I don’t think, I know that is an accurate characterization.

Alison: Okay, I’m going to tell you how I would say it and this isn’t going to be precisely right because I don’t have the details, but I’m going to give you generally how I would frame it. I would sit down with him and say something like, “I was hoping we could talk about something I’ve noticed about how we’re working together. A lot of the time you give me a lot of autonomy, which I really appreciate, but I have noticed that on some projects you’ll manage my work so closely that it can be hard for me to even complete my portion of it. For example, on the X project recently you were checking in on my work so frequently that you were finding mistakes in real time before I’d had a chance to review it, and that meant that you thought I was making mistakes that would never have been in the finished work that I turned in to you except that you kept coming back to look at it while it was still in progress. And it was pretty demoralizing because I wasn’t having a chance to perfect it before you saw it.”

And I know I’m harping on that one example that you gave me because it was so egregious, so maybe give another example or two here of times when it has happened and then say, “When that happens, it makes me feel like you don’t think I’m competent. And I do think that I have a track record of good performance and attention to detail and asking questions when I need to. And so it can be tough to be managed in a way that makes me feel like you don’t see me as capable. And I want to be clear that I absolutely welcome guidance and feedback, but I wonder if there is a way to structure how that happens so that I’m still trusted to get my work done without that kind of really close oversight. Or is there a reason that you don’t feel like you can trust me without such close oversight?” And then see what he says.

Does that feel like something you could imagine saying?

Guest: It does, and I don’t think he would react negatively to the feedback like that. In fact, I can already sense that he will say something along the lines of improving our communications in general. And I think some of that is so tough by having a boss that’s remote currently and then sometimes in the office. The dynamics of how we communicate inherently shift, and it’s hard to find a standardization around that. But I think that would be a very reasonable way for me to approach it with him. And I don’t think that he would react negatively to that. And I really think it’s a stress thing. He tries to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders, which is very admirable, but I sometimes don’t know — as an employee, I want to help him be not as stressed, but if he’s projecting that stress back onto me, then it’s just creating this weird unhealthy dynamic.

Alison: Yes, absolutely. I like that you think you could have that conversation and it would go okay. I want to point out the tone that I was using for that because it’s not a complainy tone. It’s a tone of, “Hey, I want to fix this. I see this problem, I feel like you and I can do better. Can we talk about how to make that happen?” So it’s not like, “I’m just venting to you. I hate that you micromanage me.” It’s more positive than that and I think that helps.

Now at some point in this conversation I would try proposing a specific alternative. I wouldn’t just say it and then wait for him to figure out how to solve it because there’s a very good chance that he won’t know how to solve it. If this is just the way that he knows how to manage, he might not have anything specific to think of to do instead. So I would say you need to be the one to say, “Could we try blank instead?” And let’s talk about what blank could be. To a large extent, it depends on the details of what it is that you are trying to get him to stop micromanaging. But often for micromanagers, the thing that they really want is a way to stay engaged enough that they know that the work is happening on schedule, that it’s progressing the way that it should, that there aren’t going to be any awful surprises down the road like discovering that the work that you’ve done is totally different from what he needed or you missed some key deadlines or you didn’t do it at all, or whatever it is that they have a fear of in their head. So what you’ve got to do is propose a different system that still gives them those things, that lets the person stay engaged enough that he does know that things are progressing the way they should and where he also knows that he will have a chance to give input or change direction if he needs to before it’s too late — because that’s usually what micromanagers want. That’s what all managers want. Micromanagers are just going about it the wrong way.

There is a way to get him that that does not require him hovering over you. Now, usually it would be something like regular status updates and regular check-ins, which are a lot less annoying if they’re scheduled out ahead of time and you both know when they’re going to happen rather than him swooping in and asking to check in every hour. So if it’s a longer term project you could say something like, “What I propose is that I send you data weekly, or whatever timeframe makes sense, so that you can see how the work is progressing. And then we could sit down and touch base for half an hour every Thursday afternoon or whatever, so that I can update you about where we are and you can look over what I’ve done so far and give feedback. And then we can also talk really in depth at the start of the project so that we can both make sure we’re on the same page — I know exactly what’s in your head about what you’re looking for and you know that I know that, so that you can have confidence about the way I’m moving forward.” For something shorter term, it’s trickier. If it’s something that’s going to get done in a day or two, you’re not really going to have progress meetings, that would be silly. In that case you would really lean into the part about getting aligned at the start, really making sure that you know what is in his head, what it should and shouldn’t look like, what he worries the pitfalls are and so forth. Does that make sense?

Guest: It does, and I definitely like the idea of check-ins on progress. I think one tough thing for the organization that I work for is we are very Google Doc, Google Sheets reliant, and so he can just lurk on the Google doc as I work and that is where a lot of that came in on the specific project. He would just be watching me working in real time because I’m typing things into this Google doc — and other than telling him to stop, which is absurd, I don’t know how to reinforce to him that a weekly check in is going to be good enough when he can just watch me do work.

Alison: That sounds horrible! Do you have to do it in a Google doc that he has access to?

Guest: Not really. It’s just the way the company has always worked — we have hundreds of unnecessary Google docs for all of the work that we do. And any project, once a new piece of it starts, a new Google doc or Google sheet is created for tracking the information and the progress and all of that jazz. So I feel that it would be slightly passive aggressive if I said, “I’m going to do this in Excel and then upload it later,” because that would be such a character shift for both myself and the organization that I think it would be easy for him to sense that something is awry.

Alison: Yeah. It sounds like you can’t — because I was originally thinking just change it, just stop doing that. But it sounds like you can’t do that without saying something about it, without it seeming weird. But I think it’s worth saying something about. I might say, “Hey, the fact that you were able to go into the Google doc while I was working and see what I was doing in real time and spot what looked to you like mistakes but really weren’t because I wasn’t finished with it made it a lot more stressful for both of us. So when there’s a project like that in the future, I might not do it in a Google doc while it’s still ongoing. I might upload it later.” And just let him know. But I think with someone who has these tendencies, don’t put temptation in his way.

Guest: Okay.

Alison: But I agree, you have to address it and explain why so that doesn’t look shady. The other thing too I think is with all of this stuff, if he seems resistant or like he can’t really figure out another way to do it he would feel comfortable with, one thing is you can try asking if he would do a short term experiment with you. Pick one project, one where you know that normally he would be nervous and kind of micromanage-y about it, and ask if you can experiment with managing it in a different way so that you can both see whether it goes better or not. And I mean you could even do that with the Google doc thing. Say, “Hey, can we try it this way and just see how it goes?” Because that is actually much easier for a nervous micromanager to agree to, or any manager really, because you’re not asking him for permanent change. You’re just saying, “Let’s try this one limited time project, we’ll see how it goes. If it’s a disaster, which it probably won’t be, then fine, but if it goes okay, which it probably will, that can make it easier to be comfortable trying it with more things.” I’m a big fan actually of proposing stuff as a short term experiment when you can see that your boss is kind of reluctant because it’s so much easier to get a yes to that.

Guest: Yeah, I’m definitely willing to do that. And I also think the timing works out really well — we’re actually bringing on another member of our team, so we’re in that natural a state right now where we can hit reset because I’m the only one currently being managed, it’s now going to be a team of two. Expectation settings are going to shift regardless, so I feel like it wouldn’t even be out of the question to hit reset and not have him suspect… almost like having the conversation without having the conversation. Not that I don’t want to have the conversation, but especially in the next couple of months because I’m still very cognizant of all the personal things that have been going on for him, figuring out a way to try to create little shifts without having this big conversation is helpful for me.

Alison: Good, good. I think if you do want to try talking to him directly, one other thing that you can do is you can even ask directly, “Are there things that you would want to see for me that would make you feel comfortable giving me more autonomy in situations like X and Y?” Because who knows, maybe you’ll actually hear something like, “Yeah, I need you to be more consistent about X,” or “Let’s get you more training on Y,” or who knows? Maybe he’ll be stumped by that question and the answer is nothing, but it can be an interesting question to ask — and if the answer is nothing, sometimes that can nudge a manager into realizing, “Oh, I do need to loosen up on the reins here.”

Guest: Yeah, I agree. The one thing I definitely want to bring up, because I do think it’s relevant, is I have my performance review next week. So much of what we’re discussing right now I want to talk about, and I feel like that’s almost the perfect setting, but I know it’s too soon. And so I’m kind of trying to think through in the next week or so, talking to you and thinking about changes I want to make, how do I have the light version during my performance review without overwhelming him?

Alison: Oh, the performance review is such a perfect time to have this conversation, but I agree with you, with his mom having just very recently died… I don’t think you have to avoid it entirely, especially in the context of a performance review where you’re already talking about how well you work together. It’s interesting. If you weren’t having a performance review, I would say yes, give him some space. He’s got enough on his plate. If you’re having the performance review, I think you can bring up a fair amount of this as long as you’re doing it in a positive way, like, “Hey, here’s some stuff that I’ve noticed. I think there’s ways that we could work better, here are what my thoughts are,” as opposed to, “Oh, I’m so frustrated.” It’s the, ‘I’m so frustrated’ conversation that I would hold off on in the wake of a parent’s death. But if it really is just more like, “Here’s some stuff about our working relationship,” I think there’s room for that.

Guest: Okay, that’s good to hear.

Alison: Go with your gut on this, because you know him and you know the dynamic and so forth, but I don’t think it’s a hard no because it would be in the context of your performance review. But if you don’t do it, you can absolutely wait a month or two and still bring it up. Don’t feel like you lost your window of opportunity and now it’s closed. You could just bring it up as its own separate thing.

Guest: Okay.

Alison: Now I do want to be clear that no matter what you try, it may end up being very hard to change the way that your boss is about this. It’s still worth trying and it’s still worth at some point having that explicit conversation because it has made you so unhappy. And the nice thing about this is if you do have the conversation and nothing changes, now you know that nothing is likely to change. And I know that sounds very depressing, but actually it can be very empowering to know, “Okay, I took the steps that were within my control to try to change this. I learned that there isn’t anything I can do on my end that will change it, and now I can figure out what I want to do knowing that this is the situation.” And that sometimes means deciding, “Okay, I don’t love this, but I like enough other things about my job here that I will find a way to be okay with this. And at least I don’t have to beat my head against the wall trying to change it because I’ve already tried and I know that it’s not changing.” Or sometimes it means deciding, “I can deal with this for a year or so, but after that I’m probably going to start looking for a different job.” Or sometimes it means deciding, “Hell no, I don’t want to deal with more of this. And now that I know it’s not changing, I’m really going to work on getting out.” But it makes your options so much clearer once you’ve had the conversation and so you know what will and won’t change.

Guest: Yeah (laughs).

Alison: I hope that’s not depressing.

Guest: No, it’s not at all. And I know that that’s a reality and he has mentioned that he wants to kind of hit reset with this performance review, so that’s why I didn’t want to push back on the few months timeline, but I didn’t want to miss a great opportunity.

Alison: Yeah, I think you could do it. I don’t think it’s an absolute no-go. So does that help?

Guest: Yeah, it does. And I feel that I just need to do some internal soul searching from what that tone is going to be. Because I think at the end of the day, tone is going to be the make or break piece of the conversation.

Alison: Totally agree. Absolutely. And again, I think the tone is: “I like you, I like working here. Here’s this thing that I’ve noticed that where I think we could be more effective and can we just problem solve this together?” Well, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Guest: Thank you for having me.