Is Your Boss Smothering You? (Or are you the Bossy Micro-Manager?)

Is your boss someone that although well meaning, is a bit of a control freak?  Having a positive relationship with your boss is one the key variables in enjoying our jobs. But for most folks, micro-managers make work life challenging because they feel they lack the creative freedom to get the job done.

“Micromanaging can show up in many forms, but most typically in bosses who dictate how employees complete tasks, question employees’ judgments, frequently ask for updates, and check in incessantly. While the line between effective involved leadership and micromanaging can be thin—detail-oriented or obsessive? Constructive or controlling?—many employees have felt the effects of a manager whose management style is more overbearing than hands-on and collaborative. In his book My Way or the Highway: The Micromanagement Survival Guide, author Harry Chambers reports that 79 percent of those surveyed said they’d been micromanaged at one time or another. A 2003 survey by office products manufacturers Franklin Covey, meanwhile, found that employees singled out micromanagement as the most significant barrier to productivity they faced, confirmed by a 2011 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology that showed people who believe they are being watched perform at a lower level.” ~ “Managing up when your boss is an obsessive micromanager” by Peggy Dexler.

The first step is to understand if you (or your boss) are really a micromanager. This great article by Terry Arndt lays out the different “types” of bosses and how to recognize them:

How to recognize a Micromanager:

“He maintains tight control over information and resources, requires constant feedback on progress, seldom gives decision-making power to others, can be closed to input from subordinates, and tends to question employees about their decisions, methods and results.”

“Bright side: Provides detailed instructions.”

“Dark side: Bottlenecks progress, causes employees to question their own abilities, makes work tedious and more time-consuming than necessary.” This management style also impedes our creative energies and gets us out of the mode of thinking for ourselves. Without experience (and failure) in managing your own time, finding your own solutions and making decisions; the employee will never grow personally or within the company.

How to deal with a Micromanager

The key in dealing with a micro-manager is to give them a sense of confidence that you know what you are doing, that you are keep track of everything on your plate and that you know how to determine what tasks need your bosses opinion and which don’t.

  1. “Always restate your boss’s expectations and concerns out loud. This demonstrates that you hear and comprehend your task.”  You really need to understand what your boss’s priorities are. Ensure (and repeat back) what the end product needs to look like, when it is due, who needs to review it and state plainly what you believe his main priorities are.   Ask him straight out if you can have flexibility in how you get to the project accomplished as long as you are addressing his concerns and make the deadline.  Often times by simply asking this question, it starts to get the boss to realize that maybe they are a bit of a micro-manager and helps them start to consciously let go of the pieces they feel comfortable turning the reigns over on.
  2. “Take notes in front of your boss to show that you understand what he says is important.”  This is a great tip for dealing with any boss.  Just think of how many work details you have in your brain. Now multiple that by 10.  That is what your boss’s brain feels like.  They’d love to let some of that go (yes, even the micro-managers), but have a hard time trusting someone else.  By taking notes (and maintaining a to-do list), it gives the boss the confidence to let what she told you get out of her head (and list) because she knows that you’ve got it for her.  Don’t let her down on this or you’ll be back at square one.
  3. “Provide regular feedback to your boss on your progress.” – This is a great tip for dealing with any boss but is particularly effective with the micro-manager. Often times I like to keep a draft email going through the week (or day, depending on how crazy they are) that tracks my progress on projects, points out key decisions or assumptions that I’ve made (so she can correct me if I’m off base) and T’s up decisions that I need her to make.  This piece is important – they still need to maintain a sense of control. By being proactive, she will start to rely on you as someone that knows what he needs to get done and knows where it is appropriate to make a decision and where escalation is needed.
  4. “Make sure to keep records of all of your work so that, if necessary, you are able to provide documentation of your efforts and justification for your decisions.” Again, this is a good tip for dealing with any boss. These records don’t need to be perfect, even just keep track using  “Microsoft Notes” or a tab of the workbook with your assumptions and decisions will ensure you can answer the questions when they come up.  Most bosses (even micro-managers) will be ok with a well thought out decision, even if they don’t necessarily agree with you and make you re-do it.

Following these tips will help you gain confidence with your boss. The more she trusts you, the more she’ll let you do your own thing.

“What if you are the micro-managing boss”?

You know what they say, “the first step is admitting you have a problem”.  Seriously, micro-managing is at best a bad habit and at worse a natural extension of your personality. But it isn’t an effective management style.  There are things you can do to get better at micro-managing:

Ask your staff for help:  I consistently ask my staff how I am doing. People generally aren’t comfortable telling their boss they suck, but when you bring a specific problem out in the open and ask them for their constructive help, they oftentimes will open up to you.  The conversation might go, “Sally, I’ve recognized that I am a micro-manager.  It’s a bad habit and I’m going to work on it. I’d really appreciate if you’d help me get there. First I’d like to hear what frustrates you about my management style.”  After you let the employee speak (do not get defensive, do not get distracted; this is the time for active listening, they are really putting themselves out there by answering this question), tell them you really appreciate their candor. You’d like time to digest what they told you and will discuss your plan.  Later on, you can have another conversation where you lay out the things you are going to try to do to get out of the micro-managing habit. But also lay out what you need from your staff in order for you to feel comfortable letting them have some runway (like the tips above).

Have faith in your staff.  If you don’t believe they can get it done on their own with minimal guidance, you might need some new employees.

When you assign a project, communicate the important aspects: 1) the problem the project is trying to solve.  2) When does it need to get done?  3) Who are the stakeholders that we need to get input and ultimate buy-in from.  4) What are the risks and concerns that you would like to be specifically addressed (this shouldn’t’ be every aspect of the project!)  5) Share any ideas that you have on how to get there but make it clear that you are letting them work out the details.  Just wait, they will surprise you.  6) Finally, establish a set schedule for the team to provide you updates.  This probably shouldn’t be more often than once a week.  Tell them you are free to help any other times, but do not ask for updates or provide any more direction until the scheduled update.

This isn’t a habit that you developed overnight and letting go may feel extremely stressful at first.  Keep in mind that one of your main job duties as a manager is to inspire and make your staff more productive.  The best way to do this is to let them have some control in how they accomplish their job.

Whether you are the boss or the employee with the micro-managing boss, working as a team and respecting each other’s individual personalities and styles is the key to get the boss to loosen up.

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