Is it micromanagement or the support you need?
One of the biggest requests for help we receive is, “How do I deal with my micromanager boss?” In fact, that phrase consistently ranks in the top “Asking for a Friend” questions in our Leadership Development Programs. Over-involved managers frustrate people all over the world, telling them what to do, slowing them down, and getting in the way.
Interestingly, we hear an equally common frustration from these over-involved managers.
“Why do I have to get involved in all the details! I shouldn’t have to be involved at this level — but if I don’t, something will fall through the cracks. Why can’t my team see these issues and fix them?”
In fact, often we’ll hear both sides of the story. An employee will complain that their boss is a micromanager. And, when we talk with the “micromanaging boss,” they describe a litany of dropped balls, and other performance challenges that have caused them to get involved in situations they would rather not have to deal with.
Two highly frustrated, well-intentioned people wishing they could “fix” the situation, but with radically different views on the same situation.
What is Micromanagement?
Micromanagers get over-involved in their team’s day-to-day work. They check in excessively and dictate exactly how and when work is done. Micromanagers try to control team members’ activities and outcomes.
The consequences of micromanagement include frustrated and disempowered employees who feel a lack of autonomy and consequently don’t approach their work with energy, creativity, or initiative.
Signs You’re Dealing with a Micromanager
It’s not always obvious if you’re seeing micromanagement or a genuinely concerned manager who is trying to help you. What makes it difficult is that your manager might want to train you in an existing process or methodology. You may have your own thoughts, but they want to teach you what they know has worked in the past.
Another challenge is that when faced with what they perceive as a lack of performance, energy, creativity, or initiative, managers often increase their level of controlling behaviors to compensate. This leads to a negative feedback loop where the manager causes some of the very outcomes that lead them to micromanage.
The following signs can help you decide if you’re working with a micromanager:
- They have to know where everyone is at every moment
- The manager constantly wants to know what everyone is working on
- This need to know creates constant engagement, check-ins, and interruptions about relatively unimportant issues
- Lack of delegation – they insist on doing things themselves
- When they delegate or assign tasks, they don’t describe the outcome – they tell you how to do every step
- They insist you copy them on all your correspondence and include them in every meeting even when it doesn’t add value for them or others
- These managers often withhold information
- They don’t encourage or affirm and most interactions are critical – finding fault, constantly correcting even small errors, and employees can rarely do anything well enough
Indications Your Manager is Frustrated Too and Trying to Help
How can you tell if your manager is genuinely frustrated and trying to help (as opposed to being a true micromanager)?
Start with You
The first place to look is your performance. Look at your work objectively. Is it quality? Have you made consistent errors or repeated the same mistake after learning how to do it correctly? Does your work ethic match the organization’s culture?
We’ve known many people who complain about a micromanaging boss, but who consistently sent out grossly incorrect data, the wrong dates and times, and repeatedly made the same mistakes despite receiving coaching. Or they consistently arrive late to meetings and don’t reliably meet deadlines.
You may make mistakes as you learn and grow. The question is: are you growing? Can you show improvements in your work product? Are you committed to not making the same mistake more than once? Do you implement the coaching you receive?
If not, your manager might not be a micromanager; he might be trying to help you succeed in your role.
Look for Patterns
If you work on a team or in a group, pay attention to how your manager interacts with your colleagues. Is she directive and checking in with everyone all the time? Or is it just you?
When there’s a pattern of controlling behavior, it’s more likely you have a micromanager. But if it’s just you or one other person, that’s important data that your manager has concerns or frustrations and is trying to help you perform at a higher level.
Another pattern to pay attention to is timing. Is there a new source of stress? Maybe their directive behavior comes during the ramp for a product launch or a high-stakes board meeting or after a major revenue shortfall. These aren’t reasons for a manager to micromanage, but they can explain what’s causing the change in behavior – and give you the ability to help create a better working relationship.
Empowering Conversation Starters To Talk with Your Micromanaging Boss
Whether your manager is a true micromanager or trying to help, there are several powerful phrases to start conversations that will improve the relationship and experience – for both of you.
“I care about our success and want to make sure I’m doing my part.”
One of the best ways to start these conversations is by affirming your commitment to the team and the work. Getting this intention into the conversation opens the door for a productive conversation.
“I’ve noticed that you’ve [describe the controlling behavior objectively].”
Sometimes, drawing attention to the facts is all it takes to help a stress-out manager amend their behavior – or to take the time to explain what’s on their mind.
- I’m noticing that you’ve asked for an update on that project five times in the last two hours.
- I’ve noticed you’re walking me through the steps of this process that I’ve done many times before.
- I know that you’ve asked to be included in all our team huddles when we’re debriefing progress and today’s assignments. The meetings rarely have engagement and you end up walking everyone through how to do their work.
Follow up with a question that allows mutual room for improvement.
After you describe the objective facts, ask a question that creates space for both of you to learn or grow. These questions allow the manager to share genuine concerns, but also cause them to reflect on why they are micromanaging. If you can get that concern into the conversation, you can address it.
Examples (combined with the “I’ve noticed…” statements):
- I’m noticing that you’ve asked for an update on that project five times in the last two hours. How can I help get you what you need so you’re confident and I can focus on getting it done?
- I’ve noticed you’re walking me through the steps of this process that I’ve done many times before. Is there something I’ve missed that’s causing you concern?
- I know that you’ve asked to be included in all our team huddles when we’re debriefing progress and today’s assignments. The meetings rarely have engagement and you end up walking everyone through how to do their work. Do you have a concern about how I’m leading those meetings or our project status?
Ask Your Micromanager for What You Want (with their concern in mind)
Once you’re aware of your manager’s concern (or that they don’t specifically have one if they’re acting out of habit), it’s time to ask for what you want.
- “I’m hearing that the EVP is requesting frequent updates because the Board is concerned about our progress. Can I make a commitment to brief you in writing on Wednesdays and in writing and verbally on Friday before lunch? We’ll be able to make faster progress if we’re not pulling up to provide frequent updates.”
- “When we do these projects, can we focus on what a successful outcome will achieve and any specific criteria that need to be met. I’ll ensure the team achieves them. For the first one, how about we do a one-week progress check so you’re confident of where we’re going?”
- “I want to try two weeks of huddles where I lead them on my own so we can focus on peer-solution-sharing. Can you and I set up a quick meeting at the end of each week to see if you have any concerns and make sure we’re on track?”
Your Turn: Your Micromanager Success Story
Your micromanager boss might be stressed, insecure, victim to a bad role model in their leadership development – or they might be giving you the genuine training and help you need to succeed. After you honestly assess your performance and feel confident you’re doing what you know to do, a conversation can help you both.
You’ll either learn about your manager’s performance concerns and how to be more effective – or you’ll help the two of you navigate an improved relationship that improves both of your lives. And yes, with a couple of these conversations, you’ll also discover if you’re working with a manager who you’ll never satisfy or doesn’t want to stop micromanaging. When this happens, you have a foundation for making other career decisions.
We’d love to hear from you: Have you ever successfully navigated a relationship with a micromanager? What conversations did you have? What were the results?
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