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How to deal with a micro-manager

In the May 5, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a happy employee becomes unhappy when the new boss gets overbearing.

Question

After four months of working very independently and successfully in my current position, reporting directly to a manager who loves my work (as does the senior manager), they have decided that all of us “little people” (non-exempt, hourly employees) should report to a supervisor on a weekly basis instead. Our manager is too busy to manage us.

I am now the direct report of a micro-manager, a real control freak (she said so herself) who wants everything done her way, yet insists she doesn’t want to micro-manage me.

In our first meeting of 45 minutes, she insisted at least six times that she wasn’t trying to micro-manage me. (Of course, it felt like 20.)

What should I do? I am trying to be cooperative and play it low-key, but I feel I may need to speak with the senior manager about it. Any advice on how to handle micro-managers? I really need my job. I am well-liked, work hard and effectively, and was quite happy before she was appointed.

Nick’s Reply

First, I would sit down with your new supervisor. Show her a list of the tasks she has assigned to you, as you understand them. Ask her if there is anything she’d like to change or add. If there is, add it as you sit in front of her. Be very polite, very respectful.

When the list is complete, ask her what timeframes she sees for the deliverables — that is, when should the tasks be completed?
Negotiate to make these realistic. Once you both agree, tell her this:

How to Say It
“I find I can get the most work done when I’m free to get tasks done my own way, with the full understanding that I’m responsible for delivering exactly what my boss asks. The commitment I will make to you is that all these tasks will get done on schedule. I’d like to ask you for a commitment, too — to permit me to manage my work on my own. If I don’t deliver, then I will accept any consequences. But during the work period on these projects, I would like to manage my own work. Can we do that?”

(These two articles may help motivate you: Be known first for the truth and Don’t be afraid to do the job your way.)

If she says no, then sit down and write up a log of your conversation, date and sign it. Put it in your file. You may need to show it to the human resources manager later. Then, go talk to your old boss and explain to him that your supervisor will not permit you to manage your own work. Ask for his support. Do not make any threats. Do not get angry. Just calmly focus on your work and on your commitment to get it done on schedule. Don’t even appear upset.

How to Say It
“Being micro-managed is very distracting and decreases my efficiency. I accept my responsibilities in my job. However, I cannot do my job if I am micro-managed. Here is the commitment I will make to you: If I do not deliver after being left alone to do my job, you should fire me. The commitment I ask of you is, get my super off my back so I can do my job. Can we do that?”

If you get no support, you should be prepared to leave the company and find another job. In fact, I would start a job search, just in case. Odds are pretty high you will have to leave. As Dear Abby is fond of saying, people are not likely to change.

I try not to be cynical, and I try to expect the best, but life is short. No one should have to live and work like this. A boss who micro-manages has an emotional problem and is not likely to change. You must have a good contingency plan.

The best outcome would be if your supervisor recognized how serious a problem she has created for her department. Like I said, odds are that you will have to move on. Don’t let that bother you. It’s a natural thing. Not all companies, bosses, and employees can work together effectively. Staying in a dysfunctional organization is wrong. But, give your managers a chance to recognize the problem, and to fix it. The key is, you must be very respectful about your approach. No anger. No recriminations. Just matter-of-fact business. It’s all about doing your job.

I wish you the best. There is a significant risk in doing what I suggest. There’s an even bigger risk in working with such frustration. For more about how to leave your job fearlessly, see Parting Company: How to leave your job. [THIS WEEK ONLY! Save $3 on this book! Use discount code=SAVE3. Order now!]

Have you ever worked for an over-bearing boss? What’s a diplomatic way for this reader to deal with the boss? My suggestions are just one way to approach this. Let’s hear some other angles!

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16 Comments
  1. Micromanagement… I see it as stemming from mistrust.. for some people , I swear, it is a mental illness.

    I’ve been there before.
    I agreed to a list of deliverables and methodology to get there..only to have my work sabotaged/undone while I was out of the office, tasks added to the deliverable list, 2-3 meetings a day to reiterate where I am at in the process, constant poking in to my office, and last minute changes concerning what is due on that particular Friday (i.e., Thursday rehashed priorities due on Friday, ignoring the fact that Monday’s agreed tasks and methodologies had been changed multiple times during the week.)

    I tried just going in to the office on weekends and evenings — to avoid her at all costs, but it was a pointless endeavor because priorities and deliverables changed the next day I saw her.

    What is funny is that this supervisor plopped a self-help book on my desk on the first day of the assignment. It was called “Getting things done.”

    By the time I had to leave, I spoke to her manager letting her know why I was leaving. When she heard what was going on, she was aghast.
    [Heck, by the end , I was OCD-level organizing my supervisor’s email inbox attachments, cross referencing them with senders and CC’ed contacts]

    Needless to say, this supervisor did not last in this department much longer after I had left.

    Micromanagement stems from not only OCD-like medical tendencies, but also from mistrust. They do not trust you. Allaying their fears can mitigate this, but some people are impossible and/or mentally ill.

    [OCD people are very tough to work with. I also once worked with an editor who called me five times in ten minutes just to yell the phrase “We don’t use commas!” and endlessly berate me for doing so. I politely ended each phone call, only to have her ring back and re-start the lecture. It was baaaaadd. Twitchy OCD bad. ]

  2. Past is prologue. You can’t fix broken people. Start that job search. Eventually upper management might get the hint.

  3. When I tried to make the transition from autonomous manager in a small company to an “accountable” manager in the corporate world, the private joke I held with myself was, “Whatdayawant—a progress report, or progress?”

    Needless to say, I didn’t make the transition, and I was offered severance from my thirty-year gig.

    The next gig was short-lived, as management deemed it important to have current status on every nickel and dime every ten minutes. I almost lasted 90 days there. (Almost five years later, I got word that they closed their doors.)

    My current gig is just another guy doin’ a job to pay his bills. My current boss is pretty good, but the boss in the department next door often has the M-word levied against him.

    As for OCD (the correct term being CDO—the correct order of the letters), I’ve had unusual success in utilizing that condition to create highly effective operations, but it’s because I use that power against the physical work environment and certain protocols and parameters, not against people.

    I learned long ago that if I have five top performers, they are all going to have slightly different styles. As long as the error rate is low, and the productivity is high, I will use the extra time to chase dust bunnies out of the corners of my distribution center, not to micromanage.

    In fact, in the thirty years I was running the show, I only once fired someone for “failure to follow established protocol”, and that was because he was irritating my top performers.
    OCD can occasionally be used for good. As my lawyer-daughter is fond of saying, “Not all mentally ill people are crazy, and not all crazy people are mentally ill.”

    At any rate, I’m rather proud that I keep getting fired for “Macromanaging”, and that no one wants this skill-set at the moment.

  4. I really like your suggested solution for this issue, Nick. One point I wanted to make is that the supervisor must not have enough work to do herself if she has the time to micro-manager her subordinates.

  5. I am going to take a slightly different approach than previous posters. I would suggest that rather than resisting the manager’s tendency to micromanage, you should join forces.

    I once was assigned to work under someone who had a reputation of being a micromanager. My strategy was to give him what he wanted. I made a list of the long term deliverables and broke these deliverables down to the smallest units I could devise. So the the two or three monthly deliverables were broken down to about forty tasks — real micro units — which could be done between a half a day to two days. I then charted on graph paper which units needed to be done in what order and when each one should be started and completed.

    Every day I would update the progress report and send it to him and weekly we would meet. I gave him the micro-data that he needed and made him comfortable. I ended up managing myself extremely efficiently — and I confess — much more efficiently than I would have done without the micro reporting.

    The end result is that we both worked better with improved confidence in each other and when I hit a snag and told him that some of the tasks were more complex than I had anticipated, he had the documentation and the confidence to go to his management and get more resources or to renegotiate the deliverables.

    I have a lot of pride in my work, but at the same time I understand that when I work for someone else, my work is owned by them — so they get to tell me what they will accept. My ego is satisfied by doing my best job in satisfying them. In software development we call this “ego-less programming”.

    Furthermore, when requirements change and I have to go back to the drawing board, I recognize that change is the natural condition of life so embrace it.

  6. I disagree with the end game suggestion. EVERY company has good and bad managers. To suggest leaving every time you run into a bad manager is not career planning. Most companies turn over or move managers often so the key is finding a way to live within the current environment assuming this is the only issue. I like R Tanenbaum’s suggestion above

  7. I agree with R. Tannenbaum’s approach which has also worked for me, with one caveat – I attempt to put any quantifiable data in charts, tables, 3-D graphs or any other visual means available. I have always been very skilled with spreadsheets like Lotus and Excel, and I can make numbers dance. I have found the pretty pie-charts with legends and colors or the 3-D bar graphs with gradient-colored walls tend to mollify and impress even the most demanding manager, especially if they DON’T have the skills to reproduce it. Many times these graphs end up in reports to management.

    Of more concern is the selective memory and changing of deliverables which is intolerable. My wife, who was very easy going, had a manager with selective memory and selective email responses. I had to teach her the CYA email – “This is what we talked about, this is what we agreed to and this is when it is due” and send it to the manager with a CC to their boss. The first few times were met with fury (“Why did you send that!”) but I coached my wife to sweetly state “I just wanted to capture in writing exactly what your direction to me was so there is no misunderstanding later, and give you the opportunity to correct me if this information is incorrect.” The boss’s boss was thrilled with the updates and documentation so little the boss could do to forbid it.

    The second issue was the “Unless I hear differently from you by close of business I will be doing the following…” as the remedy to failure to answer emails in a timely fashion when input was requested or needed (do these bosses not know about read receipts being logged?) This also covered her for the “I don’t know what you are talking about” response in meetings and then pulling up the email that exactly refutes that the boss WAS notified in advance but failed to respond.

  8. I actually wonder if the sky isn’t falling yet for the individual who asked the original question. A manager saying she isn’t a micro-manager is a lot different from a manager who proudly announces, “I am a micro-manager!” (I’ve heard this, and worse – run!). I don’t want to be presumptuous, and I imagine that this supervisor is definitely giving off bad vibes, otherwise the question wouldn’t be asked. However, if a new manager – or a person in a new supervisory position – reiterates that they are not micro-managing, maybe it is an honest but poorly-executed attempt to say, “I’m not a threat.” As a consultant, I’ve certainly come into organizations and needed to persuade permanent employees that I’m not a threat. This is just a thought – not meant to negate Nick’s good advice!

  9. With this pervasive insanity which is tolerated by many, it’s surprising if anything is accomplished. But then, maybe nothing is meant to be done well . . . just done.

  10. Hmmm… tolerance is an interesting solution! But it sounds like those who practice it have reasonable bosses. Micro-managing might not always be a flaw, but a character trait. Respect has to go along with it.

    While I agree to some extent with Martin P, I also know that not all management behavior is tolerable; nor should it be tolerated.

    If two can find a balance, more power to them.

  11. I’ve been in this situation before (just recently) and the solution for me was to leave. Thank goodness I had plan A, B, C, lined up, which in some cases and in my opinion is/was the best solution. After comparing pros and cons of the job leaving was best for me in my situation. The crazy thing was, everyone in the organization who were subordinates knew the boss was a little “off” and intolerable in her micro managing ways, and we resorted to doing behavior to help alleviate this stress. We covered each other (for reasons to not set off the anger in her) which made us co-dependents (somewhat). I realized how unhealthy the environment was and took my ticket out of there. I could give examples how bad it was, but for the sake of re-traumatizing myself, allow me to pass. But some signs definitely who don’t know is meetings constantly with you which ironically makes you less efficient and productive from good time wasted. Approvals needed out the wazoo (mistrust). Constant assignments and instructions, no goals for you to work for so you can create your own “flow” and so forth.

    @Nick: Your advice always is outstanding, and your link to “Be known first for the truth” is paramount when dealing with a micro manager. Being known for the truth comes in handy when they back pedal out of the ridiculous timely assignments they give you when you bring it to their higher ups. However, no one should have to work in a dysfunctional/sometimes illogical environment in which mine definitely was.

    @Carl, my situation was more similar to yours, and yes, I was sent an article from a fellow suffering colleague that micro managing stems from mistrust. The link I included below:

    http://talent.linkedin.com/blog/index.php/2015/04/12-signs-a-company-doesnt-trust-its-employees?src=li-po&veh=john-oliver-snafu_paul-petrone

    @R Tanenbaum and Citizen X: Being subjected to a boss who has micro managing tendencies and staying in the environment successfully and managing those micro managing tendencies/OCD tendencies successfully I would take a guess that where that boss is/you are is probably lower on the spectrum from someone who is on the higher end of that scale. Those on the higher end and their actions/reactions with others have resulted in illogical actions and duties just to make themselves feel better about their job. I do think there is some mental dysfunction with those on the higher end as Carl stated making everyone miserable in their wake.

    I understand not always leaving may be feasible, but I have made a promise to myself that I have worked too hard (education and having quality experience) to work in sub-par unhealthy conditions. Working under unnecessary stress is the only way I know of (from working in government employment)you can quit and get unemployment if you have CYA’ed, documented to prove your workplace conditions. This will at least let you get your bearings if you don’t have a plan B in place to go to. Key words: documented workplace conditions.

    I now work comfortably from my home with one job as my next adventure starts in the middle of this month to add to this current wonderful contract position.

  12. I’d get out of there if possible. And, as suggested by others, CYA with emails.

    I had a micromanager who was the boss to my boss. But he (the micromanager) wanted me to do stuff directly for him. We soon had a very heated conversion that raised many red flags.

    We’d had some used equipment (bought by him, of course) that was damaged and needed repaired. I was tasked with working with the OEM to have the equipment shipped back for inspection and repair. The micromanager wanted it shipped back ASAP. I tried to explain to him that we needed to work out, in detail with the OEM, what we needed done along with estimates. One of the pieces hadn’t even been removed yet, so I was trying to schedule things to get two pieces shipped at once instead of separately to save money.

    He would have none of it. I tried explaining that I wanted to avoid any surprises. I didn’t want to commit to an open ended PO that would start at $10k and end up at $30k by the time everything was worked out due to misunderstandings. He didn’t listen.

    After that, I simply did every thing he asked, as he asked. This guy would tell me how many and what type of bolts to order. He would literally send me an email from his office hundreds of miles away to tell me to order $25 worth of bolts.

    So I would do so. And I would send him emails with copies of exactly what he told me to order. If he left me a voicemail, I’d send him an email with something like, “Per your voicemail last week, I have ordered the attached items. Please let me know if anything needs changed.”

    One time, I got yelled at by him because I authorized extra work by a contractor. The contractor and I had decided that the extra work would be worth it because it meant that if my maintenance personnel had to do work, they could more easily access/remove the equipment. The micromanager was never on site during the work and had given the contractor bad instructions to begin with.

    After that, when the contractor ran into a problem (caused, of course, by the micromanager), we stopped all work, called the manager, and waited for a response. Of course, we were paying the contractor to have 3 guys sit around on site not doing anything while we waited for the micromanager to return the call, but we made sure the micromanager was happy.

    These people *do* *not* *change*. The only way to deal with them is to protect yourself. Verify everything with an email that is copied to someone, anyone. If it’s for buying something, you can easily copy purchasing or accounts payable. If you’re left verbal or handwritten instructions, summarize those instructions in an email. I don’t care how small or insignificant it may appear. Document everything.

    Because sooner or later, that person is going to screw up and come looking for someone else to blame. Don’t give that person the slightest opportunity to blame you. It won’t prevent you from getting fired, but you’ll have ammunition for discussions with HR or, if necessary, a lawyer. (And on that end, don’t be afraid to to bcc your private account or print out and save hard copies of the emails. Don’t trust IT to help you if you’ve been fired and your email account disabled.)

  13. @Chris – you nailed it as to the documentation aspect.

    At my company IT has disabled the ability to auto-bcc all incoming emails or sent mails using Outlook rules. You also cannot save your default Outlook mail for with a bcc filled in. I am fortunate in that I am a fairly skilled VBA programmer and was able to whip up some macros that got around the rules, and now the bcc copies are automatically forwarded and aren’t even saved in the Sent folder.

    With all the turmoil out there, the auto-deleting of all email over 30 days old in the InBox and 180 days if saved, these bcc’d emails may save your bacon someday. If not, well, Gmail is still free, isn’t it?

    If you want to dabble in this yourself, Google for Outlook VBA Macros – lots of good stuff out there. Not too hard to pick it up on the side.

  14. I fully respect R. Tanenbaum’s patience, and creative approach. If you can’t beat ’em at their own OCD game – join ’em or fold your cards and walk away to save your reputation and sanity! Thanks to Hank for macro tips. I retired 3 yrs ago but have to go back to work at age 69 – if someone will hire me again. I can’t wait to retire again in 3-5 yrs. time, from the insane world of work, where I’ve been amazed that others have thrived for years. Some people are just born to work for others, however, not moi!

  15. While I agree with Nick’s advice generally, if a direct report came to me and said “But during the work period on these projects, I would like to manage my own work. Can we do that?” I would reject this request and come back and suggest that they need to check in with me on progress being made. How often? That would depend on the staff and their level of maturity and quality.

    The reason is this: If the direct fails and I didn’t check in, my manager will want to know what happened.

    So, I would say not being micro-managed is a privilege, not a right.

  16. Tony,

    Managing your own work and providing progress reports are not mutually exclusive.

    The proper response to such a request from a direct report is, “Sure! Great. Just please provide me with updates at (insert reasonable intervals) so I’m aware of the status. And let me know immediately if anything comes up that will delay the work or require me to provide you with extra resources.”

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