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Surviving the micromanager

Jim Ice, Ed.D. -

Several years ago I had a boss (I’ll call him Willie) who was a classic “micromanager.” It seemed that he wanted to dictate every move I made. Although I had more experience then in certain tasks, he still felt the need to explain to me how to do each and every step. His behavior often did not recognize my experience, and it felt like he was demonstrating a lack of respect for me and my capabilities.

I bet you have also experienced a micromanager whose overbearing, directive behaviors are frustrating, demotivating and can suck the life out of your very soul. Managers are supposed to be individuals who help to remove obstacles and help you perform at your very best. Unfortunately, too often their behavior is anything but empowering. In fact, the Gallup organization in their State of the American Workplace report, explains that feelings of lack of trust and confidence between an individuals and their managers are cited as the number one reason people choose to leave a company.

However, leaving a company is not always a viable option; besides, the next manager also may be inclined toward micromanagement. So we need to learn how to work with micromanagers — at work, in professional organizations and perhaps even at home.

Here are a few tips I have learned about how to survive, and even thrive, working with micromanagers:

  1. Consider the behavioral pattern, how it develops and what underlies it

  2. It is important to understand how the micromanager behavior patterns develop. While it is tempting to just assume they are a jerk and intent on making your life miserable, that is rarely the case (although you would never know it from the stuff on the internet.) Typically, they have experienced success in the past using the process they are attempting to impose on you. So, for most micromanagers, “do it my way” is not just a way to control things, it is often an appeal to a method they know works. It may or may not be the way you would do the task, or even the best way for the task to be accomplished. But for them, it is a proven method. For some managers who may have been accountable for execution in the past, it is hard to give that control to another — in their view, risking success.

    The desire for control also is a motivator for micromanagement behaviors. As managers, they are held accountable for the outcome of not only their performance, but yours as well. It takes practice for a manager to learn to loosen control to enable others to succeed, rather than to assume close control to drive performance. Although it may not feel like it, most often their intent is not to offend or disrespect you but to take steps — based on their experience —to help ensure success, both for you and ultimately themselves. The tighter the timeline or higher the task expectations, the stronger the pull to exert too much control. These self-preservation tendencies are in all of us and help to explain, but not excuse, their behaviors. Add to the ingrained desires any history of being let down by someone who did not fulfill the performance expectations, and you begin to see how some of these unfortunate dictatorial behaviors may have come to be and have even been reinforced over time. So this may explain why these behaviors come to be. But what can we do to help the manager change the tactics to get things done? 

  3. Deal with specific behaviors, not perceptions of motive

  4. Being micromanaged pushes our buttons. When our buttons are pushed, it stirs our emotions. When emotions are stirred, we take it personally and either comply (silence) or lash out (violence.) When we find ourselves pinched, we often attribute motive to their behavior. “He tells me how to do everything because he does not trust me.” “She provides too much supervision because she thinks I am an incompetent idiot.” What was actually a managerial overstep has now become a personal insult.

    Attributing a motive to their behavior leads to a downward spiral, from frustration to anger and sometimes to reactions that —although they may feel good in the moment — we later regret (e.g., rude response, being insubordinate, condescending response.) Unless you can read minds, you do not know (for sure) the motive for someone else’s behavior. For those of you saying to yourself right now, “I know exactly why they act that way,” let me ask you: Has anyone ever misread your motives? Most of us could say “yes,” and remember how confused we were at their reaction. Having coached dozens of micromanagers, it is astounding how rarely our attributed motives were actually what was driving their behavior at that moment. So one key to surviving a micromanager is to avoid attributing motive and to deal only with the specific behavior. 

  5. Interrupt the pattern, to focus on the outcome

  6. Once you start to view the behavior absent motive, it frees you to identify the expectations and desired outcomes of the specific situation. Rather than attributing motive, focus the discussion on understanding the outcome the manager desires. Shift the discussion from the manager’s prescriptions for actions (how) to asking questions to clearly articulate the objective (what) that must be accomplished. Don’t assume you know — even if you have done it 100 times before. Ask and let the manager fill in the details for how (speed, quality, cost, etc.) the outcome will be evaluated. With a clear picture of success, you can then discuss alternatives and provide your perspective on actions to reach the desired outcome. This outcome-oriented discussion gives you more control in the situation while still moving toward the manager’s desired objective.

    The goal is to give the manager the confidence that you understand the desired outcome and to help empower you to act. It may be that a specific process must be followed (e.g., safety or quality standard operating procedures,) so your focus on the outcome should also include expectations for process execution. When managers feel you share in the understanding of the goal and are equally committed to success, they are more likely to relax control and give you the bandwidth you need to leverage your own initiative and creativity. 

  7. Acknowledge their needs, establish boundaries

  8. As you are defining the expectations for the output and process execution, remember to include the unique needs of the manager. Remember Willie, the micromanager from my past? One important lesson I learned from working with Willie was that he had personal needs that I needed to understand and meet if I ever wanted to change his controlling behaviors. Willie was often asked by the board of directors on the spur of the moment for project updates and explanations of departmental reports, which I created. He was expected by his leaders to be up-to-date on every project, and if caught without a complete answer, he felt as if he looked foolish. So I learned that Willie drove projects and dictated report creation so he always knew the status. Recognizing that the outcome he needed was to have regular project and report updates, I suggested a process that would provide him with access to real-time updates. Addressing his needs as one of the stakeholders of my assignments helped me regain control of my work.

    It often helps to discuss and establish boundaries for your individual role and the role of your manager. These boundaries establish what outcomes you are responsible for and which ones you must do together. Additionally, the boundaries will define those exceptions that too often drive the process. Just because it was important for Willie to review and revise the reports that would be sent to the board of directors, he tended to expect to review and revise every report I created. Through our discussions of boundaries, we determined that for non-board reports, I could take the accountability to review and revise. This boundary allowed me to be accountable and take ownership for my work without his direct supervision.

Learning to work with a micromanager is a valuable survival skill in today’s workplace.

Learn more about ways to grow professionally in your career. Visit Carlow University’s College of Professional Studies.

About the Author: Ice serves as the Dean of the College of Professional Studies at Carlow University. For more than 30 years, he’s served as an advisor to global business leaders on issues of talent strategy, workforce alignment, strategic planning, employee engagement, change leadership, building learning organizations and equipping leaders for success.
Contact: Jim Ice, Ed.D.