You Can Survive the Micromanager

Get your boss to lighten up

You find yourself wondering during your workday why you are preparing yet another seemingly useless report. Or your boss is in your cubicle a dozen times a day for weeks on end, and you’re not even currently working on a tight deadline.

micro manage boss imageOr your manager seems obsessed about how you do you job and not about the quality of your work or your results. Lastly, your manager seems to want to control your every action, even though you have extensive experience doing your job.

You are, my friend, being micromanaged.

Webster’s defines micromanagement as “managing with great or excessive control or attention to detail.”

You define it as, “My boss is making me want to spend my evenings browsing the job posting Web sites.”

And you are not alone. In his book My Way or the Highway: The Micromanagement Survival Guide, consultant Harry Chambers quotes statistics that are revealing: 66% of people are being or have been micromanaged in the past. Of those, two-thirds say it impacted their productivity and reduced their morale.

So why are more and more managers turning to this form of control in the workplace? What are the dangers to the employee, the manager and the company when micromanagement is allowed to continue? And lastly, what can you do to help your boss get the heck over it? Let’s get to the bottom of this.

Why Bosses Micromanage

One thing is for sure: Most managers don’t actually know—in real time—that they are micromanaging their employees, says Chambers, president of Atlanta-based Trinity Solutions Inc., a consulting and training firm specializing in leadership, team coaching and building, and organizational development.

“By the time managers figure out they are doing it, the damage to employee morale and productivity has already been done,” Chambers continues. “Many companies don’t teach and develop their managers, and so the managers don’t have the skills to not micromanage. Their default position is to control workers, and they think they can retain control of the job using someone else’s hands.”

In addition to trying to control employees, some managers may not trust that their workers will perform the job well. For example, if your manager is giving you the same instructions over and over, she may not trust that you are understanding the job. If you find yourself in this situation, Liz Kislik, president of Liz Kislik Associates, a Rockville Centre, NY-based management consulting firm, advises: “Find out what didn’t work, and articulate to your boss what you didn’t understand about the task.”

Another reason managers are turning to micromanagement is that they are worried about how this difficult economy will impact their own jobs. “People are on edge these days, and that often leads to distrust to get the job done right without excessive management,” says Kislik. In such a scenario, “managers will tend to force how things get done not just what gets done.”

One big in front of many smallChambers agrees, adding if a manager is worried about her own job security, she will want to stay on top of not only her own work, but that of her employees as well. Your manager may fear that her own boss may ask her about a project on which you are working, and if the manager doesn’t have a ready answer about its progress, it may reflect badly on her. So she may be worried and say to herself, “I have to stay on top of this.”

Interestingly, many managers don’t see this as micromanaging. Rather, they think they are adding value to the work and that their employees are benefiting from their experience, says Chambers.

There’s no doubt that a few micromanagers just plain have some pathologies playing out. “Some people have an insatiable need to get more and more information,” says Chambers. Indeed, extreme cases are characterized by an obsessive-compulsive style of management. Other micromanagers may be workplace bullies, narcissists, or control freaks. Additionally, they may be insecure about their own workplace abilities and may be trying to create an environment by which they can demonstrate their own self-worth.

There are myriad reasons why you might be getting micromanaged. And while it’s good practice to try to discern why, the next question to ask is, “Am I doing anything to prompt this?”

Digitally Distracted

  • Gen Yers tend to function well in the workplace and to be motivated, says Kislik.
  • Moreover, they tend to be optimistic, proactive and flexible, according to Simon Walker, co-founder of Talentsmoothie, a U.K.-based training and development consultancy.
  • Gen Yers generally dislike autocratic behavior and look to their peers for inspiration rather than to higher-ups.
  • They value the ability to multi-task and work collaboratively in networks and on teams.
  • And there’s no doubt that recent developments in technology have played a key role in shaping this generation of workers.
  • That said, a few managers do think some Gen Yers are “digitally distracted”, for example, spending an excessive amount of time on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other potentially time-wasting Web sites. “I do see the potential danger for poor time management with this employee demographic,” says Margaret Battistelli, editor in chief of FundRaising Success magazine.

    When I was a manager, I noticed that some employees knew the funniest YouTube videos to pass around and seemed to spend maybe a bit too much time giggling with their friends in front of someone’s computer screen. More than once, I had an employee quickly minimize his computer screen when I entered his workspace, turn to me embarrassed, and then proceed to tell me he needed more time to finish an assignment. That can be frustrating for a manager, even one like myself who knows that employees need to blow off a little steam now and then.

    In general, while Gen Yers are very good at multitasking, they do “have a tendency to start and stop and to work on projects in small chunks. That may not be conducive to producing good work all of the time, because errors happen that way,” Kislik notes.

    Some Gen Yers may need a manager to help them with time management, how to start a project and work on it until it’s done, shunning distractions—including digital ones—along the way, Kislik continues. For example, turn off the “alert” feature in your e-mail software that tells you when you get a new message, and then check your e-mails only twice per day rather than every few minutes.

    “Gen Yers may need to learn that they can’t necessarily live their work lives in the exact same way they live their personal lives,” says Kislik. For example, when you greet a client or your boss, take your ear buds out. And keep your iPod’s volume down while in the office so that the employee in the next cubicle doesn’t have to listen to it and so that you can hear when your phone is ringing or when a coworker is behind you trying to get your attention.

    In short, do use today’s technology to enhance your productivity and expand your network of helpful colleagues, but be careful not to let it steer you too far astray from the job at hand.

    Disengaged, Then Out the Door

    Whatever the reason may be for being micromanaged, the effects can be anything from simple annoyance to quitting the job in exasperation. One of the most common and dangerous effects of micromanagement is disengagement. Employees who are disengaged put in time but little else. They grow apathetic about the job, which leads to loss of productivity, self esteem, and confidence, and eventually, to thwarted career advancement.

    A disengaged employee may do the tasks given to him and nothing else. He will wait for his manager to tell him the next steps in a project and will show little initiative or resourcefulness to move forward on his own. “Such employees may have been made to feel by the manager that they can be successful only if the manger told them what to do next,” says Kislik. “They become very passive. In workplaces with many disengaged employees, turnover becomes a real problem.”

    Chambers said he once read the results of an employee study that found that 60% of employees who had been micromanaged wanted to leave their jobs. Of those, 40% actually did quit. “They are leaving to get away from poor management, not necessarily for career advancement or any of the other pat answers that employees give during exit interviews,” says Chambers. “Micromanagement actually encourages people to move on. As soon as the economy and job market pick up, there will be a lot of empty desks in front of a micromanager.”

    Even employees who stay on the job can be severely negatively impacted. For example, they may internalize the problem, which can lead to low self-esteem and reduced confidence. That, in turn, can lead to poor performance, feelings of hopelessness, and a downward spiral into depression. If you think you are being micromanaged, it’s important to try to separate your manager’s behavior from your own personal views of your performance. Try to stay grounded and realistic, while being open and flexible about trying new ideas to solve the problem.

    Not All Micromanagement is Bad Management

    Interestingly, Chambers notes that about 10% of a manager’s job should be done in a micromanaged way. This could include, for example, controlling departmental costs and setting deadlines. If you’re a manager, the trick is to figure out what that 10% should include.

    Kislik notes that an employee who is in training or being developed for a job or promotion probably needs to be micromanaged at first. “They may need confidence that only detailed management can offer,” she notes. “I call it ‘training wheels.’ For some that training may seem excessive, especially if they have some ability to do the job. But for the others, it means safety.”

    Raise Awareness, Gently

    Both Kislik and Chambers recommend that employees who are being micromanaged may be able to resolve the issue by talking with their managers. Calmly—that is, without an accusatory or exasperated tone—ask the following questions:
    • What are the parameters of the job (e.g., deadlines, legalities, best practices, boundaries)?
    • How do you want the job to be done?
    • What results/accomplishment/outcomes are you expecting?

    Kislik offers an example: If you are responsible for assessing vendors for your company, and your boss requests a memo from you, before you produce that first memo, ask your manager how she likes to see information. For instance, does she want a summary at the beginning with details below, or just bullet points? Does she want a chart with a comparison of vendor pricing and capabilities included? Does she want recommendations in the memo, or just an outline of costs and/or analysis of vendor quality? “It’s up the employee to hammer this out first,” she notes.

    Encourage your manager’s trust by explaining how you work best, and then ask if working that way is best for the team. Be open to thinking about doing your job in a different—perhaps a better—way. “It’s your responsibility as an employee to articulate to your boss how you work best,” says Kislik. “But do recognize that you have an obligation to be open to her requests and ideas.”

    Chambers agrees, adding: “Ask if there is something that you could be doing differently, and then really listen to the answer. See if there’s an alternative plan.” He also recommends keeping your manager informed of what you are doing. “Don’t just tell your manager when you are done a project, but tell him what you plan to do next,” he notes. “Don’t give your boss a reason to doubt your work. Rather, stay out in front of information you give to your manager. Give it before he asks for it. Pay attention to what he needs and give him the comfort level he is looking for.”

    Conclusion

    Says Kislik, “If your manager is unhappy with your performance, it doesn’t matter what you think of your performance. Go to your manager and ask what wasn’t good enough. Try to understand your manager’s concerns, and then you can decide if you can or cannot meet those performance goals.”

    Donna Loyle has been a Philadelphia-area magazine and newspaper editor and reporter for the past 19 years.

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    8 Comments

    1. I found the article on Micromanagement interesting – esp. the part about disengaged employees. I worked with a manager who actually yelled at me for being 5 minutes later than expected, who knew how much extra work was done. Her job is constantly being threatened by her superior, so she took it out on her employees. My next several days were spent waiting for her to tell me what to do next – since my own resourcefulness was not good enough for her. I don’t think managers realize how much their actions influence their workers.

      Thanks!

    2. Hi Barb,

      You are absolutely correct. I don’t think managers truly realize how much they can affect a work environment. I also had an experience where I was micromanaged and I would have anxiety knowing that nothing I did at work was good enough. There was always something wrong with the way I did things. This definitely affected the way I worked because I had no motivation to work harder for my manager. I dreaded coming to work and the first minute I could leave, I was out of there.

      Managers have a lot of stress working with upper management and bad managers take the negative and dump it right onto their team. However good managers find a way to filter the negative into positive and get their team motivated to work just that much harder. I try to always remember when working with co-workers, treat them the way you would wanted to be treated! It always seems to help.

      Thanks for your comments Barb and thanks for reading bizMe!

    3. a manager should first be a leader. If someone cannot take the heat of management and going to bring in her/his own insecurity & stress and vent it out on employees they have to get the hell out of management. Micro-management is absolutely rediculous. The article started well, but I do not agree with the last part of kissing the boss’s butt. A micro-manager is unsecure enough to be able to listen or underestand the employee.

      If they had a bit of unnderestanding, consideration or listening skills they would never become micro managers. and no do not kiss their butt, just get yourself out of that place & may God destroys every micro-manager by root. Amen! ;)

    4. Albert, I, too, was surprised by my sources who said that part about kissing the boss’s butt. I think they were referring to the fact that this economy is so difficult and the job market so tight, that making a boss happy has become very important, perhaps more important than it’s been in the past. Also, some employees actually need to be micro-managed, as was stated in the article. Before heading out the door, an employee first must decide if his/her own performance is prompting the micromanaging. But for those employees who clearly don’t need micromanagement, I agree with you, they should run screaming outta there. Managers who engage in needless micromanagement surely can ruin a good employee’s self esteem and confidence.

    5. Donna — Another good article full of practical advice. Glad I found this site.

      (Was actually looking for you–we worked on some articles for Target Marketing back in the last decade–and Target Marketing just reached out to me today at my new company.)

      Keep up the fine writing…Stephen

    6. Hi, Stephen! Yes, I remember you. Thanks for the nice words about the article. I always enjoy my assignments for BizMe. The editors are top-notch. Hope your new company is doing well.

    7. Thanks Donna! Your mentoring voice to our readers is always insightful! -Jane

    8. Based on my experience, this article hits it right on the nose. I was micromanaged for 7 months then decided to quit (with no job lined up) because I could not take it any more. What made the situation unbearable was not only my boss a micromanager but his boss was as well so it was like a double dose of hell ! I am a seasoned professional that had more expereince, education, and certification in my field than my boss, yet 99% of every artifact I developed had to be reviewed by him and was changed creating more work. The kicker was when I did a status report which included text in a table and sent out for distribution. I was called back in his office at 5 pm Friday where he showed me the cell height was too high for the text and told me to fix that for each row and resend out again (that night). Mind you there were no comments about the content of the report. Seemed like when I would speak in front of others, he would jump in and cut me off. Then there was the constant criticism (you dont know the project, you lack confidence etc..). I was managing 20 projects that she assigned to me, which he felt I was taking to much time to do since i was working late all the time. From there, he wanted to sit at my desk and observe how i work so he could see what i was doing that was supposedly taking so much time. By this time I was just getting apathtic and told him in 23 years of work this has never happened to me. I became a robot, dovoid of my own personal thoughts. I let them dictate everything to me. Yes my confidence slipped but he could not understand he was the cause of it. I woke up and realized what was happening and hightailed it out of there. (P.S, I was th fifth person to quit him and less than a year yet he stayed in this position. I have reason to believe it was nepotism.

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