How to deal with a micromanager. Or, how to not be a micromanager.
“The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.” — Princess Leia to Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars IV: A New Hope. (Watch the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-wntX-a3jSY)
Those of us who have toiled under a micromanaging boss have fantasized about saying this, or something like it, usually at the peak of our frustration. A “boss” could be any person or organization that has power over your work, including a direct supervisor, project manager, client, or board of directors.
What micromanaging looks like
Simply defined, to micromanage is to “direct and control a person, group, or system with excessive or unnecessary oversight or input.” But what does it really look like? Micromanaging has a sliding scale (some might call it a slippery slope). On the milder end of the spectrum, micromanagers delegate simpler, mundane tasks to subordinates, check on progress frequently, and leave their subordinates feeling like they can’t do anything right because they no longer have decision-making or problem-solving room to do their job.
Sliding to the more severe, micromanagers control others’ time, have an unquenchable need for reports and data, correct the work of their subordinates, or request rework multiple times. These hard cases also delegate and get in the middle of the work being completed—and as many of us know, they call your home at night to discuss “just one more thing.”
Why some micromanage
Micromanagers have an intense need for control. In fact, micromanagers often were promoted because of their ability to solve problems, manage budgets, meet their numbers, and control the operations. But at the higher level, the need for strategic thinking and developing others becomes more important. Because this transition into new skills can be uncomfortable and difficult, many managers remain in their operational comfort zones and never leave the day-to-day minutia for which they were so richly rewarded.
There are two main reasons people micromanage:
- They have anxiety about their work, which they alleviate by ordering and controlling others.
- They lack of trust in their subordinates; they do not believe other workers will complete a task as well as needed.
And here’s the kicker: Micromanagers almost never recognize that they are micromanagers. They simply do not realize they have poor leadership and management skills. When pushed, they recast their management style as detail-oriented, organized, and mildly perfectionistic.
Five things you can do
If you have Darth Vader breathing down your neck, you can either close your eyes and trust the Force, or try these coping mechanisms:
- Don’t combat the micromanagement. If you do, it most likely will get worse.
- Consider that all micromanagers are not created equally—each has his/her own idiosyncrasies. Watch the behavior of your boss or colleague, looking for patterns and swings in mood and attitude. Micromanagers are extremely predictable. Learning the work patterns will help you predict and respond more fittingly.
- Increase the trust between you and the micromanager. Micromanagers do not trust that the work you do will be as thorough and competent as theirs. Your job is to make every effort to deliver within budget, on time, and on target. You need to become consistently predictable in your timing and quality.
- Anticipate the needs of your micromanager. After you’ve really mastered the work behaviors and patterns, you can be proactive to ward off potential stressors, as opposed to reacting once the sky falls and the seeming crisis begins.
- Keep your micromanager in the loop with regular updates. If you inform him/her/them of progress, discuss details, and establish agreements about the work and processes in advance, they will feel informed, closer to the actual work itself, and hence, in control. In some ways, they are in control, but more importantly, you are thriving rather than suffering, at least until you get promoted or find a new job on your own terms.
Amy Smith is an associate professor at Concordia University Chicago. She has more than 20 years of experience in management and leadership. She was a presenter at the 2012 Career Smart Engineers Conference.
Ashkenas, R. (2011, November 15). Why People Micromanage.
Gallo, A. (2011, September 22). Stop Being Micromanaged.
North, S. (2012, May 7). How to Manage a Micromanager. Forbes, 1-3.
Serrat, O. (2011, March). The travails of micromanagement. Cornell University IRL School, 100, 1-5.
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