Work anywhere for long enough, and you’ll eventually run into a micromanager (if you can’t think of one, maybe it’s you.). Micromanagers will show up at your desk all the time, asking for status updates, second guessing every coding decision you make, and even overriding your coding decisions, often in ways that are destructive to long-term productivity. It will quickly drive you nuts and make you want to look for another job. However, before you quit, it can often be worthwhile to see if you can change the way that you interact with your manager. If you do this correctly, your micromanager may turn into your strongest advocate. You already know they are relentless, so it’s worth considering.
We should probably define “micromanager” here, because people tend to use that term in a lot of situations where it doesn’t really apply. A micromanager is “a manager who closely observes and controls and or reminds the work of his/her subordinates or employees” (wikipedia). It’s important to note that a micromanager isn’t someone who asks for project updates when you are already behind, pulls you back from gold-plating something, or who reminds you of a critical deadline. A micromanager typically is someone who is overly anxious and controlling, which is reflected in their management style. It’s this understanding that is the most important part, because it gives you a way to counteract the behavior.
You are going to eventually deal with a micromanager and emotional, frustration-driven reactions will not make it stop most of the time. Instead, you are going to have to come up with ways to convince a micromanager that you are actually competent and that it is in their best interest to leave you alone. To do this, you have to get outside of your own head and into the mind of your manager. However, like most scenarios where you are trying to understand another person, you will never have a perfect understanding of why your manager is acting this way. Instead, you have to work with incomplete information and attempt to modify your manager’s behavior by changing your own behavior. While this can be time consuming and difficult, it is often worth doing, as reformed micromanagers can become some of your biggest advocates. Regardless, if you have much of a career at all, you will eventually run into a micromanager or two along the way – you might as well have a strategy for dealing with them.
Reasons People Become Micromanagers
Why micromanagement is a problem.
Constant reporting of status and watching over your shoulder instead of getting work done. Which leads to more monitoring/mismanagement and watching over your shoulder instead of getting your work done. Completely destroys morale among the team and encourages backstabbing behavior. This rapidly increases turnover. Tends to give the impression that your boss will throw you under the bus to protect them against their own boss. It also wastes management’s time, which is typically more expensive and should be used to help make the team more efficient.
How micromanagers are born
Oftentimes, it’s because it’s their first job and they don’t know what they are doing. Probably half of all new managers do this at some point. It can also start out of insecurity due to their own position being precarious, or that of the company in general. Management may know about things that you don’t and might be micromanaging in an attempt to protect you.
It can also occur because you, someone on your team, or someone at a previous employer of your boss was unreliable and had to be over-managed in order to get them to do their job. This can also a reflect a lack of knowledge on the part of your manager. For instance, if you get a manager who is not familiar with tech and is trying to manage a tech team, they’ll often over-manage because they don’t understand what’s going on.
Options for Dealing with Micromanagers
What not to do
You have every right to get defensive about micromanagement. However, doing so is useless, counterproductive, and might cause you even more problems. Malicious compliance. You might think you can be clever by following the wording of management instructions instead of their intent, thinking that you can make them back off. This almost never works.
Arguing with management. You are far better off asking questions that lead to them questioning their own viewpoint, rather than trying to assert your own viewpoint. Not only is it hard to convince people, but your manager may have information that you don’t. Don’t try to go around them either. This erodes trust and is counterproductive, even if the micromanager is removed. It shows other people that you can’t be trusted.
Don’t complain to coworkers either. Micro-(mis)managed workplaces tend to get very backstabby very quickly, and you don’t want to give your coworkers the ability to cause problems for you.
Don’t work extra to try and get them off your back – it becomes an expected behavior quickly.
Improve your communications
Improve your reporting – management should be able to tell what you are doing and how things are progressing without asking. If they can’t do this, they will ask.
Ask better questions – Really pin down what they want from you and ask questions about your project. At least some of the reasons people become micromanagers have to do with their perception of information flow TO you.
Better presence in meetings – If you appear to be ignoring them during meetings, managers will often assume that you don’t know what you are supposed to be doing, which means they will try to tell you.
Improve your compliance to standards
Find out what expectations are. It’s possible that you are being micromanaged because your work is not up to snuff in some way. Fix that if it is the case. Help establish standards if there aren’t any. If management doesn’t have any standards laid out, consider writing some of them up. This can be a guidebook for yourself and/or any incoming teammates. If you do this right, management will use these to clarify their position further.
Take better notes during evaluations and use them. If you have a one-on-one with your manager, start asking about what you can improve, come up with a plan for improving, and then execute on it. Micromanagement is taxing for your manager, and many will stop doing it if something will work with less effort.
Dealing with Deadlines
Keep them up to date before they ask. Think of it like this, you either have a webhook or you have polling. Polling is micromanagement. Keep your updates predictable. Try to send your updates at regular, predictable times every day. The more management can rely on them being there, the less likely they are to get nervous and start bugging you when they need an update for their managers. Learn the WHYs so you can help. You should ask why you are doing something, so that you make better decisions when management isn’t around.
Approaches to Improve the Relationship
Help them feel in control.
Ask for advice, even if you don’t necessarily need it. Sometimes you get good advice, but you often get support. This can be especially helpful for longer term career advice. Done properly, the micromanagement can turn into them diligently trying to cultivate you for a position that you want in the future. The advice doesn’t have to be work-related. Often it’s better if it isn’t. This can be anything from food recommendations, to discussing a ball game. The idea here is that it satiates their need to tell you things, which manifests in some people as micromanagement. Also make sure that you act on their advice. Credit for the advice is more important than strictly following the advice.
Reinforce improved behavior.
Make sure that you aren’t discouraging behavior that is positive. You may well have TRAINED your manager to act like they do. If the rest of the team isn’t being micromanaged, there are good odds that this is the case. Don’t start slacking off because they aren’t looking. You should do better work when they aren’t around. Building/rebuilding trust is critical to making micromanagement stop. Goofing off when they aren’t looking is an untrustworthy behavior. Give feedback in a way that is helpful and tactful to help your manager.
Tailor your behavior to how their manager evaluates them.
You may have a hard time figuring this out. Watch for situations where they say one thing, but act in as if a completely different set of circumstances apply. Whatever you do, don’t inherently trust what they tell you. Trust what your own experience shows you to be true. For instance, if they say they value code quality, but are constantly pushing to ship faster even if it hurts quality, then you know what they value. People tend to respond to incentives. They also tend to prioritize situations that they consider problems. If you have a micromanager, this might get them off your back, especially if your coworkers are more troublesome than you are.
You can always quit and find something else. If the only other option is to burn bridges, this may be the safest way to get out of the situation. However, it can take a while, and if the micromanagement is bad enough, it can also make it difficult to do a phone interview during work hours, even if you are remote. Try to shift your work hours so that fewer of them overlap with your manager’s work hours. Move within the organization to a group that has a different management style. Sometimes this can be the best of all worlds.
Tricks of the Trade
The underlying problem with micromanagement isn’t just in the work place. You’ll find it in all areas of life from volunteering to school to relationships and even some friendships. Basically it’s a matter of control or feeling in control. The micromanager isn’t comfortable sharing control of situations and that can apply to more than just work situations. The strategies we’ve discussed in this episode can be applied to the different situations, however the way you handle it will vary based on the situation. For example, improving your communication will help almost any situation but you may not be able to quit school or might not want to leave a relationship. You need to assess the situation you are in and determine the best way to apply these strategies.