MicromanagerKey Point: Your career success depends on your ability to form productive and effective working relationships with a wide range of people. Do focus on how to build those relationships and don’t be distracted by labels to which you attach too much meaning.

The world in which we work is more fluid and unstructured…

Organisational structures and operating relationships are far more fluid these days and while the hierarchical organisation chart might exist, the “reporting” relationships can extend well beyond the boundaries of that formal structure. It may be matrixed, networked, team-based or any other form but the point is that we all have to build productive working relationships with a wide variety of personalities, with a range of views on what constitutes appropriate management practice.

These ‘managers’ need not be formally assigned as such and a micromanager does not need to be in your direct reporting line to have the effect suggested by the definition in Wikipedia:

“…is a management style whereby a manager closely observes or controls the work of subordinates or employees. Micromanagement generally has a negative connotation.”

There has been a lot of advice written on how to handle or survive the behaviours of a micromanager, framing the issues in terms of behaviours that are inflicted on other individuals either consciously or unconsciously. They emphasise how unproductive and stifling such a working relationship can be and detail the behaviours that don’t seem to make sense to the person on the receiving end. Unfortunately, these behaviours make every bit of sense to the micromanager and they consider this activity to be acceptable business practice in their operating context. Problems arise where your expectations of flexibility and autonomy are different to that of the micromanager creating a “discomforting difference” to borrow the language of conflict management. If you expect to be told what to do and how to do it, this post is not for you, however, nor is this post intended to excuse poor behaviour that morphs into bullying or victimisation.

Micromanagement is a management style regardless of its effects…

While there can be significant challenges to working with a micromanager, it is rarely practiced personally and carries little if any moral baggage through which to consider it “good” or “bad”. It is simply a management style that has been appropriated for any number of reasons and it is often a fruitless quest to ask why. Its effect is unproductive and generally unhelpful in accomplishing the work that needs to be done, adding significant direct, indirect and hidden costs to the operations of the organisation. In addition, by duplicating the work of other employees it stifles creativity, risk-taking and initiative, leaving staff demoralised and the micromanager distracted from the value adding that they were employed to deliver in their job. Overt, detailed supervision is counterproductive in the knowledge economy where a line manager has responsibility to allocate and coordinate work as well as to create a productive work environment and model positive work-related behaviours for the benefit of the organisation as a whole.

Good leaders are good managers and they allow people to get on and do their job. Where performance management is necessary, it flows from a conversation that indicates that your performance is not up to scratch, something that may or may not be true, but clearly involves a more detailed level of oversight. In that situation you have a very clear choice to make either fixing the problem area or leaving. A good manager will help you to do the former but if the latter is your choice then get on with it.

Micromanagers are not all cut from the same cloth…

Sometimes there are reasons for this behaviour that can be easily understood such as having been let down in the past, the micromanager vows never to let it happen again. However, something can happen akin to Mark Twain’s comment about the cat jumping onto a hot stove:

“We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again and that is well but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.”

It may also be that they are incredibly high achievers with a planet-sized brain that can accommodate theirs and everyone else’s job as well. Other times, the reasons simply devolve to a personal need to signal that “I am in control” and in doing so demonstrate a pathology of insecurity and lack of confidence. Unfortunately, this can occur at any level in an organisation.
Whatever the reason, you will have to work with these people for as long as you choose to do so, consequently, building trust and confidence with them is essential to working out how to establish a productive working relationship. It should be your primary goal because any other approach simply reinforces their view of the world and invites an increase in overt and intrusive supervision.

Here are some things you can do as a professional…

Because we never know exactly how a person’s story has evolved, we never have all of the information needed to answer the questions about why micromanagers behave in the way they do. A more pragmatic approach is to structure the process of obtaining the working material you need to better understand what is valued by your micromanager and where you need to focus your attention.

Consider these four points:

  1. Assess your own behaviour and practice. Have you done anything that would contribute to this situation such as missing key deadlines, providing poor quality work, antagonistic responses to requests, poor communication, or a history of surprises? Are you new to the organisation? This might mean your manager and other colleagues will be trying to determine whether you are up to the tasks for which you have responsibility.
  2. Inventory what you are being asked to do, how and by when. Is there any rhythm to the requests in terms of timing in terms of day, week, month, or year? Understanding this will allow you to begin to anticipate what is needed and be ready as the time comes about, providing the information your manager needs before they have a chance to ask for it. Also realise that the stressors driving this type of management behaviour might not be driven by you, your activities or behaviour.
  3. Define the expectations your micromanager has by engaging them in short, focused discussions. They won’t appreciate long, drawn out planning sessions but if you understand their preferences for how information is to be shared and reported, you can then commit to delivering this through an agreed plan, reflecting their insights and experience as well as your own.
  4. Execute the plan to the highest standards you can. Micromanagement is ultimately a question of trust and demonstrated excellence displaces uncertainty with greater confidence and hopefully, ultimately, trust. Make sure you are proactive and accurate in your communications because there is a lot to lose here if you don’t. If you have to deliver bad news remember that it does not get better with age and we all know that ‘$#!?’ happens. If you are managing your own work well enough, you will be able to communicate what has happened and put the actions in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again. This structured approach also provides an audit trail for reference and by documenting as you go, responding to an ad-hoc request for a detailed update or an objection to the quality of work that you have offered, will certainly take less time to provide. If you are confronted with the comment that this is an overhead, make the point that you need to use this technique to ensure that you have the appropriate operational structure and information to enable you to complete your work to the standard that your micromanager expects.

In the end you have to be realistic…

Micromanagement is a question of trust and trust is ultimately the willingness to be vulnerable to another person. Your trustworthiness must be demonstrated in terms that can be understood by your micromanager and valued accordingly. Unfortunately, even the most professional and capable individual can be destabilised by micromanagement. If you are the stellar performer, make sure you are doing that because that is who you are, and not because you need the approval and acceptance of your micromanager first and foremost. You go the extra mile because that is who you are and if your micromanager is at the pathological “I’m in control” end then you have a hard situation to deal with.

Most experts do not suggest fighting the micromanager head-to-head since this can be counterproductive and is unlikely to yield the result you want, simply exacerbating the issues that you face.

The challenge of working with a micromanager can never be understated. If you report to someone who interposes themselves into the most routine task, repeatedly asking for progress reports and destabilising requests for additional work before you have had time to complete the first thing they asked of you, then you know what I mean. If you have exhausted all attempts to build this productive working relationship, you will know that you have a choice to make. It is what it is and you have to be pragmatic and professional in deciding what to do next.

Sometimes, you just have to walk away from this type of manager, especially if it is destroying your quality of life.