This is part of my series on How To Be A Good Person.
A reader wrote, “How do I get my boss to stop micromanaging my work?”
Life is hard when you work for a micromanager. They don’t trust you to make decisions and work on your own for an extended period. These supervisors make a hard job unbearable.
Now, you should know that micromanaging has little to do with your job performance. From Stop Being Micromanaged:
Micromanagers abound in today’s organizations but typically, it has nothing to do with performance. “It’s more about your bosses’ level of internal anxiety and need to control situations than anything about you,” says Jenny Chatman, a professor of management at Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley
You may take some comfort in this knowledge (I do!) and feel that they’re behavior is unjust and unfair. But before you march into their office and give them a tongue lashing, there are a few questions to consider.
Is it too risky?
Before talking to your boss, consider these four questions:
- Is your boss open to feedback?
- How easy would it be for your boss to replace you?
- How many months could you go without an income?
- How many people depend on your income?
An employee with no dependents, who could live for six months without working, has tremendous power in the workplace. Confronting bad behavior is far less perilous for them than for a single parent who lives paycheck to paycheck. Moreover, some folks will stay at a terrible job because they fear losing their health insurance.
So, think about your appetite for risk. Are you willing to lose your job over this? Is the company happy to fire you because you’re replaceable?
Sidenote: Predatory managers prey upon people with little power.
Clarify your realm of responsibility
Supposing that you want to proceed and change your boss’s micromanaging ways, you need to clarify what you’re responsible for. What decisions are yours to make? And which are not?
This is all pretty abstract so let’s get more concrete. Ideally, your boss will establish a few constraints for your assignments. These restrictions include the “purpose and goals of the project, the expected results, the available resources, the targeted time-to-market, any standards that apply, the budget, et cetera—anything that defines the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ as well as any constraints that might impact the project.” 1
Let’s look at a couple of examples:
1. You’re a software developer, and you maintain a complicated website. Your constraints include: the website may not go down/be unavailable for more than 20 minutes each month, the website must load within two seconds, etc. In addition, new feature X must be added to the website by the end of the month.
2. You work in sales, and you have a monthly quota for the number of new clients and the amount of revenue each client brings. You have a budget for travel and marketing. Furthermore, your target area is the western states region, and you may not approach clients in other sales people’s areas.
In both cases, you’re free to do pretty much anything you want to get the job done so long as you stay within the bounds your boss set.
Unfortunately, micromanagers are terrible at defining these sorts of limits. And they’re equally bad at respecting boundaries.
As a result, you need to define these things by yourself. Make a plan, which will resemble a contract, and then present it to your boss. It should include a list of things you’re responsible for.
One of the most critical components of the plan is how often you’ll give your boss progress updates. This includes the timeframe (e.g., daily, weekly, monthly) and the mode (e.g., in a meeting, in an email). You may want to send a weekly email, but it may be wise to start with a daily update as a way to appease an anxious boss.
Now, some readers will object and say, “I shouldn’t have to do this—my boss should set clear limits and expectations, not me!” And these readers aren’t wrong: good bosses do this. But not everyone works for a good boss.
Present your plan
Pick a time when your boss is in a good mood and present your plan. Be sure to use Positive Action Language, which specifies what you do want to happen instead of what you don’t want. For example, don’t say, “Stop being a micromanager”. Instead, say, “I want to adjust how we work together. I want to make sure I meet all of your expectations, but I also want some autonomy.” (Read more strategies on talking to your boss.)
This conversation will have 1 of 2 outcomes:
- Your boss responds negatively or dismissively.
- Your boss responds positively, though they may want to renegotiate some of the particulars.
If your boss reacts negatively, weigh the options of finding a new job vs. enduring the stress of a micromanaging supervisor. A lot of Internet advance is some flavor of “just quit,” but this may be a bad recommendation for people with little power. Sometimes staying is the least bad option.
If your boss reacts positively, then there’s hope! But you’re not out of the woods yet. Your boss may agree to your proposal for more autonomy, but old habits are hard to break—they will morph into a micromanager at unexpected times. You must expect lapses. And when they occur, gently remind your supervisor of your agreement.
Everyone values autonomy and hates working for a micromanager. These overbearing overseers will suck the joy out of even the best job.
But before you confront your boss and their bad behavior, consider how much power you have. Are you willing to lose your job over this?
Supposing that you want to talk to them, first, make a plan. Layout what your boundaries should be. Then, talk to your boss.
If your manager reacts poorly, consider whether it’s better to look for a new job or stay and endure your situation. (There’s no shame in staying because it’s too risky to leave.)
And if your supervisor responds positively, then happy day! Real change is possible, but you should expect relapses of negative behaviors. When these happen, kindly remind your boss of your agreement.
“The Agile Culture: Leading through Trust and Ownership” by Pollyanna Pixton, Paul Gibson, and Niel Nickolaisen ↩