“Invariably, micromanaging results in four problems: deceit, disloyalty, conflict, and communication problems.” – John Rosemond
There are a number of themes that run through the classic 90s workplace comedy, Office Space. Everyone remembers Milton Waddams, the oft-abused cubicle drone, and his red Swingline stapler. Just the other day, I heard someone derisively refer to “PC Load Letter” while trying to understand why an annoying office printer wasn’t functioning as expected. And no organizational restructure is ever complete without someone mentioning The Bobs.
Through it all, we see the madness of Initech through the eyes of Peter Gibbons, the overworked, overstressed, and oversupervised software engineer and protagonist of the film. Peter’s misery is what makes the film so memorable. We can all see a little of Peter in ourselves. We’ve all worn Peter’s shoes at one time or another. And most of us have been similarly micromanaged to the point of near insanity. At some point in our careers, we’ve all had to contend with our own Bill Lumberghs.
Why People MIcromanage
What makes a micromanager tick? Why do they feel like they have to hover over us, dictating everything down the most minute detail? They delegate without actually letting go. They focus so hard on the mundane details that they lose sight of the big picture. And they insist on telling you exactly how everything needs to be done. And I mean every last thing. Why do they feel compelled to torment everyone around them?
The answer is simple. They aren’t actually sadists – well, some of them probably are – but driven by deep-seated fear. In a 2017 Forbes article, Mark Murphy describe the underlying fears that propel micromanagement. Some feel fear due to the loss of control leaders typically experience as they transition from direct to organizational leadership. High-performing individuals who transition into leadership roles often experience a fear of being responsible for the performance of others they perceive as inferior.
But, according to Murphy, the principal fear that drives micromanagement are perceived threats to their power. They need to be the sole decision-maker, and an independent, self-sufficient team scares them like nothing else. If the team can function without them, what does that say about their authority? Their expertise? Their value? For many micromanagers, this only got worse during the pandemic, when workforces found new ways to be productive without setting foot in an office. Feeling useless, feeling afraid, micromanagers stepped in the minute they could and demanded those teams return to the workplace, even if they were less productive. Their need for control and power demanded nothing less.
5 Ways to work with a Micromanager
So, what are you supposed to do when you’re faced with an overbearing micromanager? Should you confront them? Should you tell them that they’re making you (and everyone else) miserable? Or should you just pull a Milton Waddams and burn the place down? The right answer is “none of the above.”
Like any other type of challenge stemming from a leadership issue, you want to fix the problem, not make it worse. If your boss is a micromanager, your approach should be a little more subtle and a lot less confrontational.
1. Build trust.
One of the most common factors underpinning micromanaging behavior is a lack of trust. Knowing that, are you doing something that might be causing your boss to micromanage you? Are you missing deadlines? Are you habitually late to work? Are you a “good enough” employee who only puts in the minimal amount of effort necessary to get the job done? Make sure that you’re not the problem before you push for a solution.
2. Anticipate the future.
Over the course of my military career, I developed a reputation as someone who anticipated requirements and did what needed to be done. In truth, I hate to be told what to do, so the best way to avoid that was to see beyond the horizon and work to that end. It works. If you anticipate future requirements and attack them before anyone else, it’s a lot harder to micromanage you. You also become invaluable to your boss.
3. Request feedback.
When you find yourself being micromanaged, use that as a learning moment. Explain to your boss how you could benefit from guidance and feedback, but that you execute tasks without a lot of hovering. That allows your boss to feel connected to the process in a meaningful way and gives them the assurances they need to step back.
4. Encourage change.
You can’t change your boss’s micromanaging ways by yourself. But you can nudge them in the right direction with a little emotional intelligence and a lot of patience. Understand their behavior and what drives it. Assuming they’re not sadists, this is a matter of helping them to cope with their fears in a productive way. Sometimes this works, but just as often you end up facing a hostile, defensive boss. When that happens…
5. Move on.
There comes a time when you have no other options than to pull chocks. When you’ve done all you can do and nothing has changed, then it might be time for a shift in your career trajectory. And don’t feel alone, because if you’ve reached that point, it’s likely a lot of others have, too.
Negative Impact of a Micromanager
Micromanagement tends to lead to some very negative consequences, as highlighted in the quote cited at the beginning of this article. Micromanagers quickly find themselves alone in a sea of disloyalty – no one wants to be part of team that’s micromanaged – and as the trust ebbs, so does the cohesion that holds the ship together. If you leave, don’t make it personal. Just move on and don’t look back.