Afraid you’re being micromanaged at work? You’re not alone. In his book My Way or the Highway, leadership guru and owner of Trinity Solutions consulting firm Harry Chambers shares details from his company’s survey that showed 79 percent of respondents had experienced micromanagement during their careers thus far.
While micromanagement might be common, that doesn’t mean it should be accepted. In many cases, micromanagement is a symptom of weak leadership, rather than the strong leadership it’s meant to present. Don’t be surprised if your domineering manager is relatively new to the ranks of management. When supervisors are unsure of themselves and their team, they inevitably try to maintain as much control over the work output as they can. They believe that they need to know every detail in order to perfect their end product. Unfortunately, that same study from Trinity Solutions showed that 70% of people who reported being micromanaged had considered quitting their job because of it. Over 30% of respondents actually did.
Though a certain level of stress is to be expected at work, micromanagement multiplies a normal level of stress by every action an employee undertakes. Instead of worrying about making a deadline or handing in subpar work, now an employee has to second-guess every choice they make during the course of a day. That kind of anxiety builds up quickly and has serious physical consequences, like heart trouble or even death. The level of focus necessary to ensure that your work not only meets your own expectations, but also some unknowable ideal of your supervisor’s, is incredibly draining. Risk-taking and innovation are impossible under the close watch of a judgemental boss.
It’s likely that you’ve already experienced micromanagement during your career. We often mythologize micromanagers as visionary perfectionists, whose guidance on every small detail brings an extraordinary idea to life. Steve Jobs’s compulsive perfectionism was famous (or infamous). In his biography, Walter Isaacson wrote of how, in the hospital near the end of his life, Jobs ripped off his oxygen mask because it was ugly. “[He] mumbled that he hated the design and refused to wear it. Though barely able to speak, he ordered them to bring five different options for the mask and he would pick a design he liked.” We’ve all been exposed to the idea there is something inherently noble about demanding perfection, so occasionally it can be hard to know if your boss’s attention is inspiring or toxic.
Attending to a supervisor’s every wish can take up so much of your focus that you might not realize micromanagement when it happens. It could look like it’s just part of the job, or that your boss is testing your abilities. If you are in a junior position, you might mistake micromanagement for mentorship. In Part 1 of our two-part series on micromanagement, we’ll help you identify the signs that your boss is crossing boundaries in their leadership style.
It might not be micromanagement, even if it feels like it
There are times when you might feel suffocated by an overbearing manager. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s micromanagement. For instance, you might be receiving emails or messages from your boss after work hours or on the weekend. No one likes to get a work-related notification on their phone while they are out enjoying their free time. It may feel like you are expected to respond immediately. But that may not be the case. If your boss is a workhorse, they might not keep the same hours as you. He or she might have had other obligations that kept them from addressing the topic during normal working hours. They might not expect a reply, but wanted to send something while it was still fresh in their mind. Broaching the topic with your boss will clarify what their expectations are of your responsiveness. In turn, you can set your own boundaries about when your boss can, and cannot, expect a reply from you.
“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” – George S. Patton
Common signs your boss is micromanaging:
- They avoid delegation
- You’re constantly making reports
- You’re not allowed to make decisions
- They complain constantly
- They won’t pass on their skills or knowledge
- They don’t see the forest for the trees
- Feedback falls on deaf ears
- Projects drag on forever
Since micromanagers can’t believe anyone else will do a decent job, the only solution is… to do everything themselves. While they might get the results they want at first, this can’t possibly last. Eventually, they’ll come to discover that there are only 24 hours in a day. Without assigning tasks to others with specialized skills, supervisors will inevitably take on work that they aren’t as qualified to produce. If your boss is a micromanager, they might also think it’s faster to revise your work than to give you feedback on what could be improved.
Even a company’s CEO has to report to a board of directors, but working for a micromanager can make it seem like the reporting is the job. As they can’t trust their employees’ work and dedication enough to leave well enough alone, a micromanaging boss is constantly asking you for updates. The thing about spreadsheets is, they won’t show any progress if the only progress you’ve made is on your latest spreadsheet.
If you feel like you’ve got to ask permission to go to the bathroom, you probably work for a micromanager. While it’s likely that the product of your work has to go through some approval process, you should be able to make decisions about how that product gets made. You were hired because you were the most qualified person for your role and you should able to bring your expertise to your work. If even the smallest tasks require sign off from your supervisor, it could be a red flag.
The funny thing about mistakes is, if they’re all you look for, they’re all you’ll find. A boss that doesn’t trust their employees is always going to look for evidence that validates their paranoia. And they’re going to find it, even if it’s a typo in a calendar reminder you only sent to yourself. This type of manager can find fault in anything, no matter how inconsequential. While they might tell themselves that they are pushing for excellence, they are only sapping the motivation of their staff.
It’s inspiring to work for a boss that you feel you can learn from. Supervisors can act as role models for junior employees who are starting their careers. For a fresh new employee, finding out that your boss has little interest in mentoring you can be a crushing disappointment. To these micromanagers, knowledge is currency. If they share that knowledge, they’re depleting their own value. They may never verbalize their reluctance to teach you, but they may say that they’re just way too busy. If your manager never follows up on your requests for guidance or mentorship, they may be avoiding the critical skill-sharing that you need to develop in your role.
A good manager knows that effort is a valuable, finite resource that needs to be well-protected. A micromanager loses sight of the big picture–the relative relationship between effort and reward–to focus narrowly on small details. For example, instead of updating an existing brochure with more current facts, a micromanager might ask for a whole new brochure to be created. These decisions could jeopardize an important deadline simply to satisfy the whims of one person in a powerful position.
While a normal boss-to-employee relationship should have feedback flow in both directions, a micromanager is more interested in a one-way conversation. Because they’ve put themselves under enormous pressure, they are more irritable and explosive when faced with criticism. They might respond to your critique with some variation of, “Well, that’s just how things work here.” Micromanagers aren’t interested in what they can do to improve–they only look for the weakness in others.
Since your boss seems to be the only one who’s allowed to make any decisions, get any work done, or even decide what the work is, their incredibly-busy schedule will set the pace for everything there is to do. Micromanagers are blockers that keep projects delayed while everyone awaits their approval. The revision process can also extend far beyond what was scheduled as a micromanager gives a piece of feedback, changes their mind, and eventually settles on the first suggestion they had.
Does this sound like someone you work with? If the markers we’ve outlined here ring true for you, you are likely working for a micromanager. However, there are proactive strategies you can use to set healthier boundaries around your work. Next week, we’ll tackle how to deal with a micromanager in Part 2.