Not all micromanagers are created equal. Some are a lot more vexing than others. If you’re unfortunate enough to fall under their purview for a while, instead of letting the frustration get to you, it pays to develop coping and navigation skills. In this article, I explore two flavors of micromanaging bosses and share some communication strategies for coping with these characters. It’s time for finesse over force.
The I-Trust-You (But I Really Don’t) Boss
This boss goes to great lengths to indicate she trusts you, often by saying, “I trust you” (a warning sign, she doesn’t!) and then dispensing assignments offering little to no clarity on what she’s after.
This boss is the evil cousin of the one who genuinely trusts the team and encourages free-thinking and creativity in pursuit of problem-solving. Sent off on a new assignment with the words, “I trust you to figure it out” the common response when you deliver is “That’s not what I was looking for.”
It takes a few times through this boss’s Carnival-Ride-of-Fake-Trust to learn that the only thing she cares about is your ability to read her mind and do what she’s thinking. And while mind-reading is helpful, it’s an elusive skill.
Instead, it’s imperative for you to use a bit of finesse and nail down her expectations before you get to work. A combination of framing, slightly open-ended questions, and appealing to this manager’s ego are all effective tactics.
Coping Strategies—Context is Key
Say: This seems to be an important project for (you/your team/our department). I want to make sure to get it right for all of us. Let me know if my description of the problem/opportunity is in alignment with yours. (And then frame the situation and ask for agreement or clarification. Keep at it until there’s agreement.)
Ask: What do you perceive are the top priorities for any proposed solution to this problem?
Say & Ask: It’s important for me to learn from you in this process. May I bounce my ideas and approaches off of you as I work through the problem?
Say & Ask: I know your team is over-worked. I want to solve this as efficiently as possible and pick up the next task. What’s the best way for me to be sure my approach aligns with yours as I work through it?
For each of those slightly uncomfortable statements, you are appealing to your manager’s ego, functioning as a good citizen, and importantly, gaining critical context for clues to what the heck she’s really after. Listen carefully, and ask gentle, probing questions. However, don’t cross the line to asking her how to do it or you risk being viewed as someone who needs excessive hand-holding or isn’t up to the job.
The If I Want It Done Right I’ll Do It Myself Boss
This character is in alignment with our Fake Trust boss when it comes to the expectation you read his mind. However, this one takes the “That’s not what I wanted” statement to an extreme and seizes the project and redoes your work, leaving you watching in frustration, wondering why you just burned all that time and energy developing your approach.
I’ve been on the receiving end of this boss’s bad behavior, and I still feel a rise in blood pressure just writing about him. This approach is demoralizing, belittling, and just plain lousy management.
Instead of stewing or feeling your self-worth deflate, consider using the questions/statements above when receiving an assignment to eliminate as much ambiguity as possible. The best defense is a good offense in search of clarity.
However, if in spite of your best efforts you find yourself falling victim to the boss redoing your work, it’s time to change the discussion.
For the statements below, you’re eating some humble pie. However, keep your eyes on the big prize, getting this lousy manager to stop re-doing your work.
Coping Strategies—Derail the Redo
Tune and tailor to your situation. Be genuine in seeking clarity, no matter how angry the situation makes you feel.
Say: It’s clear that in your mind I missed something important to you. To make sure I learn from my mistake, please highlight the areas I missed and let me redo the assignment.
Say & Ask: I feel poorly that I misunderstood your intentions for this assignment. For future assignments, how do you recommend I do a better job understanding your expectations?
Or, try some direct feedback but carefully position yourself as wanting to learn and do better with:
Say & Ask: When you redo my work it makes me feel like I failed you. That’s not the type of employee I ever want to be. May we discuss your concerns and then I would like your support in redoing the assignment?
Yes, with the above statements you highlight you’re the weak link in the equation. It’s a calculated risk that’s intended to show you as motivated to improve and importantly, delivered correctly, these will help you avoid starting an argument with someone who holds power over your paycheck and workload. Remember, it’s finesse over force in the workplace!
The Bottom-Line for Now:
There aren’t a lot of great options to pursue when you’re stuck with a micromanaging boss. Arguing is a poor plan since this boss holds sway over your paycheck and workload. And sitting there and just taking it doesn’t do much for your self-esteem or career.
Instead, bite your tongue, calm that emerging adrenaline surge, and apply some empathy plus careful-questioning. You won’t work for this character forever, and remember, the boss always gets a vote on whether you’re successful at the moment. Try finesse over force and then remember not to be that manager when it’s your turn.