Thoughts on Managing your Micromanaging Management
“Please refill the milk”
When you ask people to describe the behavior of their micro-managing leadership they say things like:
“She doesn’t trust me,”
“He’s obviously afraid of looking like a failure… probably because he is”
“It’s like they’re trying to undermine me at every step!”
“She’s just a control freak”
“What a dick-head”
But when you ask people to self-identify their leadership styles nearly nobody says “I’m a micro-manager,” and people are even less likely to say “I’m a real dick-head who likes to undermine my direct reports at every step.”
So what’s going on? Where’s the disconnect? More importantly what can you do about it?
Let me start with a story. Why? Because I love my micromanager story, and because I think it may help frame up your thinking. If you’re not in the mood for a story, you can scroll to the end for some suggestions to help get out from under the oppressive thumb of your micromanaging nightmare.
QC from HQ - Story of a Micromanager
“Please refill the milk”
- my micromanager
I’m no stranger to how it feels to be micromanaged.
When I was in college, I worked for a local coffee roaster as a barista at a time before espresso art was a twinkle in the collective eye. Nevertheless, this was one of those coffee places that took their coffee very seriously. For example, I had to undergo formal barista training just to set foot in the door! (contrast this with another coffee slinging experience where my training consisted of watching a 20 minute video)
Just a few weeks into my employment we had a visit from QC (Quality Control) based out of HQ (Head Quarters). She said she was just there to be a “fly on the wall” and help the new shop manager get settled… but quickly she became a micromanaging nightmare who had taken some kind of fascination in me… and it was maddening!
It wasn’t being given instruction that made me feel terrible, I like instruction! It was her uncanny ability of telling me to do the thing I was on my way to go do, so that nothing ever felt like my idea and nothing felt like a win. I’d be headed to the sink to wash dishes and juuuust as my hand touched the faucet I’d hear, “Aden, can you wash those dishes please?”
Over and over, I’d be on my way to complete a task and I’d hear “Aden, please go fill…” whatever it was, and my reply of “I was about to!” would fall to the floor unheard and unnoticed.
I felt small. I felt like she thought I was stupid. I felt like I never had the opportunity to prove that I knew what I was doing.
Most of all, I felt frustrated and angry.
After two solid days of this I wanted to quit.
Before I did though, I decided to put a little thought-work in, and try shifting the dynamic. After all, I was raised by Dr. Rick Kirschner, one of the thought leaders in workplace communication at the time!
So I got to thinking about why she would be doing what she was doing.
“She clearly doesn’t trust me,” I thought. That’s when I had an epiphany!
What exactly entitled me to her trust? Why would she assume that I had things handled? How might I show her instead of tell her that I was capable of all of the simple tasks that make up a day in the life of a barista.
And then the answer came to me: I needed to telegraph my moves!
Wanting to make a game of it, I decided I would report not just one step ahead… but three!
The next morning I arrived to work 15 minutes early. I was so excited about the game I was about to play. When she arrived I was already well into my shop opening duties, and I eagerly greeted her with a mostly neutral, mildly upbeat “Good morning! I’ve got the drawer set, and now I’m grinding the first two pots worth of grounds. When I finish that I’ll weigh the grinds and start brewing”
“Sounds good,” she said.
When I weighed the grounds I reported, “I’m weighing the grind, and I’m about to start brewing. When I’ve finished that I’ll stack the cups.”
“OK! Coffee is brewing. I’m now going to stack the cups. When I’ve finished that I’ll fill the napkins”
I continued with this game consistently without fail until lunch time. As I headed to the sink, ready to report the “I finished task, I’m doing task, this will be my next task…,” I opened my mouth to speak and she stopped me!
She said, “You don’t need to report every detail to me. I trust that you can do what you need to do.”
“Ok.” I replied with a friendly smile and fought the urge to explain what I had done, and why I had done it (even though I was giddy with the success of what my little game had accomplished).
What worked for me in this situation may not be the best course to take with your own micromanager, but it illustrates an important point: when your management has confidence that your work and your priorities are in line with theirs it helps them to relax about you, which means, they can go ahead and get right off your back.
What can you do if you’re being Micromanaged?
Depending on the results you want, here are a few simple things you can do if you find yourself pulling out your hair and hearing “no, no, no… here’s how you should pull out your hair! Oh, and while you’re pulling it out I need you to write a full report about it and put that on my desk by days end. I’ll check in every 30 seconds to get a sense of your progress…”
Yup. Quit. I’m serious. You don’t like it? Leave. As we say at Art of Change, you can always vote with your feet.
But, know this: those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them (or so I’ve heard). You can learn to handle your interpersonal issues in your current workplace, or in a future one. Personally I’m of the mind that if you hate the dynamic, you have nothing to lose in trying to improve it… but if you need to put a limit on your personal misery and find a better work environment in the immediate future, go for it.
Figure out if their micromanaging is about you, them or something else
Sometimes what we perceive to be micromanaging is really just project management. Asking what your status is on a project isn’t necessarily getting into the minutia of what is needed from you; there could be other elements at play that you simply aren’t aware of relying on your output.
However if you’re unsure about what is going on, you can ask.
Practicing some good out loud noticing, can be one way to assess where the micromanaging behavior is coming from. If you choose this tactic, stick to the facts, good intent, and genuine curiosity. Leave your ego out of the conversation.
Don’t - “I’ve noticed you’re really on my case lately, do you hate me?”
Do - “I’ve noticed that you’ve checked in with me twice in the last 4 hours, and have a lot of specific thoughts about how I should proceed. I’m assuming that this project is therefore top priority, but I want to check my assumptions with you…”
After you’ve heard their answer, tell them what you are going to do differently based on what you’ve learned from them (or give ‘em your same plan as if it’s different, because if you haven’t told them out loud, they don’t know. Nobody is a mindreader! See below)
Show your value instead of assuming they already know
It’s so easy for us to take our own expertise for granted. I’m guilty of this too! We know how amazing and capable we are. We know what we know, and we know what we don’t!
What we sometimes forget, is that unless another person has been expressly told something, or seen something first hand… they simply cannot know.
I could buy myself a nice dinner if I had a dollar for every time a work colleague has been shocked to learn that I have skills and experience in a wide variety of work and non-work contexts (I list many of them out in my TEDx talk, but have since added a few more things to my list).
One way to show your value is to simply telegraph your moves as illustrated in my story.
If your role requires more of you than simply executing tasks, you may take the tact that one of my coaching clients implemented successfully with her leadership, and be proactive on checking in with your manager before they check in with you.
In my clients case, she ended up saying to her new manager, “Rather than assume, I want to make sure our priorities are fully aligned. I would like to connect with you for 15 minutes per day, and maybe even twice per day so we can do that”
Her manager’s reaction surprised her, “We don’t need to connect that often. Just slack me in the morning, and again after lunch. We can meet once or twice a week.”
Now I know that to some of you that still sounds like too much… but after just a few weeks of frequent communication, enough trust had been established, that at one of their bi-weekly check-ins the manager requested that the slack updates cease.
AND as always… If you say you’re going to do something follow through!
Sometimes demonstrating your value boils down to telling them what you’re going to do, doing what you said you would, and updating them on the result. If you’re struggling to follow through with something you said you wanted to accomplish, ask for help before they intervene.
“I love giving you projects, because I never have to worry about any element of it being handled. If you need help, you ask for it. Your diligence helps me sleep at night.”
-One of the best things you’ll ever hear
The Bottom Line for Managing Micromanaging Behavior
It’s very rarely personal. Assume something helpful, not hurtful.
If they seem to be over-communicating with you, get on the front end with more communication instead of less.
Give them reasons to trust and believe in you. Don’t assume its obvious.
If it gets to be too much, you can always vote with your feet.
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I want to hear your Micromanager stories. What worked for you? What didn’t? How did it end?
Need help brainstorming specific ways to deal with your own micromanagement? If you’re a leader, are you wanting to make sure to avoid these pitfalls? Feel free to set up a call with me, I’m happy to help. Send me a message or book a discovery call here.