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Crucial Accountability QA

Being Micromanaged

The following article was originally published on September 8, 2004.

Dear Crucial Skills,

My boss has started micromanaging me. She constantly asks me for updates. One morning, by 10 o’clock, I had already received ten e-mail messages from her and it took me an hour and a half just to reply to her requests for updates! To add to things, she’s related to the vice president so I feel like if I try to bring this up and it goes awry, my working days could be numbered. This management style has started to affect my sleeping and eating habits and even my self esteem.

Any suggestions on how I can gently bring this up to her?

Signed,
Frazzled

Dear Frazzled,

Micromanaging is almost always a crucial conversation someone is acting out rather than talking out. A leader is feeling nervous or vulnerable and acts it out through incessant hovering and controlling. The result is that the direct report often feels hurt and resentful and acts it out through withdrawal or other displaced hostility. The solution is to talk it out. Unless and until you can have a conversation about trust and autonomy, this game will get worse and worse.

So, here are three pieces of advice I hope will help you and others step up to this kind of crucial conversation.

Tip #1: Hold the Right Conversation. Don’t let this get sidetracked into a discussion of how a project is going or other diversions from the real issue. The topics you need to explore thoroughly with your boss are:

• How much confidence do you have in me in my key areas of responsibility?
• What level of communication is both efficient and sufficient between us given your level of trust in me?

If in exploring her confidence in you, you discover there are serious concerns, you can then turn the topic to ways you can create evidence for her that more trust is warranted. If you find she has great confidence but just requires much more communication, move on to the next two tips.

Tip #2: Make It Safe For Your Boss (and you). When you open the conversation, head off any misunderstanding she may have of your motives by declaring them candidly. If you fail to do this, she’ll hear you as being critical of her, or worse, wanting to have country club freedom and no accountability. Help her know you just want to be as productive as possible, to feel proud of your work, and to gain her confidence by performing up to expectation. For example, you could use the contrasting skill we teach as follows:

“Could we talk for a few minutes about how we work together? I’ve noticed a couple of things that are keeping me from being as productive as I can. It’s a bit sensitive, and I worry about sounding like I’m not supportive of you, or that I know better than you how things should be done. I don’t feel that way at all. And yet, I think it’s worth talking about because it could help me do a better job for you and create a climate where I can feel good about my work. Would that be okay?”

Tip #3: Finally, Make It Motivating. You can help your boss want to deal with this by sharing concrete examples of how her behavior has created problems she would care about. When you hold an accountability discussion (confronting gaps between what you expect and what you observe–for example in your boss’s management style) with someone you think won’t care about your concerns, you need to work hard to see how the issue you’re raising is creating problems for him or her. One of the reasons we’re so ineffective during crucial accountability discussions is that we’re so absorbed in thinking about how the problem affects us that we give no thought to how it’s affecting the other person. Those who are most skilled at holding others accountable are able to influence others by helping them see consequences they already experience that they can change by changing their behavior. For example:

“I know one thing that’s important to you is that I meet your deadlines. That’s important to me, too. The level of reporting you sometimes ask of me makes that somewhat difficult. For example, one morning I had ten requests for updates from you by 10 a.m. I know that’s an extreme example, but it illustrates the point that the hour and a half I spent answering those was time taken from getting the job done.”

Or, “You ask me at times how I like my work. And you know, I really do. But there are times I spend a whole evening in a funk because I think you don’t have confidence in me and I’m not sure how to earn it.”

If you help your boss see how her behavior is creating consequences she doesn’t want, she’ll not only feel safe with you, but she’ll also be more motivated to make changes.

Good luck,
Joseph

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Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. For thirty years, Joseph has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the HSM World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. Joseph’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500. read more

5 thoughts on “Being Micromanaged”

  1. Thank you a million times for all excellent Crucial Conversation information you share! A friend of mine was lucky enough to work for a company that understands how crucial it is for the conversation to take place at work, and she suggested I sign up for the Q&A about five years ago. At that time I didn’t know how much I would come to appreciate her small offer of assistance. Two years ago my work team got a new manager who fits into a lot of the the “problem boss” situations you cover. I really appreciate the tips and open perspecitve I get from each crucial conversation Q&A I read.

  2. I have at times been micro-managed, and quite a few of the people I have mentored have also been micro-managed. In virtually all cases, the cause (or at least one of the major causes) is that the person being micromanaged does not fully understand the boss’ needs. If you can fully understand the boss’ needs, either by talking to the boss, or by talking to colleagues who understand the boss well, you can often find ways to meet the boss’ needs more effectively than the micro-management strategies they have been using on you. For example, many bosses have a need for insight into progress and confidence that deadlines will be met. They may try to meet these needs by telling you in detail what to do and when to do it, or by asking for status very frequently. If you can devise more effective ways to give them insight and confidence (ways which don’t take much of your own time), you can make them more comfortable, and make your work more pleasant and productive.

    I think Joseph Grenny’s advice on this matter is good — when the boss has enough confidence in your professional maturity to be willing to be frank with you. In my experience, when a boss judges someone to be of low professional maturity (either because they are very early in their career, or because their behavior has raised red flags in the boss’ mind), they are rarely willing to be completely frank. In such a case, getting help from colleagues to understand your boss’ needs and concerns — and the devising ways to address these needs and concerns which work better for you — can be a more effective route to change micro-management into good management.

  3. Good article, but. You also need to be prepared for the situation where no matter what you do you will still be micromanaged. I have experienced situations where, the boss was put into the position of being in over his head and out of fear and his low self-esteem continued to micromanage even after several conversations where he admitted that he knew I would always do a good job as exemplified by the time he was out sick for two weeks and I took care of my job and his and everything went well. But he just couldn’t break the habit. He finally just told me to stop talking to him about it because he was too old to change. I’ve also had situations were I was the only employee of the manager who didn’t have enough to do and out of boredom was micromanaging. Again conversation didn’t stop the behavior even though the manager admitted he was interfering with me getting my job done. Ingrained bad management habits can be very hard for people to break even when they know they should. However, it helped me to know that the problem was there emotional immaturity and not due to my lack of professionalism or ability to do my job, so the conversations helped even if the behavior didn’t change.

  4. Sadly, one of the options has to be for the employee to leave.

    I have seen situations where the micro-manager only undertakes this behavior because he / she has nothing else to do – they are bored.

    Often the micro-manager hasn’t been trained to be a manager / leader and they haven’t been told what is expected of them. In essence, they find themselves in a position to satisfy people up the line who created a structure that is ineffective.

    When there is a problem in an organisation it is often a problem with or caused by management. Micro-management is one such problem.

  5. I think you missed a critical word in “Frazzled”‘s letter…she said, “My boss has STARTED micromanaging me…” To me, this implies that her boss wasn’t doing that before – it’s a new behavior. In my experience, when my boss (who doesn’t usually micromanage me) suddenly starts doing that, it’s because something specific or new is going on between her and her boss (or someone else with a higher authority) and she’s suddenly in a position of being micromanaged herself or under a lot of pressure about something in some way.

    It’s important to differentiate between when a boss is a chronic micromanager and when it suddenly becomes a new thing. If it’s a new thing, then it’s probably either because of what I mentioned in the first paragraph or because the person being micromanaged has failed to perform well on something significant recently. Those two scenarios may require somewhat different responses. If it’s the first scenario (boss is under pressure/being micromanaged right now), then I would just suck it up do everything I could to provide my boss with whatever kind of reporting she needs until the “crisis” is over. I don’t think it really requires having a “crucial conversation” other than to ask her what’s going on in her world and find out how you can help her get through it.

    If it’s the second scenario (you dropped the ball on something big recently), then I think you need to make sure that you’ve gotten all the feedback you needed on what it is that you did wrong and how you need to improve and then, again, you’re in a position of having to resign yourself to being micromanaged until you can earn the trust back by showing that you’ve learned from your mistake and have improved.

    However, if the word “started” hadn’t been in “Frazzled”‘s reply, then I think that a crucial conversation (like the one you outlined) is definitely worth a try!

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