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Managing a micromanager

The delicate art of dealing with a superior who can’t cede control


If you’ve worked for any length of time in a business environment, chances are you’ve encountered Rebecca — our pseudonym for a boss who’s a micromanager.

Rebecca is the kind of person so invested in her job that she insists on doing yours as well — right down to the nitty-gritty details. She won’t let you dot your own Is or cross your own Ts.

Micromanagers resist delegating and immerse themselves in projects they don’t directly own. They tend to see trees only — and never the forest, focusing on minor issues rather than the big picture. They generally don’t seek input or suggestions. That can be frustrating if you’re an employee under their charge. By fussing over your work constantly, they give the impression — inadvertently or not — that they don’t trust your judgment or your skills.

Micromanagers resist delegating and immerse themselves in projects they don’t directly own

Not only is such behaviour on the part of a boss demoralizing, it can also severely affect productivity, says leadership coach Alisdair Smith, who has conducted webinars on management topics for Canadian credit unions.

Smith offers four tips for dealing with the situation directly, which can make a difference:

1. Initiate a service level agreement (SLA)

SLAs were introduced about 25 years ago by IT specialists, Smith explains, as a means of setting ground rules. IT workers would ask their employers what they wanted to accomplish, then make it clear that they would meet that goal on their own terms. Take a page from the same book and establish an SLA with your own supervisor, he suggests. Your agreement should include a line like this: “What works for me is when you tell me what you want me to do, then let me do it my way.” It takes courage to make this happen, Smith notes — but it’s worth it.

2. Repeat back to your manager what you understand he has told you to do

When he gives you directives, paraphrase and reiterate them. “If they feel they are being heard, they’re less likely to stand over your shoulder when you do your work,” Smith says.

3. Report on your progress regularly

Nip your boss’s excessive oversight in the bud by checking in frequently regarding your assignments and projects. Ease her comfort level by giving as detailed an accounting of your activities as possible. If you instigate meetings like these, you control them.

4. Convey the confidence you feel

The more self-assured you are, the more your boss will be inclined to trust you — and the less he’ll feel the need to nitpick, Smith explains.

Smith cites a Gallup study that showed a direct correlation between people’s relationship with their immediate superiors and their productivity. There’s no question that good managers empower their employees to excel. Bad managers discourage excellence by limiting employees’ opportunities and their own, since they’re spending much time doing your work, instead of theirs. We’d all like to work with the former, Smith says, but adds that modifying the behaviour of micromanagers is a long-term proposition. In the immediate term, the best approach is to improve your situation by taking control wherever you can. ◊