Breaking the cycle when you’re being micromanaged
This article is something of an apology for everyone who read The Micromanager’s Handbook and had PTSD. Instead of a snarky rant about micromanagement I’m writing from the perspective of the person on the receiving end of this set of behaviours to help you understand what motivates them and what you can do about them.
In many cases the person in question is not even aware of what they’re doing and the impact it’s having. Very few people consciously set out to micromanage and, for many people, the default behaviour upon becoming a manager for the first time is to want a high degree of control over what’s happening. This is human nature. We don’t realise that our roles have changed upon donning the manager’s hat and our previous ability to be on top of everything to do with our job can turn into a liability overnight when running a team.
For the person on the receiving end of a strenuous dose of micromanagement it’s hard to know how to give feedback. The hardest conversation we experience is when we go to our managers and ask them to stop doing something or give them feedback they may not be receptive to. This is because we are in an asymmetric relationship with them. They hold all the cards so the risk we’re taking with our own future is considerable relative to theirs which is negligible.
Having set the scene, let’s start with the cornerstone of untangling human drama. First seek to understand. There are only five reasons that someone is micromanaging. The good news is that the first four of these situations can be fixed. The last of them represents the person who read my snarky guide to micromangement and had the reaction of “right on” until they got to the end.
- Lack of trust in your skill or experience. Let’s say your boss is responsible for designing a nuclear reactor. They’ve got two people — someone who has 30 years experience in designing nuclear reactions and a new graduate. The way they manage the new graduate is likely to be very different (at least I sincerely hope it is). When someone is learning a new set of skills you put guard rails in place. Delegating effectively is understand how much support the person needs with the task and how to get them into their Zone of Proximal Development. It’s knowing how your team member’s needs change over time if you’re to support their continued growth. James Stanier gave a great talk about delegation at QCon describing this. Fixing this might be more of a case of having a conversation with your manager that you’re comfortable taking on more. It might be a case of asking how you can demonstrate your skills so they can have greater confidence.
- Lack of trust in your ability to deliver things to their desired quality or time. This one typically comes up because the manager doesn’t know what’s happening. Then one day they get asked a pointed question by their manager that they don’t have an answer for (like: when’s this project being delivered). This sharp shock leads them overcompensate. Or it could be because you’re simply not good at sharing where you’re at (this is a skill you need to learn as it’s always better to volunteer information on your terms than to be on the end of a CEO driven status request at 9pm on a Friday). Have a conversation with your manager on how best to keep them up to date on how things are progressing. Work out what’s going to work for both of you and who their audience is within the company. Managers like it when their teams make it easy for them to share how good a job their team is doing. When someone gives the answer of “we’re on it, come back in six months” — most managers’ Spider Sense starts going off. Nature abhors a vacuum — managers cannot represent their teams (or themselves) if they’re not aware what’s going on.
- Inability to delegate (lack of skills on their part). This is something that humans are not naturally good at. It’s a hard conversation to have because you’re effectively telling your manager they’re missing some skills. Again you want a conversation about how you work together — in an ideal world your manager should initiate this. If they don’t there’s nothing stopping you starting the ball rolling. Frame it as a set of skills you’d like to develop around taking ownership of your own work and how that, by doing so, you’re freeing up more of their time for more valuable activities. Point them to James’ talk (from above). Make sure they know you value their ability to coach you and help you grow.
- Response to senior management pressure (threat to their status). Finding this out can be tricky because they might be looking to shield you from this. In fact good managers know that a large part of the value they bring is ensuring the maelstrom of chaos that is senior management churn does not reach their teams in unredacted form. Ask them is there a reason why this has become such a priority. Ask them how you can support them in making sure the right information is getting to their superiors (including the risks of any imposed deadlines or strategy). You may have a strong disagreement about the way things are going. If so you’re going to need to either disagree and commit or get out of Dodge. There’s no healthy middle ground where you do things you think aren’t going to work and things turn out ok. Unless you’re planning to sit by the riverbank and wait for the bodies of your enemies a la Sun Tzu.
- They enjoy being in control and think that’s how to get things done. I wish it wasn’t so but there are managers out there who have no empathy for the impact their style has on their teams. In fact some get off on being in charge and impose their wishes on their teams. Unless you’re thinking you can get away with a remote location and several rolls of plastic sheeting (which is not a course of action that’s in any way constructive or recommended) then you have to decide whether the cost of continuing to work for this person is worth it to your emotional wellbeing, your career and your job.
It’s worth going into the effect that micromanagement has on you and your work. Neglecting to understand this may lead you to put off resolving the situation. Because, let’s face it — having the conversation with your manager is not going to feel like a safe place. People wrote to me after the first article to describe a visceral response to reading it. There are reasons for this.
Your health will be affected. Being micromanaged leads to anxiety. You start to dread that slack message or email or your one to ones with your manager. This anxiety leads you to see bigger problems than are probably there. It will cost you sleep. Ultimately your emotional and physcial health will suffer. My talk on Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse is all about how this happens and some resilience strategies.
Your productivity will be affected. Once you’ve had the rug pulled out from you enough then you’re less willing to commit to a course of action until the micromanager in your life has endorsed it. Preferably in writing in triplicate. You will start trying to use process to protect yourself. Which in turn slows things down which in turn leads to a higher intensity of micromanagement from your boss.
The quality of work you do will suffer. Once someone starts taking decisions away from you about how you do your job you stop caring about whether those decisions are right. Fighting it is just too much work. You will exhibit Learned Helplessness where it’s just easier to do as you’re told. You’ll stop looking for solutions to problems or anticipating problems. This lower quality in your work leads you to do work you’re no longer proud off which in turn can have a profound effect on your emotional state. As above it also leads to more micromanagement on the part of your boss.
Your future will be compromised. Once you’ve gotten into the state of learned helplessness you’ll find it harder and harder to question things. This will persist to future roles as your potential to operate as an empowered human will be eroded (possibly for good). Also, the lower quality and quantity work you’re now doing is going to harm your career prospects both where you are now and when you want to move on.
This is why it’s so important to break the cycle of micromanagement early. Once it starts it can spiral out of control and turn good people into disinterested zombies or, worse still, burn them out for good.
So, how do you give your boss feedback? I mentioned above it’s a hard conversation to start as they may not have the skills or insight to appreciate the situation. Start by looking to understand what success looks like for them and how you are contributing to it (this is good advice whenever managing upwards). Gather data about what’s happening. Give feedback on behaviours and the impact they have on your and other people. The Situation-Behaviour-Impact model is great here for de-personalising the feedback. You’re not calling them a micromanager, as that is judging them as human beings. Instead you’re showing them how they can be more effective by altering their behaviour. On the whole people are willing to adapt behaviour. Think of it as a skills you can learn which are useful, not only in dealing with your current situation, but which will help you untangle all manner of human problems in your life.
Finally, it’s tempting to stick it out and hope things get better. Choosing to accept a situation for a period of time is ok provided you set limits on it. Sticking in a toxic situation for a prolonged period of time can result in your believing you deserve to be treated like this or having your self confidence crippled for a long time. I hope this article was useful to the same degree as the first was emotive for people. Sorry I pushed your buttons.