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my boss micromanages me

Welcome back to the “Managing your Boss” series! The 4 minute video below offers an overview of how to handle a micromanaging boss, and afterwards we go into more detail, with some specific steps and strategies.

The Big Question: Are Standards Being Met?

The core issue in any micromanagement situation is the perception of whether or not standards and expectations are being met. Most bosses who micromanage don’t do it because they want to frustrate and stifle their team – it’s because they don’t trust that their team will perform to standards – and the standards matter to them. It might be that their standards are unrealistic, or it might be that they have a very narrow view of what “to standard” means, but understanding that this is usually the thinking that drives micromanaging behavior gives you an important clue when figuring out how to manage it.

Realistic Self-Assessment:

Knowing that micromanaging behavior comes from a perception that standards are not being met provides you with the first and most important question to ask, “What might give my boss the impression that I am not meeting standards?” This might be a painful question to ask, especially if you are a natural high-performer and you know the source of the problem is your boss’s leadership style. But keep in mind that this question is about perception, not reality. We are asking what might give the boss an impression that standards aren’t being met? If you can get curious about this and pay close attention, you might notice many things:

  • Maybe your boss doesn’t really know what you are doing, or understand your approach to work.
  • Maybe your boss has a very specific idea of what the “standards” should be, and doesn’t yet understand how your approach works better.
  • Maybe your boss has a perfectionistic streak and tends to get overly stressed about minor details, losing sight of what’s most important in terms of results.
  • Maybe you don’t like or respect your boss much and haven’t been communicating, leaving them in the dark about how you spend your time.
  • Maybe you’ve been careless in your work and missing things and don’t want to admit it.

The more willing you are to ask yourself these questions and try to find honest answers, the better equipped you will be to change the dynamic between you and your boss.

Laying a Foundation of Trust

The missing ingredient that micromanagement points to is lack of trust. If you can prove to your boss that they can trust you to perform to standards, the micromanagement should decrease and may stop completely. Keep in mind that this is not really about you. Your boss may have a problem with trust, and they may fear that any mistakes you make might put their job at risk. They may sense your frustration with them, which fuels these fears even more. The good news is you don’t have to fix the issues your boss has in order to change the dynamic. You just have to understand that since micromanagement comes from fear, your best tool to reduce the micromanagement is a tool that reliably reduces the fear.

The Status Update Communication Strategy

As I mentioned in the video, the natural “reaction” to being micromanaged is to withdraw. We can’t stand being suffocated by the constant questions, so we try our best to protect our space by communicating as little as possible. Of course, you may see that the less you communicate, the more your boss wonders what is going on with you, which causes the boss to micromanage you even more.

The “Status Update Communication Strategy” is an easy way to communicate to your boss that:

  1. You care about performing well, not just meeting, but exceeding standards
  2. You are on top of things, and will proactively reach out if you need support
  3. They don’t have to ask you how things are going, because they can trust that they will hear from you.

It’s as simple as committing to proactively sending your boss a short status update each day (or each week) at a specific time. I usually suggest late afternoon and no more than 3-5 bullets. Here’s an example:

Here’s where I am at on the following projects:

  • Project X – spent most of my time on this today. It’s going well. On track to reach milestone A by end of month.
  • Project Y – will be working on this more next week as I’m prioritizing X this week
  • Project Z – project team had an issue that I am working with them on and we expect this to be resolved and will get back on track with a new eta by end of month

If you have any specific questions or concerns that you’d like me to elaborate on let me know – otherwise we are on track to meet our objectives and ahead of schedule in some areas.

This works well with a boss who is reacting mostly to fears that things aren’t being handled, and if you are consistent with your updates, you should notice that they stop checking in with you since they can count on your updates coming to them.

Boundaries and Ownership:

If you find that your boss is responding to your status updates by diving in more deeply and asking you more questions or giving direction at a level of detail that isn’t necessary, then you have a more serious micro-manager on your hands, and their issue is that they are overly engaged with your work, possibly to the point of doing it themselves in their minds. In other words, they have not given you ownership of your work – they are still trying to do it for you. In this case, they need to understand where their job ends and yours begins, and you can set those boundaries if you are willing to lean into the challenge of drawing the lines. It takes patience, and usually a series of crucial conversations over a period of time.

In those conversations there are several issues you’ll want to clarify:

  • Specific expectations regarding who is responsible for what when it comes to your projects.
  • That you cannot learn or thrive in your work if you are not given the freedom to decide how to manage your responsibilities.
  • That while you are willing to keep an open dialogue going on your status and brainstorm on questions, you’d like to request the freedom to make your own decisions about how to approach your work and achieve your results.

A boss can get over-involved in your project when they see it as “their” project, and your boss needs to understand that “their” project is not the actual work of the team, but learning how to lead a team effectively. They may or may not “get” this, and you may get frustrated trying to have these conversations. If you’ve tried, and you are not seeing a change in their behavior, then we have a final strategy, so you can survive and thrive.

  • Continue with the status updates, but when the boss dives in and ask unnecessary questions, make a request that you be empowered to handle those decisions unless doing it “their way” is vital to achieving the team’s objectives. (be respectful when you make this request, and you may have to make it several times)
  • Notice how much effort your boss is putting into responding to your requests for space and empowerment. Do they seem responsive enough so that the two of you can grow through this?
  • If you’ve put in a reasonable effort to communicate effectively, set boundaries, and request what you need to thrive when working in this environment, and you are still not getting results, it may be time for you to start looking for a new opportunity.

The bottom line is that your career is your responsibility, and so is developing the skillset to influence others and create a culture around you that you can thrive in. We all have some degree of influence, but we can’t control other people. You can learn a lot from putting in the effort to manage your boss, AND it’s important for you to get your own needs met as well.

Build and nurture your network within and outside your organization, so you always know that you can find new opportunities when the situation you are in becomes too suffocating.

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