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Micromanaging Boss? 9 Telltale Signs You Are One

Aug 10, 2020

Proficient young male employee with eyeglasses and checkered shirt, explaining a business analysis displayed on the monitor of a desktop PC to his female colleague, in the interior of a modern office

Would you rather be a micromanaging boss or have a micromanaging boss? You don't have to settle for either one. Not even when managing (or being managed) remotely. 

The key is to get clear on what a micromanaging boss is and is not, recognize the signs of micromanagement, and determine what these tendencies may be costing you -- not only in productivity but day-to-day stress.

Once you're clear on the costs, you'll find it easier to start changing your approach (spoiler alert: It's easier than you might think, and you don't have to change overnight). 

But what if you've been working for a micromanaging boss? I get it. That's why I've also included tips for how to manage the situation. Result: More respect and less stress for all concerned. Let's do this.

Micromanaging Boss Definition 

A micromanaging boss is one who can't delegate, can't let go, and whom others experience as controlling. Some micromanagers seek to control projects -- others try to control other people. You know when you're around such a boss because it's hard to feel confident about your work. It's hard to exhale.

Does this mean as a boss you're not allowed to lead? No, not at all. But there's a profound difference between leading and dominating. When you find it and lead accordingly, you invite your staff to be more engaged, more responsible and more productive. You allow everyone, including yourself, to exhale.

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"If you will change, everything will change for you." - Jim Rohn 

If you're ready to try some new approaches to get better results from your team, here are some signs and remedies for you to try.

Micromanaging Boss Signs: 9 Telltale Examples


1. You monitor the hours worked more than results

When you were in elementary school, did you ever have a teacher who took note -- often out loud -- of who was in their seat when the bell rang, and who wasn't? One mark of a micromanaging boss is using this approach in the (adult) workplace. 

Better: Trust your team until they give you reason not to. Let them know you trust them. Clarify the results you expect as well as the time frame. This isn't micromanagement; this is Leadership 101.

2. You tell employees how to get things done

"Don't tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results."
George S. Patton

The alternative to the George Patton philosophy is stressing compliance at the expense of creativity. Here's the problem with rewarding compliance: You teach your employees not to trust themselves. You teach them to take less initiative.

Yes, compliance has its place. No one wants a creative CPA. However, in talking with hundreds of employers about what they look for in new hires, I've found nearly all of them desperately want employees with initiative: people who see what needs to be done and take care of it.

If you have information or guidance that would be helpful, share it. Or offer to share it. Look for ways to be helpful and communicative without being overbearing. "In case it's helpful ..." is a far better lead-in, for example, than "Do it this way (because I said so)." 

3. Burnout is seen as the price of productivity 

One day a friend of mine noticed his entire staff was less than energetic -- including those who were almost always upbeat. So he met with them one by one to find out more about how they were doing.

And one by one, the staff members let him know what they were dealing with: concerns with kids -- or aging parents. Personal health issues. Major life events that were weighing heavily on their minds.

Then my friend did something rare and brave: He gave them license to walk away when they needed, and in his words, "I told them, 'Take all the time you need.'" This is a team of high performers.

Maybe your staff isn't ready for that level of freedom and flexibility. That's okay. But can you start moving them in that direction?

As an example, earlier this year when working from home first became the norm, another friend told me how his manager required every staff member to take a 30-minute walk each workday. She also normalized laundry breaks.

What are some practical ways you can grant employees more flexibility? Nearly all employees will bring more commitment to their work when their own needs are taken into account.

4. Your staff rarely opens up to you

How often do your employees come to you with a problem, a challenge or a new idea? If the answer is "rarely if ever," could it be they're afraid of getting ignored, lectured or verbally shot down?

When in doubt, ask. Example: "What would make you more likely to come to me with a challenge or new idea?" You can always start with those who are most likely to give you a polite, honest answer. 

5. You asked to be copied in on all employee emails 

Don't laugh. I've seen this happen.

It is one thing if two people are job-sharing, for example. But if getting copied in has more to do with needing to be in the loop at all times, ask yourself what would happen if you let that go. Chances are excellent everyone on your team would be feel more respected, responsible and engaged. 

6. You remind people to "do a good job"

This one is my personal pet peeve. It sends the message, "I don't trust you." If you have to say something along these lines to assure yourself, try instead, "I know you'll do a good job." If nothing else, it's more diplomatic.

7. You secretly override employees' work with your own

To use an example from pop culture, I still wonder when I hear certain Beatles songs how Ringo felt about Paul assuming the role of drummer.

The point is, no one likes finding out after the fact that their hard work was supplanted for whatever reason. If someone's work truly is not up to par, why not use it instead a teaching/coaching moment? 

8. You criticize employees more than you praise them

Clearly, there are times when you need to give constructive feedback, even uncomfortable feedback. Yet at least one study, by the University of Michigan Business School, showed that the highest performing teams used six positive comments for every negative one. 

What does your ratio look like? What would your team say? 

9. You give people responsibility but not the authority

Be willing to look at your team to see where this dynamic might be at play. I have seen bosses, even good ones, withhold authority while expecting accountability. This is a surefire recipe for disengagement.

You don't have to let go all at once. As an example, when I was an intern on my way to becoming a career counselor, my university internship site had me take the following path:

  • shadowing another counselor; quietly observing -- debriefing with the counselor afterward
  • sitting in on counseling appointments with the expectation I would chime in where appropriate
  • having another counselor shadow me -- debriefing afterward
  • handling student appoints solo when I could do so with skill and confidence

Is there a similar approach you could take to help develop your staff? Ideally, responsibility and authority go hand in hand. 

How Not to Micromanage

Did you recognize yourself in these telltale signs? Cut yourself some slack. Chances are excellent, no one ever taught you how to be a manager. It isn't easy. Finding management and leadership difficult may be one indication you are taking both seriously. 

Recognize that most micromanagement comes from fear: fear of losing control, fear of disappointment, fear of losing money or status if your team doesn't perform up to par. While all of these concerns are valid, recognize also these fears have antidotes; for example: 

  • Training
  • Delegation
  • Communication
  • Course-correcting

All of these take tremendous patience. As an example, in my first supervisory role, nothing prepared me for the investment required to help another person get up to speed. Had I known what was involved, I might have asked a different set of questions in the interview process. 

We live and we learn. The key is to never stop learning.

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How to Deal with a Micromanaging Boss [5 Tips]

If you're working for a micromanaging boss, you've got your own set of frustrations. Here are five tips to help you improve the relationship: 

  1. Do not take the micromanagement personally. And don't take it to mean your boss is a jerk. Your manager may have never been taught how to manage and lead a team. Many would compare it to herding cats. 
  2. Look for ways to be supportive. This may be the last thing you feel like doing. But for a boss who fears losing control, anything you can do to meet and exceed expectations -- and demonstrate that you're doing so -- will strengthen your relationship and your own credibility. 
  3. Politely speak up when you see one of the above telltale signs on display. Just make sure it's the right time and place, and that it's your battle to pick. For example, don't speak up on behalf of a co-worker or appoint yourself the office spokesperson. But when it is your place to speak, dare to  confront, in a spirit of kindness and professionalism. Let your boss save face. He or she is human too.
  4. Don't try to manage up. Or to put it more subtly, don't try to change or coach your boss. It often ends up bewildering you both. Instead, look for ways to change yourself and your own approach.  
  5. Do give your manager positive feedback. This goes along with your boss being human. Who doesn't benefit from positive recognition? To paraphrase Ken Blanchard, catch your manager doing something right. 

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