The 5 reasons why people tend to micromanage in the workplace – and how to manage up, and around them.
I’ve heard the phrase, “I have a micromanaging boss,” more times than I can remember.
I heard it again, just last week. This person asked me, “What do I do? Is there anything I can say to a micromanager? How do I manage up?”
Here’s what I recommended to him…
First, identify the reason. (Yes, there is a reason.)
People do things for a reason. No one is a micromanager because they want to be a micromanager. No one hears that word and goes “Oh yeah, I want to be that.” In fact, for most leaders, to learn that we’ve become a micromanager is a sour, disheartening realization that sloshes around in the pit of our stomach.
So, if your boss is micromanaging you, ask yourself, “What might be causing them to act this way?”
Typically, your boss is micromanaging you for one (or several) of 5 reasons:
Reason #1: Worry
Your boss is worried about the outcome of the work and doesn’t think you’ll get it done.
Reason #2: Fear
Your boss’s butt is on the line, and they can’t have you make them look bad.
Reason #3: It’s All They Know
Your boss has only always had a micromanaging boss (or this is their first-time being a manager) — so they don’t know any other way to manage.
Reason #4: Past Experience
Your boss has been burned before by a prior employee who slacked off and didn’t produce results — and so this is their way of compensating.
Reason #5: You 🙂
You’re doing something (or not doing something) that is causing them to overstep and keep a close eye on things.
I want to be clear: These reasons do not excuse your boss’s behavior. Rather, they illuminate that micromanagement is not random, without reason, or out of malice (usually!). When you reflect on what’s driving your boss to be a micromanager, you can better calibrate how to work with them.
Also note that people are complex, and motivations are not neatly categorizable. The reason your boss is micromanaging might not perfectly fit into one (or any) of these reasons I listed above. However, having a hunch —a probable reason for why your boss is a micromanager — gives you wind in the sails to help change their direction.
Second, defuse the reason.
Once you’ve considered the reason behind why your boss might be micromanaging you, now you can take action. You can ask questions and take steps that loosens whatever is causing them to grip so tightly onto you and your work.
Based on what the reason is, here’s what you can do:
#1: If your boss is worried about the outcome of the work… Have a conversation about what success looks like.
Yes, this means defining what metrics or deliverables should be achieved. But equally critical are specific examples of what quality work looks like. “Quality work” is subjective, and as a result, what a leader is most concerned about. To get on the same page about success and quality of work, you can ask your boss: “What’s a previous project I did that measured up to the quality of work you’re looking for? When have I fallen short? What do you think is the best executed project you think the company or team has ever done? Why?”
#2: If your boss’s butt is on the line… Make it clear that you understand the stakes.
Your boss is likely more stressed than usual, and you don’t want that stress to be off-loaded onto you. Ask, “What can I do to relieve any pressure on your end? Is there any reporting you’d like me to do that would help make things more visible or consistent? Is there a crucial stakeholder I’m unaware about who I should consider? Is there a timeline I absolutely have to meet that we haven’t yet discussed?” Show that you’re in this critical situation together, and you’re willing to do your part.
#3: If your boss doesn’t know any other way to manage… Suggest alternatives.
This sounds intimidating, surely, but you can have this conversation in a non-threatening way. How? In your next one-on-one meeting, offer up “working styles” as a potential topic. Then when you sit down to chat, say, “I’d love to talk about our working styles and preferences, and how we each work best. How would you describe your working style and how you work best?” Then after thoroughly listening, ask, “Do you mind if I share mine?” You can also be straightforward and describe what changes in behavior you’d like to see. For example: “Ideally, here are things I’d like to see different. What can I do so you feel comfortable with those changes?”
#4: If your boss is acting based on a previous experience… Draw contrast to how you and this situation is different.
This is probably the trickiest of situations to really defuse well. Ask your boss, “What’s the best work experience you’ve had? The worst?” Then share yours. This will prompt a conversation about expectations and preferences — and what’s influenced those expectations and preferences. It also gives you a chance to learn how to adjust your own actions. You’ll learn that oh, your boss really didn’t like it when their former team member didn’t communicate decisions — and now you know to make decisions extra clear.
#5: If your behavior is causing them to micromanage you… Well, start doing things differently
This may be hard to admit, but sometimes our own behavior invites someone to micromanage us. We recently conducted a survey of 355 people and learned that the #1 piece of information that managers want to know is the progress that’s being made on a project. So it could be that you might not be sharing enough of the progress you’re making day-to-day or week-to-week. You can get to the bottom of this, by asking your boss: “How can I give you more visibility into my work or decision-making? What part of the job do you think I’m most shaky at?”
As they say, habits die hard. Very hard. You may not be able to kill their micromanaging tendencies completely, nor overnight.
However, you will be able to create some space. It might not be a lot, but it’ll be more than before. Over time, as you build more rapport and history with your boss, that space will grow.
You don’t have to silently absorb the incessant Slack pings or random taps on the shoulder asking, “Have you done this yet?” That’s not the only way to work.
You can have a healthy, productive relationship with your boss. You can help your boss not be a micromanager. Start here.
Claire is the CEO of Know Your Team – software that helps you become a better manager. Her company was spun-out of Basecamp back in 2014. If you were interested, you can read more of Claire’s writing on leadership on the Know Your Team blog.