Help! I'm Being Micromanaged!

The two solutions for workers with bosses who cannot hand over control.

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One of the most common complaints that people have about their boss is that they're being micromanaged—their work is being overly scrutinized, the boss is checking up on things they don't need to check up on, and they generally feel they're not trusted.

First, let's define micromanagement. There's a difference between hands-on management and micromanagement. A micromanager dictates exactly how to do something and watches over every little step in the process, refusing to truly delegate any decisions—and, in the process, lowers morale and productivity. But good hands-on managers do get heavily involved in ensuring that employees are clear on the desired outcomes, and they do check in on progress (so that employees can make needed adjustments before it's too late). So, don't confuse being hands-on with micromanaging.

However, if your boss has crossed over from being hands-on into micromanagement, one of two things is going on: (1) Your boss is micromanaging you because you have given her reason to, or (2) your boss is micromanaging you because she's a micromanager in general.

In situation No. 1, people rarely ask, "What have I done that's inspiring this scrutiny from my boss?" Instead, they're often just annoyed by it, which prevents them from being able to take the actions that could change it. If you drop the ball on things more often than very occasionally, forget details, don't follow up on things, miss deadlines, or produce work that requires a lot of changes from others, a good manager would get more closely involved—because ultimately the manager's job is to ensure that the work is done well, and in this scenario, a good manager would have reason not to go on faith. (Of course, if this sort of scrutiny continues to be required in the long term, a good manager would also address the problem in a larger context—meaning helping the person improve or transitioning them out.) So, the first step is to ask yourself some tough questions to figure out if the problem is actually you.

But if you're confident that your boss has no reason to doubt your work and/or your ability to stay on top of it, then this may simply be the style she uses with everyone, without adapting based on need. If this is the case, try talking to her. Give specific examples of projects where you felt you could have worked more effectively if you weren't on such a short leash, and ask if there's anything you're doing that makes her feel she can't trust you and how you can work with more autonomy. Suggest other ways to keep her in the loop, such as weekly reports and/or weekly meetings, so that she doesn't feel she needs to check in as much. If she's resistant, suggest she experiment by giving you more autonomy on one specific project to see how it goes.

In the best case, this approach can persuade a boss to ease up and find more appropriate ways to stay involved. But if nothing else, this approach will at least tell you whether or not things are likely to ever change. And if you learn that they're not, you can then decide if it's something you're willing to live with or not.

Alison Green is chief of staff for a medium-size nonprofit where she oversees day-to-day management of the staff as well as hiring, firing, and staff development. She is working with the Management Center to coauthor a book on nonprofit management. Her writings have been published in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Maxim, and dozens of other newspapers. She blogs at Ask a Manager.

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