I went surfing this weekend with an old friend who works in the agriculture industry. He works for a relatively small organization, where his boss is the owner of the company. The problem I’ve been hearing from my friend is that the boss never allows my friend to own his decisions. The boss is a micromanager.
Creating the monster
From what I gather, the boss is a great guy. Personable, intelligent, knowledgeable about his business. But the business is growing and the boss just can’t be the answer guy anymore. That’s tough for a lot of managers. Sometimes it occurs when business grows and sometimes it occurs when the manager gets promoted or is assigned broader responsibilities. In either case, the outcome is the same. The manager feels a little bit out of their element.
A few folks naturally handle this transition very well. But most of us need a little help. When we’ve done our job so well that we’re assigned new responsibilities (or, when our company grows and we hire someone to take over what we once did alone), one of the biggest temptations we’ll face is the opportunity to jump back into our old job at the drop of a hat. Getting back into the work we’re really expert at keeps us away from having to deal with the chaos that is our new responsibility. So when my friend asks his boss for a little guidance, the boss jumps at the opportunity to actually do the work, rather than tossing my friend a few pointers and letting him work it out.
So what’s the solution to a micromanaging boss? Well, first of all, you’ve got to be dependable. Without dependable help, nearly everybody will turn into a micromanager. Minimize the opportunity for micromanagment by demonstrating dependability–for any given task, establish an outcome and a timeline and nail them. Do your tasks completely and on time. Demonstrate an understanding of the details of your job. That’s always the groundwork for dealing with a micromanager, and that’s the easy part.
Once you’ve laid the groundwork, you’ll need to help guide the manager back to their process-oriented work and away from your task-oriented work. Sounds easy when it’s written down, but just how do you accomplish this? Well, first, understand how your manager communicates. You’ve got to connect with them in the right way, at the right time, or your message won’t be heard and assimilated.
Think about past communications with the manager. Did their eyes glaze over when you started talking about minutia, or did they get energized and start tossing ideas around? If the latter, you may be dealing with a "listener." Listeners want to recieve their information verbally. They want to bat around ideas with you over a cup of coffee. Later, when you’ve come to agreements, they’ll want a brief summary of the discussion.
How ’bout emails? Do you suspect the boss never even opens your lovingly handcrafted email containing 15 points and 75 subpoints, or do they write back immediately, matching you point for point? If the latter, you may have a "reader" on your hands. Readers want to receive their information written down initially, so they can take some time to digest it. Once they’ve got a grip on the details, then they’ll be ready to talk about it a bit, just to firm things up.
Water and fresh horses for my men! Tonight, we ride!
Once you’ve got your bases covered with water and fresh horses… uh, I mean dependability and communcation style, you’re ready to talk to the boss. There are a couple of ways to pull this off. One is informal and ad hoc. The other is a more formal meeting over a cup of coffee. I prefer ad hoc, but you’ve gotta be prepared either way.
Ad hoc meeting
I like the ad hoc approach best but, unless your manager really takes a hint, you’re going to be having the more formal meeting anyway. Next time the manager starts to dig into your task-level business, thank them for their advice (cutting them off mid-sentence if you must) and ask them how *their* work is going. Hint, hint.
Going to the formal
Schedule a meeting with the manager. Make the meeting before lunch–let ’em have their coffee and check their email. Unless you want them sleepy and unresponsive, then wait until about 3pm. Find a quiet spot where you can unload your woes. An office with a door, a secluded table in the coffeeshop, whatever. You’ve called this meeting, so don’t pull your punches with this conversation–this is where you must be brave. Bluntly speaking, you’ve only got two items on this agenda: 1) leave me alone; and 2) let me fail. Tell the boss that you’re finding it difficult to stay motivated and get your work done when they are always butting in. Have them confirm that you’re dependable and that they’re satisfied with your work. Be candid here, and ask if the two of you can brainstorm discreet ways for you to signal to the boss when they’re being too obtrusive. This is a tough (fierce?) conversation, since it does touch on the self-esteem of both you and the boss. Be easy but firm. Ideally, you should only need to have this conversation once. But if neccessary, rinse and repeat. Best used in conjunction with the ad hoc meeting.
So that’s it. A lot of words to explain a pretty simple concept. Like the "Secret Art of Managing Your Boss" series says, know yourself, know the boss, know the relationship. Now, it’s entirely possible that the above advice won’t work. The manager might not be quite self-actualized enough to be able to work with you. Or they might be the human embodiment of pure evil. Who knows why people resist this stuff. If that’s the case, it might be decision time for you. You might need to decide whether to just suck it up and keep trying, or whether you need to move on to greener pastures. But that’s another post, I guess.