Dealing with a sucky boss: the micromanager
Updated: Feb 18
Do you remember the children’s story about the King and the Chef(s)? In case you forgot, the King is super picky about his food and whenever he gets a new Chef he doesn’t like the food so off with the Chef’s head. So some clever person gets the Chef job and invites the King to the kitchen to give advice on the spices and the King basically takes over the cooking and the Chef doesn’t get decapitated. In the end, the Chef also doesn’t have to do their job anymore because the King is so invested he does all the cooking himself. It would be fantastic if this method worked to handle all the micromanager boss/supervisor/coaches in your world. If you do try it out, let me know how it goes.
In the meantime, you may be struggling along with overly detailed instructions for your tasks or every communication including another thing for you to “consider adding” (which is code for: do this or your work will be rejected) or maybe you feel the eyes looking over your shoulder and every piece of your work scrutinized with comments. Maybe the micromanager is in your business with comments, suggestions and direction way too often for you to feel like you’re doing good authentic, creative work. It is annoying and demoralizing to have a micromanager boss, and, you can take action to make the situation better. Dealing with the situation as a reflective practitioner will help you find the keys to shape the behavior to be what you want.
Step 1 - Positive frame of reference
Take a moment to think about the positive aspects of your boss. Do they have expertise in their field? Are they efficient workers? What do they do well? Get down to the details of what is good about them and what they do well. Remember what it is you value in your relationship with them. Take some time to adjust your mindset to one of generosity. Start with the assumption that they are doing the best they can then move on to the steps below.
Step 2 - What is wrong with them?
Get curious. You already think some of their behavior is sucky so take a moment and let go of that judgment (and all judgment) and think about what is motivating their actions. What is their driving concern? Where does that come from? Why? Ask yourself “why” about eight more times and see where the answers take you. Remember to go back to your assumption that they are doing their best.
Step 3 - What is wrong with you?
Now turn your questioning mind to yourself. What about their behavior bothers you? Specifically. What is your interpretation of their actions? Is there another possible interpretation? What expectations do you have that are not being met? Are your expectations/desires reasonable? What is the root of your annoyance/frustration? Ask yourself why eight more times too and see what you discover.
Step 4 - Do something about it.
At this point maybe you’ve discovered that you have a ton of crazy assumptions or maybe you’ve uncovered that your boss is a well meaning nutball. Or something else completely. Here are three options for what to do next:
Get direct information. Do you need to ask your boss some questions so you can understand their behavior more fully? Don’t let this be a cop out for doing something to actively make a change. Ask some non-judgmental questions about what is motivating their behavior (if you don’t know or have only hazy speculations), about their perceived goal of the behavior. A surefire way to lose friends and influence no one is to ask things like “do you know how annoying you are?” or “what is wrong with you?”
Address the behavior directly. When whatever it is that feels micromanagey to you happens, call it to the attention of your boss. Bring it up, in the moment, as it happens. Bring it to light with the cool detachment of a scientist looking for answers not a ticking time-bomb. Invite conversation with starters like: I’ve gotten 37 emails from you about this project, is there something going on that I’m missing? That’s right, have a conversation. In person. Know what specific behavior you want to change going in but be willing to listen and learn along the way. Lead with curiosity and stay curious.
Engage in supportive behavior shaping. Respond with positive (authentic) enthusiasm to the behavior you want to see from your boss. Build their trust by bringing them updates that address their concerns before they come to you. Describe to them the negative effect of their behavior at times. Tell them exactly how it slows you down or keeps you from doing your best work. When the behavior happens, remind them of the positive things you want to be doing (instead of the negatives brought on by their behavior). Focus your communication on the positives you want to accomplish without being an eye-rolly, passive-aggressive, drama-filled, fake-sighing, jerk that no one wants to work with. Remind them of the positives in a clear forthright way. Advocate for your abilities and direct the conversation to the awesome things you be getting done if left to your own devices. Then continue to support positive changes in their behavior.
Any one of these options could have a significant impact on the behavior of your boss. Or, maybe you need all three to keep things moving forward in a positive way. Feeling frustrated in a micromanaged work environment isn’t a very fun way to spend your time. Maybe you can convince your micromanager to do all your work for you but if not, luckily, you can make it better with reflection, curiosity and positive directed action.