Ask a Boss: My Boss Is a Micromanager!

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Photo: Derek Hudson/Getty Images

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Dear Boss,

I have a dilemma, and I am hoping you can help me decide if I need to adjust my attitude or seek an alternative to what I’ve been experiencing of late.

I recently moved into my very first salaried position in a small company. We have about 15 people in our office (but over 1,500 globally), with three in my department — my boss, myself, and a senior co-worker. When I was first hired three months ago, I was ecstatic about the position. I thought I clicked very well with my boss, which is a huge bonus considering we travel together a significant amount.

Within the past two months, I have gone from loving this new role to dreading entering the office. My boss appears to have the worst case of micromanaging I have ever personally experienced. He will send projects to me to complete, only to redo them and discard all of my work with no explanation. If he does approve of my work and give me the go-ahead to send it out to the company, he sometimes will follow up my company-wide email with a correction or revision that the whole office can see. Often these “corrections” are tiny and don’t change any point of the original context, and should have been addressed prior to me receiving his approval if they were actual issues.

I graduated college with a high GPA and in my past job I was essentially running a department. That was my first job right out of college, so sometimes I wonder if I am being too critical of my new boss. However, his overall attitude has taken a toll on my happiness and motivation to try to succeed with this company. It’s as though he wants to hold me back without actually explaining his intentions. What makes it worse is that when I happen to correct his mistakes, he tries to play it off as if he knew what he was doing all along and seems to talk down to me.

Throw in the complication that I am one of the few women in a male-dominated industry … things don’t look too bright right now.

Am I being too dramatic about his managerial style? Do I need to adjust my attitude accordingly, or are there ways I can call out this behavior respectfully? I feel as though nothing I do can gain his trust, and if I don’t see an improvement in the coming months, I worry that I’ll have to job-hop.

I think you’re probably right that your boss is an overbearing micromanager and your dismay and waning motivation aren’t unwarranted.

That said, whenever you’re feeling micromanaged, it’s worth asking yourself whether it’s possible that there are valid reasons for the scrutiny and heavy-handedness that you’re receiving. To be clear, plenty of times this isn’t the case at all … but it happens enough that it’s worth asking the question before concluding anything definite. Sometimes there really are good reasons for managers to get very hands-on. For example, if your work quality hasn’t been where it should be, or if a project is very high-stakes, or even if you’re just new and still getting acclimated to the job, a good manager would get more closely involved.

Of course, in those cases, a good manager also would talk to you about what was going on and put it in context for you, not just leave you frustrated and wondering.

It’s also possible that at least some of this could be a case of misaligned expectations. Since you were running a department in your first job out of college, it’s possible that you’ve gotten used to a level of autonomy that isn’t quite typical for your experience level. That doesn’t mean that you should expect to have all your work redone without explanation now, but I could imagine that adjusting to a more typical level of oversight would be jarring after that.

But if you reflect on all of these possibilities and none of them resonate with you, then the next step is to talk to your boss and try to (a) get a better understanding of what’s driving his behavior and (b) see if he’d be open to doing things differently. Start the conversation by saying something like this: “I’ve noticed that you often redo the work I turn in and sometimes end up not using what I came up with at all. I really want to succeed in this job, so I wondered if you’d give me some guidance on how I can strengthen my work so that it’s closer to what you’re looking for.”

Ideally, you’d get some useful feedback from this. But even if not, you should at least gain some insight into what’s driving his behavior. For example, he might tell you that it’s just going to take more time before you’ll get more autonomy but that it will come over time (which isn’t necessarily crazy since you’ve only been there three months). Or he might tell you that he’s realized that he needs to give you more training on some of this stuff and just hasn’t had the time to do it yet.

But if he tells you that redoing your work isn’t a reflection on your work quality at all and that he just likes to put his own stamp on things … well, then he’s just a micromanager, plain and simple. If that’s the case, you could try saying something like this: “Would you be willing to experiment with giving me more autonomy with projects like X and Y? When I took the job, I was really excited about those parts of the role, and it’s important to me to build my skills in those areas. Would you consider giving me more ownership for those — with your input along the way, of course — and seeing how it goes?”

Framing your proposal as an experiment, rather than asking for wholesale changes, can be really effective with micromanagers. At its core, micromanaging is about fear of not having control, and so trying an experiment will sound a lot less scary than big, permanent changes. It’s also pretty hard for managers to flat-out refuse to experiment with something like that since they’d have to say “No, I won’t even entertain the possibility that you could succeed at this on your own,” so there’s some built-in pressure for them to say yes. (And as someone who has struggled to fight off my own micromanaging instincts in the past, I can attest that that approach would have shamed me into easing up. I’ve also used it successfully myself when managing up bosses with control-freak tendencies.)

If he’s resistant to that, though, then try asking what you can do to work toward more autonomy in the future. For example: “It’s an important goal of mine to work on getting to a point where I’m able to handle X and Y on my own. Could I keep checking in with you for feedback and coaching over the next few months, with an eye toward moving in that direction?”

You could also ask point-blank: “Do you think that’s a realistic goal, or do you think it’s unlikely that the person in my role would ever reach that point?” If it turns out that he just doesn’t envision the role ever functioning in the way you want it to, at that point you’ll have really valuable information about what you can and can’t expect from the job — and can make decisions for yourself accordingly.

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Ask a Boss: My Boss Is a Micromanager!