Newspaper & Magazine

By Rovert McGarvey | American Way
Published: May 1, 2006

Nearly eight in 10 employees are victims of a micromanaging boss. Here's how to cope.
The margins are wrong. The period is in the wrong place . That should be a semicolon, not a dash.

THOSE WORDS RANG in Rebecca Weingarten's ears every time her unit turned in work to her supervisor. "Everything came back covered in red ink," says Weingarten, who now can look back and see her team as a classic victim of micromanagement. Under her old boss, Weingarten's job performance had been considered exemplary. But with her new supervisor, suddenly, everything Weingarten's unit touched needed dramatic improvement and was accompanied with a blistering critique. "I felt frazzled - like a kid again. Controlled. Everything started falling to pieces," says Weingarten, who ultimately fled her job and now is a New York-based career coach who, not surprisingly, often works with victims of micromanagement. "I've been through it. I know how terrible it feels."

"We are in a micromanagement pandemic," says Dr. Robert Trestman, vice chair for clinical affairs at the University of Connecticut Health Center. It's so widespread that 79 percent of us say we have been micromanaged, reports Harry Chambers, author of My Way or the Highway: The Micromanagement Survival Guide. Chambers says 71 percent of us indicate that micromanagement has interfered with our job performance, and 85 percent say morale has suffered as a result. How could it be otherwise? A micromanaging boss, by definition, robs an employee of independence and freedom to do the task. Suddenly, every speck of work has to be put under a managerial microscope and, usually, subjected to endless rounds of criticism as a micromanager painstakingly deconstructs the job until, finally, it's exactly as it would be had he done it himself.

Nightmare stories are abundant. Just ask Pamela Yaeger, a communications expert from Long Island, New York, who says that, at a past job, her micromanaging boss would literally time staffers' bathroom breaks. When they seemed too long, she'd stick her head in the door and yell, "Break's over. Back to work!" That boss, like all classic micromanagers, wanted to script every minute of her subordinates' day. "She wanted to know what I was doing every second. If she sent me an e-mail at nine a.m. and I hadn't responded by 9:05, she'd fire off another e-mail: 'Are you ignoring my e-mail?' " This boss's favorite line, adds Yaeger, was: "I order you to...."

Joni Kirk, who now lives in Moscow, Idaho, knows that story line all too well. Her micromanaging boss would log on to her subordinates' computers and delete e-mails she felt they shouldn't answer. "She also told us that when we signed documents, we could only use black ink," says Kirk. "She liked degrading us. She'd loudly say in front of everybody, 'I need to speak with you,' and she'd go into a tirade about a perceived mistake. She liked doing that in front of everybody." Instilling terror is another hallmark of the micromanager. Frightened workers are that much more pliable.

Chicagoan Kingsley Day, now in the Department of University Relations at Northwestern University, says he can go one better: His micromanaging boss at a former job expected workers to log hours long into the night and on weekends. "I once heard him yell at somebody, 'I never see you here after 10 at night!' " This boss also had a peculiar prejudice against zip codes. "We were banned from using them," reports Day. That boss was so determined to eradicate zip codes, he would even sneak into the mail room to prowl for envelopes that defied his ban. When he found them, he trashed them, no matter what was inside. He also, like clockwork, "annually announced a reorganization of office assignments, where we all had to shift office spaces." Why? "He wanted us to know he was in charge." That urge to take vivid control is another hallmark of a hard-core micromanager. When workers feel off balance, micromanagers feel that much more in control.

What triggers micromanagement impulses? Judith E. Glaser, author of The DNA of Leadership, says there are three main causes. The first is an extreme detail orientation (also known as perfectionism). "This kind of manager will always need to stick in refinements," says Glaser. Second: "Some managers really just love to micromanage; that is, he or she believes he is the center of the universe." This persona is also known as the Diva, says Glaser. And third: "When the manager is nervous about results, it can trigger micromanagement."

Meditate on Glaser's third type, probably the most common cause, and suddenly, the reasons for the epidemic become clear. For 10 years, management slots have been under attack, as organizations have trimmed budgets. When anxiety over that business reality gets out of control, an easy upshot is micromanaging. "Insecurity is pandemic, too, among managers," says Trestman. "There are strong pressures for productivity. Many managers have never been trained how to manage. These managers feel a lot of anxiety. Most micromanagers frankly feel they are doing what they need to do to produce quality work."

That's the stumbling block facing an employee who feels micromanaged and who suffers the resulting problems (poor morale, lack of creativity, no enthusiasm about the job). When a boss feels he or she is doing only what must be done, where can change arise?

Philadelphia employment lawyer and human resources specialist Robin Bond draws upon her personal experience from a past job. "I know about micromanagers. At an in-house counsel position where I worked, I had to photocopy every document I produced for review by my boss before it went out. Everything. She read everything and always had comments and changes. I had to learn to build a lot of time into every workday just to communicate with her. As long as I communicated with her, she was happy, even if I wasn't getting much done."

Getting along and going along is one coping strategy. Another is to just quit.

But there may be a shrewder way. Executive coach and leadership trainer Marcia Reynolds whispers the word she says every micromanaged employee needs to know: aikido. That's a martial art where the key is to turn an opponent's force back against him with clever footwork, leverage, and ducking. Don't see how that applies to work? Reynolds says that when she had a micromanager for a boss, she consulted a therapist who told her: He's doing the best he can. Don't fight, don't push back, don't resist. "That will only make the micromanager do it harder," says Reynolds. The therapist didn't expect Reynolds to quietly suffer, however. "He told me to model what I wanted from my boss." In other words, to act as though he were the world's best boss with the world's best employee. A funny thing happened: "When I stopped resisting him, he started trusting me. When there no longer was any resistance, he quit fighting. Doing that really empowered me. This definitely isn't giving up," says Reynolds, who at that time held a senior human resources position in a semiconductor company. "When you model what you want, sometimes that's exactly what you will get."
Breathe deeply and suck in this thought: Sometimes micromanaging is good for you. A more troubling thought: If you're micromanaged, you might look in the mirror to see the cause.

That's the discordant viewpoint of Jim Walter, an associate vice president in the University of Connecticut Health Center's communications department. Walter roots his claims in personal experience. He elaborates that in the first job in his career, his boss rode him hard, minutely editing Walter's every word. Nothing Walter did passed out of the shop without a thorough going-over. "Yes, I felt frustrated," recalls Walter. "But now I realize it was good for me."


The boss, Walter explains, didn't believe that his young hire's output was ready for prime time, and therefore he buffed, polished, and prettied up the work before passing it upstairs. There's a thin line between mentoring and micromanaging, and sometimes the line just may be invisible. Adds Walter: "As I got better in my job performance, he loosened the reins; he backed off and gave me more freedom." A quarter-century later, Walter has risen high up the career ladder, but, he says, "that experience shaped me as a manager." He says he'll sit down with fresh hires and tell them, "I don't want you to make mistakes, but if you do, part of my job is to correct them." That, he says, isn't micromanaging - it's putting out quality work. Period.


Do the math: If more than three-quarters of employees complain that they are micromanaged, that means a whole lot of bosses are guilty as charged. What about you?

As a micromanagement expert, Chambers regularly grills bosses, and his first question is: Do you allow others to influence how things are done?

If your answer is that you provide subordinates with step-by-step instructions even for routine jobs, move on to question two: Does everything have to be done your way?

Say yes and here's the last question: How often do you tell people to rework a report before you approve it? If the answer is "always," guess what? You are a micromanager.

Is there a cure? Career coach Les McKeown, who often counsels micromanagers, says those who want to change usually can. He offers two tough steps to help change things: Get a buddy­ to be your reality check and sounding board. Somebody you can ask, “When I did this, was I micromanaging? What should I have done?” This could be a coach or even a peer. The idea is to gain an outside perspective on one’s management style. Step two is tougher: “Ask the people you manage for help,” says McKeown. “This is the hardest step for a micromanager, but it’s critical.” Tell them, “Yes, I’ve been bad … but with your help, we’ll all enjoy work more.” When they catch you micromanaging, ask them to call you on it. “This is a very powerful way to get progress quickly,” says McKeown. “It produces a powerful bond.”

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