Making the best of a micromanager


Here’s an idea: Stop complaining about micromanagers since you can’t change them, and start using them to your benefit. One of the most important workplace strategies is managing up. And one of the easiest types of boss to do this with is a micromanager.

Usually, when I tell people how to manage up, I tell people to work very hard to figure out what your boss cares about. With a micromanager, you know right away. She cares about your job responsibilities. Another difficult part of managing up is getting time with your boss. A micromanager loves to hang out with his staff, though, because that's the most effective way to get a hand in everything the staff is doing. So in some respects, micromanagers make your job of managing up much easier.

In the most extreme cases of micromanagement, the underling does the work and the boss does it all again. All other cases fall somewhere on the spectrum between that and good management. (Hold it. Are you wondering who is a micromanager? Here’s a test. Are you disappointed this is not an anti-micromanager tirade? Here’s a good one.)

So look, if you have a micromanager, you don't have to do your work because your boss is doing it for you. On top of that, your boss actually wants to be doing your work, so you giving him the opportunity is effectively managing up. Of course, you need to do a little work or your boss will get annoyed, because micromanagers don't want to start from scratch. They want to have you get started so they can dismiss your efforts.

So do that. Put very little thought into the work you are doing that you know your manager will redo anyway. If you need to come up with a list of ideas that you know your boss will not take, use only the time it takes to go to the bathroom to do the thinking for that list. And that's all. If you need to write a report that your boss will line edit to the point of oblivion, then write the report as a stream of conscious.

Now you have time for so many other things. Here are things to spend time on while your boss is micromanaging you:

1. Find an area of the business your boss does not feel competent in but you do. People micromanage because it's easier to do what they are comfortable with (your job) than what they are not comfortable with (management).

This means there's a hole somewhere in management. Find that hole and do a bit to fill it. You might be able to do some of your boss's job that he is neglecting (probably big-picture thinking). Or, if that doesn't work, write a memo identifying problems and offering concrete examples of ways you can fix them. Distribute the memo to a wider audience than just your boss.

2. Find a new person in the company to work for. Get the person interested in helping you move to his department by offering to do some projects for him since you have some extra time. Remember, do not dis your current boss. Just be great for the guy you want to work for.

3. Do a little side project of your own. There is a lot to learn in this world, and you probably have an Internet connection at your desk. If you don't, write a novel. If you do something productive with the majority of your time then you won't care that your boss makes the small amount of time you spend working for him unproductive.

All these tactics should float under the radar, until you reach a level to have the autonomy you want, according to Dean Dad, (who will make baseball fans happy with a Joe Girardi example of micromanagement.)

Until then, you have to keep your boss happy, and a micromanager doesn't want to know you are not giving a good effort. After all, micromanagers do not think they're micromanaging. They think they're helping. Your job is to make that person feel helpful. It's not that hard. Thank him for taking the time to line edit. Tell him you appreciate all the ideas he comes up with. Even if they suck. You can appreciate the volume. Give compliments to keep the relationship going well while you make your next move.

And wait. Before I'm done, let me say something to you whiners. Some of you will say that you are offended that your boss has a huge hand in your work but leaves your name on it. I say, Who cares? Focus on the three suggestions above and stop worrying about your reputation. You are not writing Moby Dick here. You're doing an office job. Get over it and focus on something else.

I have been micromanaged. In fact, I have been micromanaged by my current editor for my current book. And you know what? I gave in and wrote the book how she wanted me to, which really improved the book. And in that process I learned the difference between writing a column and a book. (Coming out May 2007 — Hooray!)

So think twice before you complain about being micromanaged. Sometimes you can actually learn something from that micromanager. I did. And I'm grateful.

9 replies
  1. Gordon
    Gordon says:

    congrats on the book..will look forward to it..being celtic by birth and nature..I just go find a new job…don’t want to waste my time or the company that I used to work for..



  2. Dave
    Dave says:

    And some people micromanage because they don’t know how to give good, clear, understandable, executable directions. I had a colleague who was brand new at managing people. Her team often came to me complaining that they were unable to please her. Of course they weren’t: she was horribly deficient at communicating. She ended up getting the results she wanted only by micromanaging her team.

  3. Donna
    Donna says:

    I have been a micro and have worked for one.

    Some staff needs that kind of oversight, others do not, and it takes a skilled observer to know the difference.

    Your 3 key points are right on target.

    Kudos on the book completion ~ Need help marketing it?

  4. Diane Goodwin
    Diane Goodwin says:

    I don’t agree with your article. I don’t feel I should have to try and figure out what my boss needs and wants, and play this game to try and win them over. That is disgusting. I believe micromanagers have some sort of obsessive disorder and need to recognize the hard they are doing in the work-place. Also I believe people need to be frank, yet respectful, and make it known to the micromanager what difficulties they are causing. If more people were to address the manic individual, then they would have to stop destroying the moral of the employees. Micromanaging is not a positive trait, and can be insulting for those who can clearly see that they possess more skill in a certain area than you do. Why should someone have to cow down to an overbearing micromanager who has no respect for people performance level and intelligence? Again I don’t agree with you. The only reason you are writing this article is to justify your own problem with micromanaging. You need to “TAKE A LOOK AY YOURSELF” and make a positive change with this negative behavior.


  5. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    @Diane You don’t HAVE to do anything. It’s about what you CAN do, if you want to, that might make things slightly better for yourself. It doesn’t absolve the micro-manager or mean that you are in the right but you can’t MAKE them change. The only thing you have control over is how you respond to them and Penelope is offering some suggestions.

  6. Patrick
    Patrick says:

    Dear Ms.,
    You started very well and caught my attention when you mentioned managing upwards, toward the superiors, as opposed to managing downwards, towards the subordinates, in a company’s hierarchy.
    You also mentioned, “One of the most important workplace strategies is managing up. And one of the easiest types of boss(es) to do this with is a micromanager.”
    Well I agree.
    However, I do not agree with your following statement. “So look, if you have a micromanager, you don't have to do your work because your boss is doing it for you”. This might be true in a factory when you are making rivets and there is a minimum quota that needs to be filled in a day, say 100 units, and your boss does all 100 units- hell, then we can all go home right? Wrong!

    I want to tell you something Ma’am! There are some employees like myself who like to make rivets or who like to run Fortune 500 companies, and I am guessing that we are all passionate about what we do and our work. That is why we get out of bed in the morning. So, to have a micromanager in your opinion, as a solution to a person's slacking off at work is nonsensical, juvenile, and offensive to people like me who are proud of what we do- whatever that may be.
    I have to admit that it might be easier to escape blame if something goes wrong when one is working with a micromanager, as he usually gets the blame since he or she is so meddlesome.
    Nevertheless, working with a micromanager is not at all pleasant.
    They do not instill any type of confidence in their subordinates, they do not project any sense of trust to their subordinates- to trust them to do their work properly- and they are not fun to work with, or be around, when they are breathing down your neck 24/7 and nailing you for each mistake.
    As the saying goes being "penny wise and pound stupid" is not the hallmarks of a good manager, a good GM or a good leader.

    Some employees like to work with micromanagers and I am not one of them.

    Patrick A.

  7. Nhia
    Nhia says:

    I’ll have to agree with Patrick.

    First of all, one can only play this game for so long before as they say, “the sh!t hits the ceiling fan”.

    For one thing, it’s easy to play along if you are (as Penelope said, just doing an “office” job and punching in data). But if you are working on a project that you ACTUALLY care about then having a micro-manager breathing over your shoulder all the way is NOT going to sit well. In which case, there are two alternatives: if at all possible, decline to work on such project at all – or at least give reasons for why you can only get involved at a minimal level, OR only get involved on certain conditions – like stating that you’d like to be the one to oversee the project.

    I find that micromanagers have no problem with either of the two if stated clearly. They ONLY understand BLUNTNESS. Too many times people think such type of person will get all offended and it’ll come back as a bad review but in my experience, I find this is the ONLY way such people know how to communicate.

Comments are closed.