The following article was originally published on September 8, 2004.
Dear Crucial Skills,
My boss has started micromanaging me. She constantly asks me for updates. One morning, by 10 o’clock, I had already received ten e-mail messages from her and it took me an hour and a half just to reply to her requests for updates! To add to things, she’s related to the vice president so I feel like if I try to bring this up and it goes awry, my working days could be numbered. This management style has started to affect my sleeping and eating habits and even my self esteem.
Any suggestions on how I can gently bring this up to her?
Micromanaging is almost always a crucial conversation someone is acting out rather than talking out. A leader is feeling nervous or vulnerable and acts it out through incessant hovering and controlling. The result is that the direct report often feels hurt and resentful and acts it out through withdrawal or other displaced hostility. The solution is to talk it out. Unless and until you can have a conversation about trust and autonomy, this game will get worse and worse.
So, here are three pieces of advice I hope will help you and others step up to this kind of crucial conversation.
Tip #1: Hold the Right Conversation. Don’t let this get sidetracked into a discussion of how a project is going or other diversions from the real issue. The topics you need to explore thoroughly with your boss are:
• How much confidence do you have in me in my key areas of responsibility?
• What level of communication is both efficient and sufficient between us given your level of trust in me?
If in exploring her confidence in you, you discover there are serious concerns, you can then turn the topic to ways you can create evidence for her that more trust is warranted. If you find she has great confidence but just requires much more communication, move on to the next two tips.
Tip #2: Make It Safe For Your Boss (and you). When you open the conversation, head off any misunderstanding she may have of your motives by declaring them candidly. If you fail to do this, she’ll hear you as being critical of her, or worse, wanting to have country club freedom and no accountability. Help her know you just want to be as productive as possible, to feel proud of your work, and to gain her confidence by performing up to expectation. For example, you could use the contrasting skill we teach as follows:
“Could we talk for a few minutes about how we work together? I’ve noticed a couple of things that are keeping me from being as productive as I can. It’s a bit sensitive, and I worry about sounding like I’m not supportive of you, or that I know better than you how things should be done. I don’t feel that way at all. And yet, I think it’s worth talking about because it could help me do a better job for you and create a climate where I can feel good about my work. Would that be okay?”
Tip #3: Finally, Make It Motivating. You can help your boss want to deal with this by sharing concrete examples of how her behavior has created problems she would care about. When you hold an accountability discussion (confronting gaps between what you expect and what you observe–for example in your boss’s management style) with someone you think won’t care about your concerns, you need to work hard to see how the issue you’re raising is creating problems for him or her. One of the reasons we’re so ineffective during crucial accountability discussions is that we’re so absorbed in thinking about how the problem affects us that we give no thought to how it’s affecting the other person. Those who are most skilled at holding others accountable are able to influence others by helping them see consequences they already experience that they can change by changing their behavior. For example:
“I know one thing that’s important to you is that I meet your deadlines. That’s important to me, too. The level of reporting you sometimes ask of me makes that somewhat difficult. For example, one morning I had ten requests for updates from you by 10 a.m. I know that’s an extreme example, but it illustrates the point that the hour and a half I spent answering those was time taken from getting the job done.”
Or, “You ask me at times how I like my work. And you know, I really do. But there are times I spend a whole evening in a funk because I think you don’t have confidence in me and I’m not sure how to earn it.”
If you help your boss see how her behavior is creating consequences she doesn’t want, she’ll not only feel safe with you, but she’ll also be more motivated to make changes.