Katie worked at an events planning company, helping her boss design and execute some of the city’s biggest and most important parties, weddings, and fundraisers. She was good at her job—creative and organized—and she’d been promoted from intern to assistant to full-on planner in less than six months. When it came to crises, she’d proven she could handle most anything.
Which is why Katie was constantly baffled by her boss’s insistence on hovering over her every move. “She wanted the minutes of every single client meeting, every single phone call,” Katie told me. “She wanted to know not only the solutions I’d come up with to problems, but the thought processes that led to those solutions. Everything took twice as long.” Like many hyper-controlling managers, Katie’s was working all the time—and expected Katie to do the same. “When she texted me at midnight, she wanted to know why I didn’t text her back for seven hours,” Katie recalled. “And when I’d tell her it was because I was sleeping, she seemed suspicious, and annoyed!”
Micromanaging can show up in many forms, but most typically in bosses who dictate how employees complete tasks, question employees’ judgments, frequently ask for updates, and check in incessantly. While the line between effective involved leadership and micromanaging can be thin—detail-oriented or obsessive? Constructive or controlling?—many employees have felt the effects of a manager whose management style is more overbearing than hands-on and collaborative. In his book My Way or the Highway: The Micromanagement Survival Guide, author Harry Chambers reports that 79 percent of those surveyed said they’d been micromanaged at one time or another. A 2003 survey by office products manufacturers FranklinCovey, meanwhile, found that employees singled out micromanagement as the most significant barrier to productivity they faced, confirmed by a 2011 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology that showed people who believe they are being watched perform at a lower level.
So why do it? Many helicopter bosses feel the need to hover in order to monitor efficiency, or to keep things on track, especially if an employee has erred in the past. But most micromanagers do so out of a need for control that often has more to do with them than the performance of their employees—perhaps their own feeling of job insecurity or fear of failure. Others simply don’t know any better: Maybe they were promoted into a manager role without proper training, or maybe that’s how they were managed.
Every morning, Molly, a 30-year-old assistant in the hometown press office for a Washington politician, arrived to work to find a lengthy to-do list from her boss detailing what she was meant to do that day—as well as how to do it, who to call, at what points along the way she would be required to check in. “Sometimes, this list was 3 or 4 pages long,” Molly told me. “It must have taken him at least an hour to create. But the worst was the excessive detail about how to get it all done. He simply refused to let me do my job on my terms.”
She felt suffocated and under immense pressure all the time, and began to dread coming to work. But she didn’t want to ruffle feathers, and she didn’t want to quit. She eventually decided to confront her boss—carefully and respectfully. As far as she knew, Molly had always exceeded expectations at her job. She’d recently been given a raise. But she started out by asking if he was pleased with her work, and whether he saw room for improvement. When her boss replied that she was doing a great job, Molly let him know that his constant monitoring made it seem otherwise, and that she’d been worried she’d been creating extra work for him. “Turns out he knew he had a tendency to be hyper-controlling, but in this case, he thought he was being helpful,” Molly said. She accommodated his desire to be involved by learning to be very communicative, and in return, he backed off and let her do her job—eventually.
There are similar steps you can take if you think your boss is a micromanager. First, though, make sure she’s not responding to your own weak performance; that is, that you haven’t “asked” to be supervised so closely. And find out if there are others who feel the same way. If your boss breathes down everyone’s neck, you can be confident that it’s not just you.
Do your job well. The first step towards getting a boss to loosen her grip is to remove any possibility from her mind that she needs to be that way. Get to work on time. Meet deadlines. Be productive. Make clients happy. Show her that you’re trustworthy, thorough, and on top of your work. “At one point, I realized that I had slacked a bit on keeping my own schedule only because she was doing such a bang up job of it for me,” Katie told me. “But then I realized that was only going to make her micromanage more.”
Ask how you’re doing. Instead of complaining to your spouse or friends, or getting to a point where you need to quit, gather up courage and speak to the boss. But, like Molly, frame your discussion in a way that makes it clear you want to know how to improve, and not that you’re here to criticize his management style. Be positive and respectful. Ask what’s expected of you and how you’re doing. Offer reassurance that you can do the job without constant supervision.
Be a proactive communicator. Don’t wait for your boss to ask you how things are going. Instead, make sure he feels informed and in the loop. Send regular messages with reports and next steps. Consider copying him on important emails to clients or others. This will help reassure him that everything’s under control, and eventually his need for the regular reports will diminish.
Teach her how to delegate. Help your hovering boss delegate more effectively by prompting her to give you all the information you need upfront, so that you’re not getting bombarded with emails and directives along the way. Set times for check-in meetings. Volunteer to take on additional projects to help her see the need to delegate—and how you can handle the responsibility. When a job goes well, discuss the process, ask her if she has suggestions for how to improve next time, and thank her for the opportunity—and the hands-off approach. The next time, she’ll remember how well you did without any the constant input.
Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University, former gender scholar at Stanford University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Peggy is a regular contributor to a range of publications and Web sites: CNN, The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Psychology Today, Forbes and others. She has appeared on a number of national television programs, including Bloomberg, PBS, Katie Couric Show, Good Morning America and the Today Show. Peggy has spent her career studying the dynamics of men, women, families and the changing workplace. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com