How do you deal with a micromanager?

🚀 Advice from someone who has been there - Issue #26

This question came in recently through my anonymous Q&A form. I’ve summarized it here.

…It feels like a battle of wills during our 1:1s where he’s looking for a ‘Daddy I need your help’ situation which is something I never, ever need from him. How do I deal with someone like this? Who’s also new to being a leader/manager as well as managing a very senior IC level person.

Micromanagers have some underlying issue that is driving their behavior. It usually happens due to one of the following reasons:

  1. They are new to management and think that this is how you manage and help people

  2. They have a deep fear of failure and want to control as much as possible

  3. They are control freaks who do this in every aspect of their life

  4. They have trust issues and don’t know how to delegate and trust people to do their work

  5. Or, they’re dealing with an employee with performance issues, and they are micromanaging to get them back on track

Diagnose the situation

It helps to diagnose what you are dealing with first.

From what was shared in the full question, I could tell that it wasn’t the 5th reason. One of the first steps that I suggest is to schedule careful meetings with some of your colleagues and a few of your manager’s direct reports. This is always a delicate dance.

Some people can be trusted to maintain your confidence. Some people cannot be trusted and will tell your boss that you think he is a micromanager (don’t meet with these people). No matter who you are speaking with, be very careful with how you approach the conversation to learn more about how their 1-on-1 meetings go with the boss.

  • How do they share updates?

  • What kind of information do they share?

  • Does the manager suggest how they should prioritize their tasks too?

  • Does the manager provide recommendations for how they should handle issues?

  • If so, how do they respond?

I’m going to guess at what I think is happening. The manager knows the employee is busy but has no real understanding of their job, what they do, and how they do it. He’s trying to add value and “be a real leader.” Since he doesn’t really understand their job or how to truly help, he does what is familiar: Prioritize a list of stuff. That’s easy for him to shuffle around at a surface level.

For some reason, he seems to be triggering on “efficiency” and “freeing up” more of the employee’s time. There is something that is making him think that they are too busy, overworked, or not focusing on things he wants them to prioritize. That could be coming from signals from the employee, things he observes, or things he hears from others. Hard to tell without more information.

Structure your communication

I’ve dealt with a few micromanagers in the past. Some of them were reacting to me when I said that I was swamped and seemed like I had too much on my plate. True, but I didn’t want them fiddling with my projects or prioritization.

In some cases, I was simply sharing lots of details of things I was dealing with, issues I was handling, etc. This made them feel like they had to be the “big bad” and wade in with their wisdom and expertise from on high. Ugh. Again, I didn’t want that.

So, I tuned my conversations with them very carefully. I no longer shared all of the details of my project work. I gave enough of the high level to show that I was very active and accomplishing a lot, but not enough that they could offer an opinion about my decisions.

I learned to come in with one or two softball issues that they could feel good about helping me solve (but, I didn’t really need their help). Think of it like throwing them a bone so that they can feel satisfied with being a useful leader (mixing my metaphors here).

Flow with the feedback

The other approach that I’ve used — and a few other people I know — is to simply make a judo move and let them give you suggestions on priorities, how to solve problems, etc. If your manager seems like the type that can’t help but push back against any resistance over and over again, offer no resistance.

Flow with it.

I did that with a couple of past managers:
Oh, that’s a good idea/insight. I’ll look into that/try it out. Thanks!

They’d beam with pride and feel good. They’d never even remember it by the next week.

It’s up to you to decide what you do with their suggestions. You may already know that it won’t work out. Plus, you know all of the reasons that their recommendation will probably fail. So, if it comes up again next week, you can say, “Explored that. Discovered that it wouldn’t work because of XYZ.

Or, you could even briefly try their suggestion and have even more proof that it didn’t work. With one micromanager, I had to do this.

For example, he would suggest a design change that I knew wouldn’t scale, but I got tired of endlessly arguing with him. It was faster to make a mockup variation quickly, then build a use case example that showed its failure to scale, and show that failure to him the following day or week.

Inevitably, he’d say, “Oh, damn. I hadn’t thought about that. I guess you’re right. That won’t work. Change it back to what you had before.” That was easy. I already had the correct designs completed. I just had to show him why his suggested changes would fail.

In summary:

  • Find out if your manager micromanages everyone, and how they handle it.

  • See if you can figure out what is triggering your manager to go into micromanagement mode and remove those signals from your updates and meetings.

  • Streamline what you share to give your manager the bare minimum, and create fewer opportunities where they feel like they have to add value.

  • Flow with the feedback so that your manager feels useful, which frees you up to just keep doing what you know needs to be done.

  • Be ready to explain later why their helpful suggestions didn’t work out (e.g., “Oh shucks! That didn’t work. Here’s why.”).

Note: You can always ask an anonymous question to receive an answer from me.

What I’ve been reading and writing

  • In Smart Answers to the Most Common Job Interview Questions, I shared suggestions for how to answer some of those questions that you know are going to come up in your next interview. For example:

    • Tell me more about yourself?

    • Why are you looking for a new job?

    • Why do you want to work here?

    • What are your strengths?

    • What are your weaknesses?

  • Check out this great interview; Kara Swisher on Ambition, Bragging, and Having a Baby at 56. She used to meet with us often when I was still at Yahoo. She was always direct and had the smartest, most probing questions. I respect and admire her. In the article, take note of how she responded to her old boss's crappy comment. That is what an Invincible Career looks like. She doesn’t put up with anything from anyone.

  • Perhaps being nice during a negotiation isn’t the best approach? In this HBR article, the authors’ research suggests that being nice in a negotiation can backfire. "Contrary to popular advice, it seems that a warm and friendly communication style can actually hold us back in this kind of zero-sum negotiation over price. But it would be interesting to look at how style affects integrative negotiations. Perhaps being nice is more effective when expanding the pie versus dividing it."

By the way, if you live in the Bay Area, you can join us on Wed, Sep 18th, for a meetup in Palo Alto. Hope you can make it!