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'Working for a Micromanager Destroyed My Self-Esteem'

The distinction between a detail-oriented boss and a micromanager can be murky. Here's how to tell the difference, and change a toxic situation.

by Gretchen Brown
October 29, 2020 | Work
an employee is feeling down self esteem. REWIRE PBS work micromanager
Credit: Knut // Adobe

Robert was miserable at his first office job.

His boss insisted on proofreading all her staff's emails. She would regularly print his out and hand them back to him, marked full of glaring revisions in pen.

"Working for a micromanager destroyed my self-esteem. Nothing was ever good enough for her, so eventually I just completely stopped trusting my instincts," said Robert, who asked to use a pseudonym for this article.

"I would spend a lot of days crying when I got home from work because I just felt so deflated all the time, but I felt like I couldn't leave because I needed the health insurance."

Because it was his first office job, he didn't know whether this was just the way the office world functions. But once he began to talk more with his coworkers, a pattern emerged.

It didn't feel like a normal workplace. It felt like micromanagement.

The distinction between a hyper-engaged boss and a micromanager can be murky, especially when you're new to the professional world.

The line is easily crossed.

"Way too often the detailed-oriented boss loses the forest in the trees, becomes overly concerned with nitpicking details, and soon begins to micromanage subordinates," writes Richard White, a professor at Louisiana State University, in the peer-reviewed journal Public Personnel Management.

White lays out some of the telltale signs: Micromanagers don't trust and compulsively monitor all employees, not just those with performance issues.

They get irritated when others make decisions without consulting them. They're obsessed with meaningless details. They make deadlines for no reason. They're quick to blame their employees, rare to praise and seldom admit their own mistakes.

Micromanagers can cause long-term issues

Because of the office environment, Robert felt like he had no agency in his own work. He also didn't feel comfortable bringing this up to his manager. 

He was a long-term contractor; she was a longtime manager at the top of the company.

"It was an open secret that everyone was terrified of her, but she was basically at the top of the food chain," he said.

Micromanagement can be helpful in the short term, according to a study in the journal Radiology Management. Think: onboarding new employees.

But over the long term, this management style can lead to major issues, tanking morale, increasing turnover and actually reducing overall productivity, researchers Sandra Collins and Kevin Collins write.

boss and employee. REWIRE PBS work micromanager
Micromanagers don't trust and compulsively monitor all employees, not just those with performance issues.  |  Credit: JrCasas // Adobe

"Sometimes when you're dealing with a micromanaging boss you can feel pretty deflated," said Kim Bartels, a Minneapolis-based executive coach for women

"It's good to remember you have some control over the situation, and it's worth being proactive and trying certain things to make it better."

Bartels recommends starting by thinking about your history of communication with supervisors. Is there a way you can approach it differently that might actually get through to them?

It's easy to think of your boss as this scary, untouchable person, but that can stifle communication. Try to have the mindset that this is just another reasonable person.

Talk about it

If you feel comfortable, you could bring up the micromanagement at a regular check-in with your manager. Just don't name it.

"Say, 'I'm working hard and I'd like to talk to you for a few minutes about ways that I can work differently for you that I think would be more effective,'" Bartels suggests.

Tell your boss how you like to be managed. Even if you're early in the field, you know whether this management style is working for you. Own that knowledge.

Patricia Thompson, a corporate psychologist, recommends outlining your supervisor's specific behaviors in the conversation, using terms like "more oversight than I'm used to."

"Ask for clarity on why that is the case. If you're underperforming that could be one reason, but a lot of micromanagers know they have that tendency — they just need to be reminded," Thompson said.

"Ask what you could do to increase their trust in you, or if you could do an experiment on a project in which you have less oversight, but agreed upon check-in points in advance. Then, if your boss agrees to this, do your absolute best, so they'll know that you can manage it."

Get ahead of the micromanager

Maybe you aren't comfortable talking to your supervisor off the bat. There are other things you can do to feel like you're more in control.

You actually can combat micromanagement by over-communicating to your supervisor — even if their stifling behavior might make you want to communicate less.

"Be consistent in the timing of communications — what if the boss got used to seeing an employee sending them an email every Friday with what they're working on?" Bartels said.

In this way, you're getting out ahead of their micromanagement. You're in control of the communication, not waiting for them to nag you.

Essentially, you're getting at the root of why they might be behaving that way. 

"Ask for clear expectations up front, so that you'll know exactly what they're looking for, and won't find out after the fact that what you created wasn't what they needed," Thompson said.

And ask for feedback, Bartels said, so your boss knows you're open to it, not receiving it begrudgingly.

She also recommends acting with empathy. There might be a whole bunch of underlying reasons why your boss is so controlling, namely that many employees don't get actual training on how to manage people. They just get promoted.

Assume they're operating with good intentions.

"If they're used to feeling good by directly accomplishing the work, then it can be hard for them to make that switch and delegate the work and trust that people are going to get it done," Bartels said.

"Treat them with respect, but assume that they're not that many rungs up from you, and they'd be open to having that conversation."

Leave or stay?

Sometimes, a micromanager's personality is going to inevitably clash with yours, for one reason or another. You might be able to make things better, but you might not be able to completely fix it.

At that point, you might have to decide whether to leave or stay.

Kendra had a boss who constantly shot down any decision she made or opinion she shared, but wouldn't tell her why it was wrong. Once, she slammed Kendra's laptop closed in the middle of a meeting.

It got to the point where Kendra, who asked to stay anonymous for fear of retribution, didn't feel comfortable speaking up in meetings at all.

"I'd create a packing list — something we had an intern to help with — and she'd critique every part of it and make me redo it, when I was the one packing and was the only one who needed to know what it meant," she said.

She tried to bring this dynamic up once or twice to her boss, but her boss always acted like she was being personally attacked. And she couldn't bring it up in a yearly review, because her boss refused to schedule them.

The situation solved itself. Kendra's boss was fired.

Robert's situation ended similarly. After about two years working under her, his boss retired. He found out that an entire department had quit when she was originally promoted years ago.

"The experience has certainly pushed me to get more involved in my union," he said.

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brownis an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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