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Image by Peter Secan

Getting Along with “Micromanagers”


I hear complaints about micromanagers a lot, and I have to admit, I might be one of them. Does that make me a bad person, an intolerable boss, or a manager who stays on top of projects and tries to avoid difficulties? Maybe all of the above. It depends on who’s asking.


Disagreements arise because some people like more structure than others. When a staff member prefers a looser structure than the manager, the manager is automatically categorized as a “micromanager” and becomes the bad person.


As the possible offender in these cases, I want to present the other side.


I “micromanage” (or manage more closely or provide increased oversight, however it is reframed), when the circumstances are unusual. Maybe the project is especially important, or there is a strict deadline, or frankly, when the person doing the work has not been responsible or accurate in the past and trust has been eroded. Under these circumstances, as the manager with the ultimate responsibility for getting the work done, I might well follow progress more closely than at other times.


Does this approach cause conflict? Sure. Can the conflict be avoided or resolved? Of course.


First, recognize that differences in the degree of structure, or management, that make people comfortable are part of someone’s personality, and can generate conflict when people with different needs for structure work together. If someone working for me has the same need for structure as I do, we would be described as well matched, and conflicts would be rare. These differences can be adjusted and addressed, so accept the differences and look for ways to work with them.


Second, determine before starting a project what degree of structure or management (or oversight or whatever it is called) is needed for the project and state the requirements clearly.

  • Managers can state up front how much flexibility the project has and how they would like to receive reports (formally or informally? written or oral? scheduled or as needed?).

  • Staff members can ask clarifying questions. Should the updates be on a regularly scheduled basis? If so, how often are they required? In what format should they be submitted? What is considered so important that it needs to be reported immediately? [Note: I would not ask how much leeway there is in the reporting deadlines if they have just been explained. To a manager, that could imply that you are already planning to be late or trying to find a way around them, and that will very likely increase my attention to your work.]


Be sure to leave pronouns out of the questions and requirements. “Should the updates be on a regularly scheduled basis?” not “How often do you want updates?” “In what format should they be submitted?” not “How do you want to get them?” Managers should try to eliminate the pronouns, too, by referring to the project or the reports rather than to how “you” submit the information. By referring always to the project and not the person, the chances of the exchange becoming personal are decreased. It’s called “depersonalizing the language” (or even “neutralizing” it, but that sounds a bit severe to me), and it is one of the most important conflict avoidance strategies available.


Third, whenever possible provide the reason for the preference. Maybe a management committee meets every Tuesday morning so reports have to be completed by Monday at 3 PM so they can be reviewed. If that’s the case, say so. These are legitimate reasons for the structure, not personal preferences or power plays.


Ask yourself why the manager might be exerting more control than you would like, and if you have done something that might have decreased trust and generated increased oversight. If you cannot find an answer, raise the issue, not by complaining, but by asking a thoughtful question starting with a neutral observation: “I might be wrong here, but I have the sense that something is different about how the project is being managed this time. [Not “about how you are supervising me,” or even worse, “I really don’t like the way you’re watching my every move lately.”] Is there something different about the project or something that’s happened that I can help to address?” No complaints, only observations that open the door to a wider conversation.


If you’re having difficulty getting something done, whether for personal or professional reasons, say so. If I don’t have this information, I might have to manage more closely just to find out if things are working as they should, and I would prefer to trust staff members to bring this news to my attention. Personal difficulties can be kept in confidence.


Last, work out the differences by using good negotiating skills. If there is a reason for not meeting a deadline (note that I did not write “for your not meeting a deadline”), then say so and work out another approach. If the manager seems to interrupt every 15 minutes, clarify on what schedule reports are expected and then stick to it, demonstrating dependability and building trust.


Whatever happens, avoid at all costs negative news reaching the manager as a surprise after something goes wrong, however small. A quick heads up on what might go wrong, or what might be inconsistent or difficult and cause a problem, is the best news a manager can get. It allows for evaluating changing circumstances and making quick changes to avoid an even greater difficulty, and everybody comes out looking really on top of things.


Managing is a balancing act based on many factors, with trust and oversight two of the most important. If I trust you to do the work well and on time, and to keep me informed, I will allow much more autonomy in how you do that work. 

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