On the Clock

How To Deal with the Boss Breathing Down Your Neck

We’ve all had our share of micromanagers. It takes some tricky maneuvering to survive them.

4 min read

Bad bosses remain the top reason people leave jobs, and in the annals of bad boss behavior, perhaps the most common (and definitely most annoying) habit is micromanaging. The word requires little defining, as we all recognize the heavy scrutinizing, constant texting and emailing, and passive-aggressive comments that typify this difficult breed. 

Though rarely acted upon at companies, ugly boss behavior can actually end up lethal in the long term: A study of more than 2,000 Wisconsin workers—aptly named “Worked to Death: The Relationships of Job Demands and Job Control with Mortality”—found that employees who were micromanaged were 15% more likely to die during the seven-year study period than those who weren’t. Those blessed with a high degree of control over their work enjoyed a 34% decrease in the likelihood of death. 

“Micromanaged employees were 15% more likely to die than those who weren’t.”

To be fair, there are other studies showing just why middle management in particular has been squeezed and pressured at big firms over the years, with the number of direct reports to managers growing sharply. Now add in a world of digital disruptions and activists pushing the bottom line, and you discover that much of that trickles straight down from the C-suite to the bosses. 

So what’s the answer? Most experts warn executives to avoid confrontation or quitting—and instead deal with it. Or at least begin to learn the very gradual methods of taking control. 

Step 1: Figure out the cause.

Most micromanaging is a controlling response to an anxiety, says Dave Popple, president of the HR consulting and assessment firm Psynet Group. There’s a slew of research that shows whatever anxiety people have, the way they try to cope with it is through control. “Middle managers are responsible for reporting up and providing results, but not able to control the behaviors and outcomes of the people who report to them,” says Popple. “That combination is the number-one stress inducer that there could be.” 

In your case, find out what is causing that anxiety in your boss—does she have hard quotas to meet or is new to management? Ask what her main goals are for the year and how you can help achieve them, says David Naylor, executive vice president at 2logical, a corporate training company. Just as the CEO can’t forget the bigger picture of what’s driving results, so must you determine what your boss’ team needs. “By asking these questions and truly listening to the answers, you strategically position yourself in the mind of the people you report up to,” Naylor says. 

Step 2: Get ahead of them.

Now begin to ease the anxiety by giving bosses what they need, even before they ask. And don’t be afraid to try a little reverse micromanagement. “Before they ask you what you’re working on, send them your plan for the day,” says Fiona Adler, a productivity coach and consultant. While it may seem like more work up front, over time your actions will build trust—allowing the boss to loosen his grip. Want to amp it up even more? “Get into the habit of sending a daily email to summarize your accomplishments for the day and your plans for the next day,” Adler says. 

From there, it’s a matter of picking your battles as the irritations still flow in. Micromanagers, for example, are the world’s greatest nitpickers. But, as career coach Nancy Halpern says, there are debates worth having, and those to let go. Save yourself for ones that really matter to help your boss trust you and your judgment, rather than think you’re challenging their authority or being a nitpicker yourself. 

Step 3: Be direct and in control.

As trust gradually grows, so eventually can an inching of demands—if it’s done artfully. Naylor suggests saying something like, “I noticed you’re spending a lot of time checking my work. Is there something I could do to improve so you’ll trust me more?” 

Which leaves the oppressed with one more key move: setting boundaries. To avoid total burnout and frustration, the smart worker will make themselves available, but not at every single moment. Figure out what’s sacred to you and prioritize those moments. Melissa Meade, a former retail industry manager, says if she was eating lunch and the boss called, she wouldn’t answer and instead call back when she was free. “Just because a micromanager chooses to work 24/7 doesn’t mean I shouldn’t enjoy my meal or get a full night of sleep,” she says.

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