Managing micromanagers: A 3-step guide on handling “helicopter” bosses

Company CultureHybrid WorkWorking Remotely
Renhao Wong
Jun 21, 2022

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Renhao Wong
Renhao has been in communications for over a decade, spanning the light side of journalism and dark side of PR. Besides preaching the wonders of technology and importance of mental health, he maintains avid interests in gaming, photography, and music.

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Micromanagers who scrutinize their team members’ every move and constantly interfere with work in progress have earned a bad reputation.

When team members feel unworthy of their roles, it results in low self-esteem which makes them more prone to burnout, stress, as well as feelings of anxiety and depression.

In the longer term, team members without self-confidence, autonomy, and skills on managing micromanagers may also stop initiating new ideas—or worse, start to underperform.

Instead, they take the path of least resistance and depend heavily on directions from the micromanager before starting on any task. This concentrates decision-making at the managerial level, disempowers team members, and stumps innovation.

Left unchecked, motivational and performance issues translate into high turnover rates that ultimately costs organizations huge sums of money every year.

Aggravating the wound

managing micromanagers

This long-standing problem has only been made worse by the pandemic. Counsellor and psychotherapist Yogini Shiva attributes the rise in micromanagement to the fact that hybrid work has deprived managers of in-person check-ins.

“The root cause of micromanagement is fear,” she explains, “in particular, fear of having one’s competency challenged in any way.”

Without the face-to-face conversations that could have happened over lunchtime or coffee breaks, many managers struggle to stay on top of things. Their lack of self-confidence, Yogini theorises, creates a lack of trust and breeds habits of micromanagement that are detrimental to employees’ mental wellness.

3-step guide to managing micromanagers

1. Speak up for yourself

Micromanagers could be painfully unaware of their behaviour. By giving them the benefit of doubt that they are doing their best, you can air your concerns without sounding abrasive.

This might be a difficult conversation, but transparent and respectful dialogue is the key to more productive relationships. Start by addressing their micromanagement tendencies delicately, and empathise with them while helping them understand your perspective.

Here’s how you can start the conversation:

  • “I understand it can be difficult for you to keep tabs on everything while we are working virtually, but I find that regular check-ins can be distracting when I’m involved in deep work. I would like to explore how I can update you on my progress while maintaining my productivity.”
  • “I’ve noticed that you have been sharing more pointers for my tasks lately. While they have been helpful in ensuring I’m on the right track, the frequency of changes isn’t the most optimal for my workflow. I wonder if we can create a more efficient system for the both of us.”

2. Propose win-win outcomes 

“If you’re asking for complete free reign over your work right off the bat, it’s probably not going to work,” cautions Yogini. This is especially so given the motivations for micromanagement that we discussed earlier.

Since you are trying to change someone’s natural behaviour, be patient and logical about it. Provide specific examples and explain how that affects your frame of mind and output. Follow that up with practical suggestions and describe how they can improve productivity all-round. 

For instance, if your manager’s need for updates has been disruptive and disempowering, start by explaining the impact on your professional development and perception of your contribution to the company. 

Suggest alternatives like a round-up email on Fridays or a brief catch-up scheduled at the same time each week. Most importantly, share how these would help you focus better while keeping them informed so their objectives would still be met.

3. Prove yourself over time 

Finally, demonstrate that you are skilful, experienced, and capable of completing your tasks with minimum instructions and supervision. This is an exercise in building your manager’s trust in you, so when you are given more flexibility, use it well! 

Before you start working on anything, ensure that you have understood the brief clearly by clarifying doubts and communicating problems actively. If you might not meet a deadline, request for an extension early to manage your boss’s expectations.

You may have to communicate more proactively at the start, but it gets easier once your micromanager realises that any work assigned to you will be in good hands. 

How to manage conflicting instructions

When reporting lines aren’t straightforward, employees can be driven up the wall by unclear expectations or vague communication. Rather than tolerating them for fear of endangering your position, Yogini advises to “always choose to speak up rationally”.

Speaking up requires transparency, empathy, and logic—all of which don’t come easy in times of stress. To prepare yourself for such meetings, Yogini suggests shifting your mindset.

“Instead of being certain you’re right, be curious,” she coaches. “Ask yourself why a perfectly rational, well-intended person would do this.”

Your frame of mind at the meeting influences your tonality and choice of words, which could either engage your superior constructively or put him in a defensive stance. 

Pick your battles by limiting yourself to the top few issues bothering you at the moment. Share clear expectations of what you hope to get out of the meeting, and discuss the issues at hand with an open mind. Don’t forget to let the other party share their point of view too. 

“Have a positive attitude and hope for the best, but also plan for the worst,” quips Yogini, adding that chances are, you will see some light at the end of the tunnel.

Signs you may be a micromanager

micromanagement

Perhaps you’ve read this far and started wondering: am I being a micromanager at work? Yogini shares three telling signs that you may be exhibiting such behaviour:

  • You realize that you have become more nosy and bossy, and are obsessed with knowing every detail of everyone’s work to avoid missteps and redundant work
  • You are reluctant to delegate work to your team members, perhaps because you feel like you cannot trust them enough to deliver good work, or have the belief that no one can do it better than you
  • You have a tendency to re-do work that has already been completed by your team’s members, perhaps because you don’t trust them to provide the correct output, or understand any corrections you request

Don’t panic if you identify with these. Awareness is always the first step to improvement. Besides, self-reflection also shows that you care about being the best version of yourself for your team. Here’s what you can do to start rectifying any faults you find.

When is micromanagement justified?

managing up

Understand first that there are scenarios where micromanaging is unavoidable, or even needed. For example, a new joiner may need some hand-holding to learn the ropes as quickly as possible. An underperforming team member could also use closer guidance to fulfil the company’s expectations of their role. 

Speaking from her previous managerial experience in the banking industry, Yogini shared that she feared losing underperforming team members as that meant losing manpower. 

It all boils down to intention. Micromanagement may be helpful for new or struggling team members growing into their positions, but detrimental when done to make managers appear busy or feed their ego. 

To avoid becoming a micromanager by mistake, Yogini advises maintaining a positive mindset as a manager and leading with empathy. This almost always means working on oneself, before working on your employees. 

As management expert Kenneth Blanchard says: “The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.”

Rather than attempting to control your team members’ every move, guide them towards the right paths, while keeping your mind open to learning from them if they find better ways of getting things done.

Mitigating the inevitable

Every working person will come face to face with micromanagement sooner or later. While it is almost inevitable, there are ways and means as outlined above that can help you mitigate its negative effects on mental wellness within the organisation.

About Author

Renhao Wong
Renhao has been in communications for over a decade, spanning the light side of journalism and dark side of PR. Besides preaching the wonders of technology and importance of mental health, he maintains avid interests in gaming, photography, and music.

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