Signs Your Boss is Micromanaging (and Doesn’t Know It)


Today’s workplace has changed even if its general components have remained the same in the past decades. We have structure, hierarchy, managers, and employees. But gone are the days when manpower is perceived only as a well-oiled machine that produced a certain output.

The growing population of knowledge workers today thrives on excellence through autonomy. They expect their boss to give them general guidance when they need it, answer their questions, and give them a hefty bonus by the end of the year.

But let’s face it — some bosses are hands-on. And by that, we mean they make us feel restricted and observed all the time. They show a great deal of care about productivity and are emotionally invested in the company’s business but they’re not open-minded about other ways that growth can be achieved.

This phenomenon is called micromanagement: when bosses attempt to control each aspect of an undertaking.

Signs of a Micromanaging Boss

The thing with micromanaging bosses is that, in some cases, they’re not aware they’re doing it and that it’s harming the team.

Here are a few of the manifestations:

1. They think and/or say that a project could have been done differently.

To micromanagers, their methodology is the only way there is and other approaches are “wrong” although they may just be a different way of doing things.

Their line of thinking is always: “This could have been done better,” leaving us doubting our capabilities or feeling that our work is substandard or inferior.

Micromanagers also always look for mistakes, even the most trivial of matters in the guise of “pushing for excellence.”

2. They are not open to feedback.

Since micromanagers feel they are the most knowledgeable about how certain things need to get done, they’re most used to controlling the conversation and can’t handle feedback and criticism from others.

3. They “check on” their staff to see how a project is going at the start of their day.

Some bosses literally look over our shoulders to determine what we’re doing and how far we are from getting things done. They constantly ask us for reports or spreadsheets on updates regarding tasks.

4. They have difficulty delegating.

If they do delegate, they tell their staff how to do the work and do regular checks to see if they complied with the process.

Closely tied with regular checks is the manager’s fear of delegation. They lack faith in people which prompts them to assume a heavier workload. This leads to pressure as they set up others to depend on them instead of working with the team.

5. They are afraid to pass on their skills and knowledge.

Micromanagers are afraid to assume a mentoring role and will make an excuse that they’re just very busy. They view knowledge as currency and, therefore, sharing what they know is, for them, like reducing their value.

Some managers want to be considered as experts and authority figures so the drive to micromanage is rooted in the need for that status to stay as is.

The Vicious Cycle of Micromanagement

Most managers started out as experts at the work their staff are doing. They were likely promoted that way.

Once they step up to management level, however, not all are able to transition from an operations-based to a strategy-based focus. Instead, they are drawn back to what’s familiar to them — going to the details of the work they used to do.

What ensues is a vicious cycle that dampens employee trust, employee morale, and employee productivity.

Career consultant Kris Fannin says that micromanagement kills team performance this way: the lack of trust in leadership leads to increased fear. Fear then breeds avoidance or control, which in turn raises anxiety. With anxiety comes decreased morale and culture, which ends in decreased performance.

The Cost of Micromanaging People

A 2018 survey of 2,000 employees revealed that micromanaging is deemed as the worst trait in a boss, ahead of disorganized and overcritical superiors.

It is the second most frustrating quality experienced in a manager next to having one with unclear expectations, a separate survey of over 2,900 professionals showed.

Results of Mental Health America’s 2017 Workplace Health Survey showed that 74% of over 17,000 employees surveyed felt micromanaged.

Micromanagement contributes to employee disengagement — or having unmotivated staff — which is estimated to cost US companies $483 to $605 billion annually in lost productivity, based on a 2018 Hubstaff study.

How to Deal with Micromanagers

They say most micromanaging bosses aren’t bad people, just misguided managers. They likely adopted the style of the micromanagers they worked under.

Understanding the root of management is a good foundation for finding out how we can work with them. Let’s look at these steps on how to “manage up”:

1. Find out what triggers micromanaging behavior.

Bosses may be acting this way for any of the following reasons:

  • Worry — about the outcome and getting it done right/on time.
  • Stress/fear — about their reputation/job if you or the team fouls up
  • Habit/insecurity — Some bosses may not know any other way to manage, or they may be new in their position.
  • Lack of confidence/negative past experience — They may have been let down by their members in the past so they have a negative expectation from their current team.

2. Take the appropriate response to defuse the reason for their behavior.

Build trust.

Earn your managers’ trust by showing them that you’re on top of things. Be ready to answer their possible work-related questions when they call, send you an email, or ask questions during a meeting.

Ensure them that tasks are being completed on time, or inform them if delays are expected. This may take time, but just keep at it. Establishing trust will also help your bosses delegate work.

Know the stakes involved and how your boss defines success.

Regularly touch base with your bosses, and know their priorities. Update them on your daily progress, and keep them in the loop.

Ask their idea on how things should get done if they haven’t said so. Once you have shown your competence, share your idea on improving the process, and slowly ask for freedom to execute your own way.

Invite open dialogue, and clarify expectations.

Carefully and respectfully share how their micromanaging tendencies make you feel and how it is affecting your ability to do your role to the best of your ability. You can politely explain that you feel more fulfilled when you are allowed to work independently.

Ask for feedback instead of permission because the latter invites your boss to make decisions — therefore micromanage — you or the team before you can move forward.

Just keep them informed along the way, and ask for feedback about your thought-through plan when you’re uncertain about specific areas of the project.

Build Good Rapport

Micromanaging is a habit so it is not overcome or does not end overnight. When you notice a difference in behavior, thank your bosses for trusting you with the project and their growing hands-off approach.

Proving yourself trustworthy and doing your best to build good rapport can inspire your boss to step back and create the breathing space needed for you to work your best.