Defuse Micromanagement by Emphasizing Time Instead of Control

If you enjoy working with micro-managers, you can skip the rest of this post.

OK.  Now that I have your attention, let me offer a suggestion for dealing with the micro-managers in your environment by approaching them with a genuine intention to help with –not correct– this trait.  Help them deal with the impact it has on their time, as opposed of making it about the way they control their duties.

You may or may not have a micro-managing boss.  It doesn’t matter: in today’s matrix-report, high-performing team workplaces, any close collaborator that focuses on excessively minute details can derail your productivity.  It could be a peer that chairs a committee you belong to, or a report that insists on managing her team much closer than you require or expect her to; you can find yourself in many situations where this management style can be detrimental to your interests and objectives.

Tackling micro-management “heads on” is daunting because it involves questioning someone else’s power, or at least the level of control they exert over their responsibilities.  After all, there’s great irony in entering someone else’s scope of responsibility to, well, ask that they stop entering someone else’s scope of responsibility.  It feels like the ultimate case of “do as I say, not as I do”.

Instead, let’s shift the approach from “I have a problem that I need to solve” to “S/he has a problem that I can help with”; instead of focusing on how the other person controls work under their responsibility, notice the impact this has on their time management.  See for yourself: track down the micro-managers around you, and more often than not you’ll find they’re continually stressed, consistently working overtime, perpetually unable to keep up with their email.  These people, fueled by a fundamentally good desire to be effective and of help to their people, end up tangled in a mess of details that is not directly relevant to their organizational role and bogs down them and the very people they’re trying to help.

Therefore, instead of trying to convince micro-managers to alter their control schemes (which, again, may come across as a power play or a serious questioning of their capacity), try these practical steps to help them adopt more productive habits — and help yourself cope through the process:

  • Empathize with their time issues.  Bank on your relationship with the person and let them open up with you about their time woes.  Be sincerely empathetic, and understand that they have real and relevant needs regarding the breadth, depth and manner of resolution for the issues under their responsibility
  • Help them adopt better task management principles.  Nearly all of us may be tempted to resort to micro-management when under pressure.  If email, meetings, and overall tasks are under control, your colleague may feel more relaxed and better approach follow-up and management
  • Show them how to defer detail-diving.  When a critical system goes down, I don’t need the detailed story of how it came to this; I just need a succinct explanation of what’s happening and what are our next steps in order to communicate appropriately up the chain and to our clients and other stakeholders.  That doesn’t negate my right and my duty to be filled in with more details — at a later, more convenient moment.  Explain to the micro-managers in your environment how they can split tasks to enhance time management without giving up their need to know and influence; they may eventually feel comfortable with actually reducing the level of detail they require
  • Adjust your expectations.  If you are meeting a colleague who’s more detail-oriented than you to discuss a new task, don’t budget time for the meeting based on how long you think it’s going to take.  This may sound obvious, but going into a meeting you expect to be over within 15 minutes to find yourself there one hour later can cause tremendous frustration.  In the end, realize that you can only offer help and advice and not truly change the way your colleague works

I’m very blessed in not having had truly micro-managing bosses, and am generally not surrounded by people like this.  But I’ve found this approach productive when I need to defuse this management style in the context of concrete collaborations.  I hope this is useful to you, and would love to learn how else do you cope with this.


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