Nearly eight in 10 employees are victims of a micromanaging boss. Here's how to cope.
THE MARGINS ARE wrong. The period is in the wrong place . That should be a semicolon, not a dash.
Those words rang in Rebecca Weingarten's ears every time her unit turned in work to her supervisor. "Everything came back covered in red ink," says Weingarten, who now can look back and see her team as a classic victim of micromanagement. Under her old boss, Weingarten's job performance had been considered exemplary. But with her new supervisor, suddenly, everything Weingarten's unit touched needed dramatic improvement and was accompanied with a blistering critique. "I felt frazzled - like a kid again. Controlled. Everything started falling to pieces," says Weingarten, who ultimately fled her job and now is a New York-based career coach who, not surprisingly, often works with victims of micromanagement. "I've been through it. I know how terrible it feels."
"We are in a micromanagement pandemic," says Dr. Robert Trestman,vice chair for clinical affairs at the University of Connecticut Health Center. It's so widespread that 79 percent of us say we have been micromanaged, reports Harry Chambers, author of My Way or the Highway: The Micromanagement Survival Guide. Chambers says 71 percent of us indicate that micromanagement has interfered with our job performance, and 85 percent say morale has suffered as a result. How could it be otherwise? A micromanaging boss, by definition, robs an employee of independence and freedom to do the task. Suddenly, every speck of work has to be put under a managerial microscope and, usually, subjected to endless rounds of criticism as a micromanager painstakingly deconstructs the job until, finally, it's exactly as it would be had he done it himself.
Nightmare stories are abundant. Just ask Pamela Yaeger, a communications expert from Long Island, New York, who says that, at a past job, her micromanaging boss would literally time staffers' bathroom breaks. When they seemed too long, she'd stick her head in the door and yell, "Break's over. Back to work!" That boss, like all classic micromanagers, wanted to script every minute of her subordinates' day. "She wanted to know what I was doing every second. If she sent me an e-mail at nine a.m. and I hadn't responded by 9:05, she'd fire off another e-mail: 'Are you ignoring my e-mail?'?" This boss's favorite line, adds Yaeger, was: "I order you to...."
Joni Kirk, who now lives in Moscow, Idaho, knows that story line all too well. Her micromanaging boss would log on to her subordinates' computers and delete e-mails she felt they shouldn't answer. "She also told us that when we signed documents, we could only use black ink," says Kirk. "She liked degrading us. She'd loudly say in front of everybody, 'I need to speak with you,' and she'd go into a tirade about a perceived mistake. She liked doing that in front of everybody." Instilling terror is another hallmark of the micromanager. Frightened workers are that much more pliable.
Chicagoan Kingsley Day, now in the Department of University Relations at Northwestern University, says he can go one better: His micromanaging boss at a former job expected workers to log hours long into the night and on weekends. "I once heard him yell at somebody, 'I never see you here after 10 at night!'?" This boss also had a peculiar prejudice against zip codes. "We were banned from using them," reports Day. That boss was so determined to eradicate zip codes, he would even sneak into the mail room to prowl for envelopes that defied his ban. When he found them, he trashed them, no matter what was inside. He also, like clockwork, "annually announced a reorganization of office assignments, where we all had to shift office spaces." Why? "He wanted us to know he was in charge." That urge to take vivid control is another hallmark of a hard-core micromanager. When workers feel off balance, micromanagers feel that much more in control.