In my last blog, “Failure is Underrated, ” I discussed one of the primary reasons that supervisors micromanage, namely their own fear of failure. There are too many workplaces where there is so great a fear of failure that experimentation is discouraged and mediocrity is disguised as success. Why? Because in doing so reasons for change or improvement can be ignored. Yet those organizations most willing to accept and learn from failure will have a greater chance of long-term survival than firms that only want good news and only reward the bearers of good tidings. There are numerous examples of such self-defeating behavior in post-WWII American history, from the “light at the end of the tunnel” in Vietnam to the complacency of Detroit in the early stages of increased foreigh competition and the lethargic response of Kodak executives as their core business largely disappeared.
But what about the victims of micromanagement, those who suffer daily at work from a stifling lack of autonomy ? What can they do to improve their situation? What can you do when your boss is a micromanager? Actually, the problem overlaps the one that probably hundreds of millions of people face every day: What do you do when your boss is a jerk? Not all jerk bosses are micromanagers and not all micromanaging bosses are jerks–some are overprotective perfectionists who think they are doing you and your organization a big favor. But the issue is more or less the same: someone with authority over you behaves in a way that you find unacceptable to some degree, ranging from the mildly annoying to the repulsive. Unfortunately, there is no easy solution and most of the solutions carry some risks. As I see it, the options are 1) keep your resume updated, 2) dialogue with the supervisor, 3) move the issue up the ladder, 4) consider transfer in the same orgainzation, and 5) say good-bye. These options are of course common sense, but they deserve a couple of comments.
First, your resume, the dusty one in the drawer that you have trouble finding. You need to keep that current so that you don’t forget importants aspects of your career in case you ever need to put one together in a hurry. Keeping your resume current also gives you some perspective on how you might look to other people if you were in the market for another job. If all of your significant accomplishments are over five years or (depending on the field) even two years old, your updating your resume is sending you a warning signal as clear as a stratospheric blood pressure test. Something needs to be done.
Most important, updating your resume is a sign that you know nothing lasts forever and that ill winds can blow even in the most blissful of locations. Our culture has a profound distaste fot the concept of the wheel of fortune since we want to believe that our merit alone put us where we are and others’ lack of the same put them in the grubby little hole they so clearly deserve to be in. But I have seen more than one instance where a beloved native-son chancellor of a state system of higher education went quickly from hero to unemployed after a change in just a couple of the members of the governing board. Probably our profoundest instinct is to believe we are indispensable, but we all know that is also one of the biggest lies we can tell ourselves.
As for the other steps, ranging from dialogue to going over the boss’s head, those steps listed above are meant to be in sequence. Start friendly and try to avoid confrontations. Don’t approach your boss until you have done something out-of-the-ordinary in a good way that will predispose the boss in your favor. I would point out to the boss how giving you more scope for your work will allow you to be more producitve and will give the boss more time for far more significant tasks than peering over your shoulder. I would move this disussion up the ladder only when it is clear that your supervisor is not going to change. I would also remain polite even though we live in a culture that devalues politeness. Politeness can be a shield for the less powerful. In this situation almost always the less powerful person is you.
Sad to say, don’t be surprised if you don’t really get what you want. Individual behavior is hard to change and often micromanagers change only through extensive experience accompanied by the attendant exhaustion. Remember also that the instinctual response of most supervisors is to protect the hierarchy; even if they have reservations about your boss, they will support him or her. There is plenty of bitter evidence to support this statement in the data of the Workplace Bullying Institute, where the data shows that most workplace bullying is top down and that in only 26% of reported cases is the perpetrator punished, dismissed, or quits, while in 76% of the cases the target is fired, forced out, transferred, or quits. ( Workplace Bullying Institute, 2014 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey) The odds are not in your favor. There is a push on for more workplace bullying laws, but there is of course resistance to such change. There are also unions, but not in many professional fields and not for lots of other workers as well. Standing and fighting may be the most heroic option, but it may not leave you the most satisfied with the outcome.
Two items to keep in mind if you want to deal with micromanagment. First, if at all possible prepared to move if it bothers you enough. Depending on circumstances moving can be enormously difficult, but it is your last resort and you need to recognize that upfront. Moving also can be a very liberating experience. Second, outperform what is expected of you. Doing so strengthens your case internally, gives you confidence, and builds your resume if you want or even need to move. You need to see yourself as, and you need to be, someone in control of your own life.