by Osman (Ozzie) Ahmed Osman

Are you being micro-managed? Manage your relationship with your manager instead.

Being micromanaged sucks. It’s a major complaint people have with their managers. You feel demotivated and undervalued, and it inhibits your own learning.

As a manager of managers, I’ve written before about how micromanaging is one of the most common early mistakes I see new managers make. But that’s from the perspective of the manager.

As a report, you could just blame your manager, or you could take an Extreme Ownership approach and actually fix the situation. Let’s talk through how to do that.

Diagnose the Situation

Usually, micromanaging stems from a mix of the following reasons:

Your manager is unaware that they’re doing it

This is especially true for new managers. Ironically, smart, driven managers who were successful individual contributors (ICs) tend to have this issue more frequently. But very few managers actually want to make your life miserable.

For instance, maybe in a meeting, rather than letting you answer a question fielded from someone else, they just speak up because they know the answer themselves. They didn’t intend to make you feel bad by doing so.

Your manager is afraid of failure

A lot of new managers suffer from imposter syndrome. They don’t know how to measure their “managerial” outcome, as it involves new types of tasks with less concrete tasks and outcomes (did I make the right decision? Is my team happy?) than their IC work (did I implement that feature I said I would implement in the time I had committed to?).

So they fall back to doing IC work because it’s measurable and easier for them to do. The problem is, it’s your IC work (they implement that feature you said you would implement in the time you committed to).

Your manager is prioritizing the team’s short-term execution rather than your long-term growth and development

Maybe your manager can fix that bug faster than you can. Fixing bugs quickly is good, right? But even though it may have taken you longer, you would have actually learned something given the chance.

Your manager may or may not have a good reason to prioritize short-term execution. Occasionally (though infrequently), it’s the right thing to do.

A mismatch in expectation between what you think you can accomplish and what your manager thinks you can accomplish

This one is more serious, but it’s still usually addressable. Often, it’s not that your manager lacks confidence in you. It might just be a mismatch of expectations between what you think you can accomplish and what your manager thinks you can accomplish.

Or, it could be a mismatch of how comfortable you are being challenged (you want to be more challenged, but your manager is unaware).

So, where do you go from here?

You might look at the above list and point out: “Well, Oz, that’s all great, but most of your reasons start with ‘your manager . . .’ What can I do about it?” Glad you asked!

Keep in mind that you are an equal contributor to your relationship with your manager. They should hold themselves accountable to you, and you should hold them accountable to you as well. I’m not exonerating your manager, I’m just saying you can help fix the situation.

It’s also possible that your manager has deeper issues — they may have severe control or authority issues. In fact, if you Google around for how to deal with a micromanager, a lot of articles and discussions assume that’s the case. We often jump to that conclusion, since it removes any blame from us. And admittedly, it sometimes is true. But I think it’s worth giving your manager the benefit of the doubt and trying to work things through.

Start the conversation

A good place to start is trying to figure out whether your manager is even aware of the effects of their actions. It’s important that you can give your manager that sort of feedback. This is difficult, especially if you’re not used to giving your manager feedback. But it’s the first step in diagnosing (and fixing) the situation.

I’m a big fan of the SBI (situation-behavior-impact) model, which looks something like this:

“In yesterday’s meeting with our Product Manager (situation), you answered a question about my work (behavior), which made me feel like you don’t trust me to speak for myself (impact)”.

Or,

“I realize I was struggling a little bit to fix bug “X” (situation), but when you stepped in and fixed it yourself (behavior), I felt like I missed a valuable learning opportunity (impact).”

These are difficult conversations — and people have written great books about how to best have them. But note that the Situation and Behavior are “What happened?” conversations, and the Impact is a “Feelings” conversation.

If you’re really self-aware and comfortable with your manager, you can add an “Identity” piece to the Impact:

“I felt like you don’t trust me (feeling) and that made me question my ability to communicate well in meetings, which I’ve always been insecure about (identity).

These statements are a good place to start. Notice that they are specific, which makes them easier to discuss. They are not accusatory, and they don’t assume your manager’s intentions. And they are on your side of the net. You are entitled to your feelings.

One of three things may happen at this point:

  • If your manager acknowledges your feelings, presents their side of the story, and you two have a healthy conversation, congrats! return SUCCESS;. Bonus points to your manager if they ask you to keep surfacing whenever this happens.
  • Elseif your manager reacts very negatively, gets defensive or refuses to acknowledge your point of view, raise UnempatheticManagerException();. If your manager cannot empathize with your point of view, this is not a healthy reaction, and you will probably struggle to work things out in both the short and long-term. Depending on your situation, you could consider a manager or job switch or figuring out how to survive if you must.
  • Else (and this is the most likely scenario), you have a good conversation, but it’s a little uncomfortable, and it surfaces other issues. Your manager shows empathy and sincere commitment to improve the situation, but there are probably deeper things to work. Continue.

Continue the conversation

Usually that’s just the start, but improving the situation will take effort from both you and your manager. It might be really hard to talk directly about some of the root causes I mentioned above, but here are some things you can do and say to help:

  • “I know I’ve never led a project before, but I’d like to learn how. Can you let me try? We can check in weekly, and I’ll let you know if I feel like I’m in over my head.”
    This lets your manager know you want to be more challenged, and that you’ll let them know if things get overwhelming. The upfront agreement about when check-ins are OK also makes them less awkward — you both know that checking in is part of the agreement, rather than your manager being concerned about how you’re doing.
  • “I will get feature “X” done by the end of this week. I’ll let you know if, for any reason, I feel like I won’t get it done in time.”
    Upfront agreements about what will be accomplished and when lets your manager know what to expect, and gives them a chance to tell you if the timeline or deliverable doesn’t meet their expectation. Of course, you should fulfill your commitment and either deliver, or let them know you can’t. Otherwise, next time around they may not trust your claims. Any surprises will undermine your case.
  • “I’d like to improve my ability to speak in large meetings. Can you help me?”
    They now know this is a skill you want to work on, and should hopefully be more mindful when they’re taking actions that are preventing you from learning that skill.
  • “Thanks for stepping in to help fix that bug yesterday, but in the future, I’d love to be able to figure things out myself. What do you think it would take to get there?”
  • “I think I’ve got this.”
    Sometimes, just showing a little confidence in yourself goes a long way. You may have been selling yourself short.

It’s not easy

Hopefully, using these steps, you’ll be able to make good progress with your manager in a way that not only helps you with your career and growth, but also provides usable feedback and direction to your manager. So they can also continue to grow.

As a manager myself, I’ve learned to really value this type of feedback, since it not only helps me improve my effectiveness, it enables me to help my team have more impact — which is why I got into management in the first place.

None of this should make you feel like a negative outcome is entirely upon your head. It’s definitely not. Your manager carries the brunt of the responsibility for your relationship and helping you grow.

However, you do have some ownership in this as well. The more you hold yourself accountable to doing everything you can to ensure you have a good relationship and are getting and giving the best support, the better you’re serving that responsibility. And, like any situation in life, it’s better to try and proactively make the best of it.

Finally

Go into this with some patience for yourself, for your manager, and for the relationship you’re working on improving. Try to assume positive intent whenever you can.

Remember that most of the time, the micromanagement isn’t about you and a fault that your manager may think they see in you. Rather, it’s often about something that is a little more complex and involves their frame of mind, too. Help your manager help you, and best of luck!