can my micromanaging boss be rehabilitated? she makes me take all calls on speaker phone…

A reader writes:

My new boss started about six months ago. I am very productive and excel at my job (and I’m not just saying that; I have only received stellar performance reviews for the last three years since I have been here, most recently by this new boss in question). The boss, however, is a textbook micromanager. When she started, she insisted I show her my emails to colleagues and to donors, she asked me where I was at for all of my projects on a daily basis, and even had me put my phone on speaker when I spoke to anyone. She also rewrote everything I wrote, even though she is a terrible writer (with awful grammar, made-up words, etc.). She is that way with her other direct reports, too.

I followed your advice on your blog. I maintained the quality of my work, I informed her about everything I was doing, and copied her on all emails. Eventually, I had a conversation with her, asking her what I could do differently, since I felt that she didn’t trust me. I also said that I work best when I have a sense of autonomy and ownership over my work, and that I would be happy to update her frequently. She appeared chagrined and apologized, saying she had just wanted to learn the ropes and see what we were doing. She promised to back off. However, she hasn’t. Instead, now she is even more rigid and difficult. She tells me she trusts me 100% and that she is pushing for me to get a promotion. But the micromanaging continues. I think it is partly because she is in over her head; she managed to bluff her way into this position, but it has become clear that she doesn’t have the experience needed to head our division.

This past week, she saw me chatting to a colleague (her direct report). She sent both of us an email immediately, telling us that if we have downtime, we should recreate our database on Excel sheets so she can decipher it (she has refused to learn how to use the database, even though everyone, from the most junior to the most senior employee, is required to). That was the breaking point for me. I feel like she is treating me like a five year old! This isn’t my first job, either; I have extensive experience from other nonprofits, with very exacting, controlling bosses. I can deal with difficult personalities and micromanaging, but this is on a level I have never seen before. I have thought long and hard and I don’t think it’s about me; she is inexperienced and insecure.

Essentially, my question is: can micromanagers be rehabilitated? Will she will back off once I am promoted? I have been working hard and lobbying for a promotion for about a year, and the new boss is behind it 100%. I have a very good chance of getting it. I like the work I do, I’m very good at it, and I like the organization and the people. The commute is a dream. I have some flexibility in my work schedule. I would, unfortunately, still be reporting to her. Since she would have helped me get a promotion and she knows and values the work I do, will this finally make her give me more autonomy? Or is this a case of cut loose and run while I can? I am hesitant to bring it up again with her, because nothing changed after my first serious talk with her, and she has on another occasion told me that she takes criticism very personally. There is an opportunity for a lateral/lower move to a different department (different work) in the organization, but then I wouldn’t be able to hold on to my promotion (if it happens). And if I do want to do the lateral/lower move, I would have to act pretty fast, within the week.

Can micromanagers be rehabilitated? Sure, but they have to have to either want to change or be forced to change by someone with authority over them.

Now, before we get into that, whenever we talk about micromanagement, it’s important to consider two big caveats:
Caveat 1: Is it really micromanaging? Dictating exactly how to do the work, watching over every step in the process, and refusing to truly delegate any decisions is micromanaging, and it’s bad. But being heavily involved in setting goals, checking in on progress, and getting more involved when the stakes on something are very high isn’t inappropriate; that’s good management. Sometimes people complain about “micromanagement” when it’s just good, hands-on management.
Caveat 2: Have you given your boss reason to use this level of scrutiny? If you drop the ball on things more than very occasionally, forget details, don’t follow up on things, miss deadlines, or produce work that requires a lot of changes from others, a good manager would get more closely involved.

But neither of these caveats are the case with you. What you describe sounds like egregious micromanaging. Requiring you to take all your calls on speaker phone? That’s crazy.

In fact, it’s so crazy that even if you’re able to get her to back off in some ways, I doubt she’s ever going to be a good boss — because someone whose instincts lead her to do this kind of thing isn’t likely to turn into a good manager even if you or someone else gets her to stop specific behaviors. (One exception to this: If she goes through some kind of training or intensive coaching, she could absolutely get better — but so far, there aren’t signs of that happening.)

So I’d think long and hard about whether you want your current job or the promotion if it means working closely with her, even if you win concessions on some of the craziest stuff, like being forced to use speaker or have her rewrite all your emails.

That said, there’s no reason not to try to talk to her about this and see where it leads. If I were in your shoes, I’d sit down with her and say something like this: “I want to talk to you how we’re working together. I’m struggling with the level of involvement in my work that you’ve asked for. I have X years of experience doing this work, consistently glowing feedback and strong performance reviews, and I’m used to being trusted to write my own emails, handle my own phone calls, and get my work done without daily checks. If you have concerns about my work that are leading you to manage me this way, I very much want to hear them. But if you don’t have those concerns, I’d like to revisit your level of oversight. When we talked about this a few months ago, you agreed you would pull back, but that hasn’t happened. I’d like to propose that we return to the level of oversight that I had under previous managers, which would mean that we’d agree on annual and quarterly goals for my work, I’d update you on my progress toward those goals monthly, and we’d meet once a week to talk about the work as it unfolds. I’d manage my own time and handle my phone calls and emails on my own, unless there’s some specific problem that we need to address. Would you be willing to try that and see how it goes?”

If she says no, well, there’s your answer. And if she says yes but then continues her same behavior, well, that’s probably your answer too. But there’s a chance that laying it out like this will actually push her (or shame her) into truly backing off. And if she does, then you’ll have some room to see whether you can work with her after all.

Aside from all that, there’s one more thing to think about. Is there anyone above your manager who you trust and have a good rapport with? Because if so, this is a situation where it might make sense to have a discreet conversation with that person. Not every manager will intervene when a manager below them is screwing up like this, but plenty will — and this is exactly the kind of thing that I’d want to hear about if I were your manager’s manager. But the key — and this is crucial — is knowing whether the person you’d be approaching is open to hearing feedback about the managers under her and competent enough to act on it in a way that doesn’t destroy your relationship with your boss.

And if none of the above works, then it’s a safe assumption that your manager isn’t likely to one day be magically rehabilitated and you’ll have to decide whether you want to stay under those conditions or not. Good luck.

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