How do you manage a micro-manager?

(Hint: Start by learning to manage yourself.)

confused stress confusion angst anger
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One of the most common complaints that I hear in both my executive search and executive coaching practices is: “My boss is a micro-manager (i.e., a control freak) and s(he)’s making my life a living hell. S(he) needs to know every detail of every project I run. It’s affecting my sanity and my team’s morale. How can I function, much less succeed, under this person’s thumb?”

Perhaps you last boss was a CIO or COO who valued your contributions, gave you plenty of room to make your own decisions and created a culture that tolerated ambiguity and even failure (just as long as you failed fast and adjusted accordingly). Perhaps your last boss was recently replaced, after an exhaustive search, by an executive who aced your company’s interview process and has been lauded as your technology organizations next shining star.

But, perhaps this executive’s previous company was a quarter the size of your company in terms of employees and revenues. Or your company is roughly the same size but it’s a far flung global entity and the new CIO’s previous employer was an entirely domestic entity. Perhaps you’re the new employee and the CIO has always micro-managed the technology organization. And, like many executives, refuses to change because “it’s always worked for me this way and at this stage of my career, I’m not going to change!”

Working for this type of person can be one of the most stressful and negative experiences of your professional life. Particularly since these people can be found at every rung of the corporate ladder.  In addition to the headaches, insomnia and stomachaches you may experience, you might even begin to question your competency, if not your sanity. After all, those hyper controlling, over achieving bosses have achieved great things for their organizations. If they’re constantly questioning every detail and action in your day, perhaps you’re the one to blame.

This discussion, however, is not meant as an invitation to a pity party. Unless you’re independently wealthy or in great demand in your profession, you will you need to change your mindset while you’re within this person’s domain.

Here are a few suggestions:

1. This is a learning opportunity. That’s right. Even if you’re conducting a job search, there’s much you can probably learn from this individual. After all, your micro-manager boss might also be a very successful executive as well, in spite of the character flaws. This person’s executive profile probably includes the following descriptors: “Highly disciplined. Detail oriented. Hard working. Leaves no stone unturned.” Would it be a benefit to your career if one or more of those attributes rubbed off on you? Therefore, you should use this time as a learning opportunity. Observe closely, listen actively and keep a journal.

2. Don’t take it personally. Your boss has worked this way long before you now and will continue on that path long after you’ve parted ways. Your competence isn’t being questioned. No one has ever been able to complete a task to this person’s satisfaction. No one probably will. It's time to grow up a bit and look at the bigger picture. Patience is a – wait for it – virtue.

3. Mindfulness. If you’ve ever taken meditation classes or read much about Zen Buddhism you will continuously encounter the concept of Mindfulness. Simply put, when you’re aware of your environment; when you’re able to create some space between your emotions and life’s externalities; when you’re finally able to separate the signal from the noise, you’ll develop separation from this person’s myriad idiosyncrasies and be able to identify what’s most important to helping your company succeed. You’ll be able to anticipate this person’s needs (and moods) and – lo’ and behold – build the type of trust that will make your life easier.

4. Avoid water cooler psychoanalyzing. While everyone else takes a turn at trying to figure out why this person turned out the way s(he) did, you can focus on getting the job done. It's enough of a challenge dealing with the here and now without succumbing to a truly trivial pursuit. Whining about your troubles will only waste your time and may leave your co-workers and staff with an unintended perception of weakness on your part.

5. (And if all else fails), what is your network strategy? The phone becomes much, much heavier if you wait until you have one foot out the door – or you’ve left the organization entirely - before you start reaching out to people for help. Successful people get that way because they are great collaborators with extensive networks comprised of people who can provide them with insights, ideas, direction and potential pathways to new opportunities.

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