“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do” (Steve Jobs)

There are many phrases that describe resistance to the overbearing supervision of one’s boss – don’t breathe down my neck, don’t walk in on me, don’t look over my shoulder and don’t barge in on me – to name a few. Clearly, any form of micro-management, or “snooper-vision” (which I like to call it), frustrates, creates unease, and irritates employees. It is like sitting at your desk under a security camera knowing that every move you make is being monitored. No-one wants their boss to keep a close watch on them or to watch their activities intently. Every human being has a need for some autonomy and the ability to self-manage their workload and subsequent productivity. When a manager watches or monitors closely, staff become annoyed and feel disempowered. As Martin Zwilling implores: “Team members need to feel trusted and valued, and micro-managing communicates the opposite. Founders, who are prone to manage every detail of their businesses, will ultimately kill themselves as well as lose the support of team members. Learn to delegate key tasks and give credit.”

Addressing micro-management with your boss, however, may have adverse effects. Recent research (Harvard, Forbes, and others) suggests that the boss’s micromanaging behaviour has less to do with your actual performance and much more to do with his/her own anxiety. Mark Murphy, senior contributor to Forbes, notes: “The irony of being the boss is that the higher up you move in the hierarchy, the less direct control you have. This loss of control often comes as a shock to bosses and that, in turn, sparks their anxiety.” Anxiety seems to be the root cause of managers wanting absolute control over staff activities and team outcomes. Jenny Chatman, a professor of management at Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley who researches and consults on organizational culture, however, notes: “The bad news is fighting back won’t work.” “If you rebel against it, you will just get more of it,” says Jean-François Manzoni, a professor of management at INSEAD.

Perhaps the answer to the disempowering micro-management of your boss lies in addressing the anxiety of the boss and not the ‘snooper-vision’ – addressing the root cause. Murphy helpfully suggests an eight-question script to use when your boss gives you a new assignment…

  1. “Is there anything you’d like me to know about how this will get used?” (This reassures the boss that you understand the bigger picture of how the assignment fits into the overall strategy).
  2. “What’s your deadline?” (This one is pretty obvious but it’s always good to confirm it).
  3. “What’s the format that would be best for you?” (You can spare you and your boss unnecessary headaches by making sure your work gets delivered in the proper way).
  4. “Who/what resources should I approach with this?” (Let the boss know you can handle boundaries and political sensitivities and that you are thinking as strategically as they are).
  5. “Are there other precedents/models/prototypes for this you’d like me to build on?” (Sometimes the boss has done a project like this before, and if you build on, or at least reference their prior work, their anxiety will decrease immediately).
  6. “How long do you envision this taking?” (Sometimes the boss will tell you the deadline is Friday but they’re thinking to themselves that they would have it done by Tuesday. This question helps you discover that gap and gives you the chance to meet, or exceed, the boss’ expectations).
  7. “Given your other assignments for me, where should this one fit?” (This tells you the relative priority of the assignment and tells the boss that you understand where this assignment fits).
  8. “What should I make sure that I absolutely do (and do not do) on this project?” (This gives the boss confidence that you’re not going to step on any major land mines or miss something critical).

When you use a script, like Murphy’s, you assuage the specific anxieties of the boss. You are communicating to them that you understand their issues and concerns and demonstrating that you’ve got the requisite competence to make both of you look great.

Overcoming feelings of disempowerment caused by the boss breathing down your neck is possible when you address the fears your boss might have. Grow trust in your relationship with your boss. Provide regular and detailed updates so your boss is apprised of your progress. Make sure that your performance is exemplary.

Leave a Reply