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A couple of weeks ago one of my direct reports (we'll call him Brent) went to my boss to complain that I am micromanaging him. When I heard the accusation, I was flabbergasted, since I don't see myself as a micromanager at all.

Edit: When my boss called me in to talk about it, I was told keep it to myself and not let Brent know that I was aware of his concerns.

After talking with my boss I sat down and talked with each of my direct reports to solicit their feedback. I asked in no uncertain terms, am I doing anything to hamper your success or the success of the team?

Some people had some really good constructive criticisms for me, but nobody thought I was a micromanager. When I brought up the topic specifically, each time the answer was the same: a categorical no.

On the heels of that, I sat down with a senior colleague who has been a mentor to me while I have worked for this company. He shares a workspace with us, so he has a decent amount of information upon which to base his opinion.

I left those meetings with the reassurance that I am not a micromanager. While it helped to buoy my spirits, it really did nothing to change Brent's perspective on things, so I went and did some research.

I read a lot of great questions and answers here, and some of them helped me to understand the problem from the perspective of the micromanaged:

How to work with a micro-manager?

How to deal with a bossy, micro-managing co-worker

I tried to look at my behaviors to see where I could improve on my relations with Brent. I started using some of the phrasing suggested in the articles I had read, and I tried to make Brent understand that I only wanted to support his success. I've been working at it for two weeks now, and I thought we were making headway.

My boss called today to let me know that Brent has applied for a position at another company. It just so happens that the owner of the other company is friends with the owner of our company. So, he called our owner to make sure it would be OK before calling Brent back.

My boss called Brent and the two talked. Among other things they discussed why Brent is seeking employment elsewhere. According to Brent, nothing has changed. My micromanaging ways have persisted, and he can't stand to work under me any longer.

How can I help my direct report to understand he is not being micromanaged? Is there anything that can be done to salvage the working relationship with Brent?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio May 13 '16 at 22:34
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    I just wanted to thank you for sitting down with your reports and actually asking them for feedback, rather than assuming they'd tell you f you were a problem. That's about thirty-seven steps further than most people go (depending on your office layout) to ensure that they're a good boss. – Nic Hartley May 15 '16 at 17:14
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    With such a short timeframe between complaint and the news of applying elsewhere, this sounds to me like Brent is trying to create justification for leaving. It's unfortunate you've been used as a scapegoat - but if everyone else in your team is happy, you don't seem to be doing anything wrong. – HorusKol May 16 '16 at 1:08
  • I would seriously recommend you keeping this Q&A as evidence for your reviews with your boss. It shows all the great qualities and behaviours of a excellent manager. The outcome is not important here but the work did to serve your team better as their manager is. – Gunge May 16 '16 at 9:42
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    Have you asked Brent 1 on 1 for specifics? Assuming that you want to keep him around, ask him for specific instances where he's felt micromanaged by you and which of your behaviors cause him to feel that way. You seem like the kind of manager who would be open to an honest discussion and in that discussion try to help him understand your point of view. Different people have different wants and needs for autonomy at work. – DLS3141 May 16 '16 at 14:41
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No, there isn't.

Brent is convinced he's being persecuted and actual reality will not sway him from that conviction. Let him go; he's on the edge. His next manager will also be a micromanager, and the next and the next. Random strangers may be micromanaging him after a while.

Don't waste your effort pandering to his fantasies. It's not constructive and you have already done more than enough to convince a reasonable person many times over.

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    I'd also like to point out that it doesn't matter if your a micro manager or not. Your team is happy and successful. This one member was not. It doesn't matter the reason. Throw him a going away party, give him a cookie, and wish him luck. From your team take their constructive criticism as "the gain" from this experience, and move on quickly. – coteyr May 13 '16 at 20:46
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    The most telling point is that no-one else on your team feels the same way. With enough people in the "sample size", that's a clear indicator the problem is not with you. – Tim Malone May 15 '16 at 4:00
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    There were a lot of great answers to my question. I feel guilty selecting any one as the "correct" answer when I have received so much helpful advice. That said, your answer is clearly the community's favorite. It also happens to be factually accurate. We accepted Brent's resignation today. – Lumberjack May 16 '16 at 19:51
  • You should also keep in mind that some people have different levels of expectations. Most things, micro-managing included, is not a Boolean "yes/no" quality, rather it's relative. Many people used to your normal hyper-micro-managing workplaces might get a new boss who is only slightly-micro-managing and think "Wow, this boss does not micro-manage." Someone used to absolute zero micro-management moving to the same slightly-micro-managing boss might instead think "Wow, this boss never stops telling me how to do my job!" Many bosses also vary over time and don't treat everyone equal. – Aaron May 26 '17 at 18:18
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I think that you are doubting yourself without actually knowing why. You tried to fix a problem without actually knowing what the problem was. First thing you should have done after the accusation should have to talk to Brent and figure out why he thinks he is micromanaged, not talk to the other members of the team (which was in my opinion a mistake, if my boss questions me about his performance out of the blue I might suspect that he is in trouble or I'm in trouble, so I get stressed).

You will probably figure out one of the following things:

  • Brent was full of bull excrement and you have nothing to worry about
  • Brent actually needs the micromanagement because he is a wild card (incompetent, untrustworthy, procrastinator ... etc.). In this case, I think it's better you let him go without pointing this out. You don't need the drama, let him figure out at another job.
  • Brent was kind of right but he was way to sensitive, so he isn't right for your team, as the others have a much higher tolerance for "micromanaging" and your style doesn't need to be changed. Tell him that you can see his point, but it's not your intention to micromanage him. If he can't tolerate your style, he can go, but you will be sorry to see him go. Make it clear that you don't intend to change!
  • You are micromanaging him, but not the others for some reason (he didn't prove his abilities to you sufficiently, so you don't trust him. And him going over your head didn't help either). Take a break, try to understand why and if you can fix the issue. You may realize that you can't change then treat is as one of the previous two cases (let him go or tell him to get over it). If you think you can change, apologize in no uncertain terms, give him a opportunity to prove himself and take a real risk (under no circumstances give him a unimportant task, so he can sense you don't actual trust him) and leave him be, don't ask for updates, don't suggest directions, don't have others spy on him. Make sure that when he comes for help, you help him without gloating! Don't inform the team, their attitude needs to remain unchanged. Repeat a few times.
  • You are micromanaging everyone because they need to. Then it's time for another team (here or in another place).
  • You are micromanaging everyone and you are wrong to do it. First, you have to figure out why! It might be because you are a control freak, it might be because you don't think they can do it, etc. Learn to let go! Let them fail and take it like a man. This includes taking responsibility for their failures. Fix the issues and move on. After a while you may end up in the previous case (but you learned something), or you will have a team you trust and inspire. This is not a quick fix! Changing your phrasing isn't going to work, you need to change your attitude and take a real risk, don't give them minor tasks and take care of everything that's sensitive by yourself!
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    Your first few sentences are spot on. I would love nothing more than the opportunity to have that conversation. Unfortunately my boss gave me clear instruction on the matter. I was told keep it to myself and not let Brent know that I was aware of his concerns. – Lumberjack May 13 '16 at 20:03
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    I think the inability to face this issue head on has really contributed to the stress it is causing in my life. – Lumberjack May 13 '16 at 20:04
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    @Lumberjack IMO that's information that would be great to add the to OP because it explains why you didn't do the most obvious thing. – Casey May 13 '16 at 20:19
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    @Lumberjack, in this case your boss is micromanaging the situation, and you are basically powerless. Ask yourself why is your boss micromanaging the situation and why is Brent so valuable to your boss to be worth the drama. – user1199 May 13 '16 at 20:27
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    And why is an underling jumping the chain of command with impunity? I know you aren't working in the Military, but I wouldn't dream of jumping rungs in the chain like that... I don't think I agree that the boss is micromanaging, although I could be wrong, but I don't think that "keep this quiet" is going to solve anything... If there is a problem, it needs to be discussed... and playing the telephone game isn't the answer. – WernerCD May 14 '16 at 23:29
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Having been a manager and a professor for the past 20 years, it has been my experience that there are times when terms like micromanager is a replacement term for "I don't like to work for him/her."

I have a repertoire of terms for student workers and TA's which boils down to "I can't deal with their drama."

Please do not take this nothing term to heart, and try to let this incident be a bygone.

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    Thank you Kate. I appreciate the sympathy. It has been incredibly stressful dealing with this situation. – Lumberjack May 13 '16 at 19:39
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    I'd love if you could share some of your repertoire for student and TA meaning "I can't deal with their drama". – Mindwin May 13 '16 at 20:24
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At this point, it's likely a thing to look back on and not a thing to fix... but here it goes:

1 - Get Bret's definition of micromanagement

Don't start in with "I hear from my boss I'm micromanaging you, what do you think I'm doing wrong". Since your boss pretty much said not to do that, it won't end well. Also - starting with an accusation usually doesn't help improve trusted communication.

I'd say something like "I'm working to improve how I manage and collaborate with employees. Are there specific actions I could do or not do that would help you do your job more efficiently?" If he's reticent, you may even say "I don't want to be a micromanager". If he can't honestly point to something you could change about how you interact with him then let it go.

It may be that he has a perception of your behavior that is far more supervisory than it is in reality... it may be that you can clarify the situation. It may be that there are some things that happen to legitimately bug him about how you ask him things that you could change (even if you don't see them as such a big deal). But usually you have to nip this in the bug - if he's hunting, he probably won't stick around.

2 - Ask your boss for details on your behavior

It's not fair for your boss to give you a generality - either he's got to let you directly talk to the employee or he has to give you specific details. It may be that the employee won't respond if you ask directly, but if he was willing to talk to your boss, the boss should have gotten specifics if he wants to hold you accountable for changing your behavior.

Or ask if he'd be willing to mediate a discussion between you both.

It may be that you did nothing wrong, and your boss is really just letting you know that you have an unhappy employee, and there's probably nothing you can do to fix it. If this is the 3rd boss the guy has hated, it may be he just hates your corporate culture and there's nothing you can do.

3 - Consider where the employee is on the performance curve

If he's getting a lot done, you can give him a lot of control over when and how to communicate with you. You could try initiating a model of interaction that is different from your other employees. High performing, high motivation employees usually need less hand holding and can run with the ball for longer than other types. Low skill set, low motivation employees need what others may say is micromanagement. There's a whole spectrum in between.

You might also consider where this guy falls in light of your current pool of employees. If he's not as successful as others there may be reasons why you check in with him more often - it's fair for you give him very direct feedback if that's the case. If he's high performing, you may ask him to set the terms for how you work together and let him pull what he needs from you and be accountable to you for deadlines.

There's no one size fits all on hands off/micromanagement - one person's dream relationship is another's nightmare.

No one wants a boss who demeans them and makes them feel unimportant - but that's different.

4 - Let it go

You can't please everyone. There's a percentage of employees who will hate working for you no matter what you do, because you are you and you are not a one size fits all manager any more than they are one size fits all employees. Managers each have a style and a way of working - changing your personal style just to make one member of the team happy isn't reasonable.

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    I breathed a huge sigh after reading your answer. I have been so stressed out by this. Worried I think is the perfect word. Reading your last paragraph gives me a feeling of peace that I can't adequately describe. I can't be a once size fits all manager, any more than my team members are one size fits all employees. Thank you! – Lumberjack May 13 '16 at 22:14
  • I woud say that trying to dance arround the issue with Brent, especialy so close after the complaint is a mistake! He is going to suspect you know, and the gap between them will widen. – user1199 May 14 '16 at 5:50
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How can I help my direct report to understand he is not being micromanaged?

You're asking the wrong question. Do not try to control what he thinks of you.

That is a wrong attitude to have. For all you know, he had a bad day, or he's coming from a previous different management culture. Either that, or he's not being entirely honest. Either way, you can't let his apparent opinion of you control your actions. Everyone has different opinions, different perspectives, and possibly different agendas. And if you ever try, it's super difficult to try to control an adverse opinion that someone has of you.

And by trying to control what he thinks of you, you're giving him control over you. This is how manipulation works. It is a two way street. So don't try to disprove his assertion. Do not get defensive. The more defensive you get, the more defensive he'll get trying to prove his point of view. That's how most of us humans do it.

And the more you look for the proof of something, the more likely you're likely to find it. This is called selection bias. This is the reason why when you buy a new car of particular make, model, and color, you start noticing other cars of the same make, model, and color, much more disproportionately, whereas before you usually didn't notice them at all.

So before you start this endless battle to prove yourself and he gets entrenched in his battle to prove his point of view. Stop yourself. Take a deep breath. And look for the kernel of truth in what he says. It doesn't have to be much, in fact, it can be a super tiny little kernel of truth. And if you sincerely don't know what it is yet, work to uncover that kernel of truth.

And know that even if there was some truth to what he says, know that it doesn't mean that you have to change your way of managing people. Micromanaging is sometimes completely necessary. Some employees may not like it, especially employees coming from a more relaxed work environment, but that's just how things are sometimes in a business. Sometimes, you're paid to do things that you don't want to do. That's just life.

As to the secrecy over the complaint, that's a problem. If I were you, I'd talk to the boss about lifting the embargo over this discussion. The boss can just go and tell the employee, "I changed my mind. I think this is something that so-and-so needs to know about specifically, otherwise he/she is not likely to grow as a manager." And once you get the go-ahead from your boss, you can actually address the issue.

That being said, look for that kernel of truth even when you're discussing this issue with your boss. Your boss is much likely to want to have an open discussion if he can see you're open to that possibility -- however small and insignificant that possibility may be.

PS: I just noticed the part about your subordinate seeking employment elsewhere. Don't try too hard to keep him as an employee. Sometimes, personality types are just not compatible, and that's nobody's fault. It's good if he changes his mind and decides to stay as your employee, but it isn't the end of the world if he finds a position elsewhere. If he really wants to leave, then let him and wish him the best. Definitely, don't make any promise to him or to your boss about changing your behavior. The more someone tries to do that, the more that person will push others away as a result.

  • Thank you Stephan. This is an incredibly insightful answer. I think you could apply the philosophies espoused here to so many different interactions in life. We should always be looking to find the kernel of truth in any disagreement. Don't you think? – Lumberjack May 13 '16 at 22:25
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    I completely agree. Thank you for the compliment. Also, I can't take the entire credit for this idea. This idea is explored much more significantly in the book "When I say No, I Feel Guilty" by Manuel J. Smith amazon.com/When-Say-No-Feel-Guilty/dp/0553263900 (Do not let the title of the book confuse you. The title of that book does not do it justice. And do read its amazon customer reviews when you get a chance.) Also, I like bethlakshmi's answer very much. It falls in line with some of what I am saying and has a couple of points that I didn't think of. – Stephan Branczyk May 13 '16 at 22:32
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    Another author with a similar philosophy is Byron Katie. She also has some great audiobooks and videos if you're not the reading type. youtube.com/user/TheWorkofBK – Stephan Branczyk May 13 '16 at 22:55
  • I would summarise this answer as 'you're trying too hard, and making the situation worse'. Actually it sounds to me like you're micromanaging yourself. – Sean Houlihane May 14 '16 at 9:32
  • @SeanHoulihane, yes, I think that he was to some degree, but I don't think he was at a stage yet to want to listen to that explanation. That being said, now I think that he is more ready for that kind of explanation. – Stephan Branczyk May 14 '16 at 9:48
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Some people feel as if any management is micromanagement. Someone who complaints that you are a micromanager without giving specifics or talking to you first before going over your head is no loss to your team. Be happy that he is leaving. It removes a cancer from your team because no doubt he complains behind your back to them too.

I have often found the ones who think all management is micromanagement are often the ones who have something to hide like working a second job during their scheduled work hours or slacking off when they should be working or a whole host of problems. Or they are just plain immature. Or they don't understand that managers also have managers and the information they are being asked for is often used to meet the managers needs to report up his chain of command.

However your actions in seeking out the advice of articles and others in your group rather than talking plainly and directly first to Brent are also troubling.

Your more immediate problem is not Brent however, but your boss. If he has taken to heart Brent's statement that you micromanage, then you may have to convince him otherwise. If he feels he lost a good employee because of you, then he may start to manage you more closely or give you a poor evaluation. You need to make sure that he is not feeling that you are bad even though others have made you feel as if you are doing fine. If anyone else leaves in the near future this will come up again because no matter what other reason that person gives, the boss is going to think of this incident.

Personally I would have a talk with my boss about how I manage and how he thinks I can improve. i would talk directly about the micromanagement issue and what I tried to do to fix it and ask him if this is enough or how you can keep this from being a problem with your remaining subordinates. If he still feels that you are a micromanager, then ask him to directly talk to some of your subordinates. It may take several saying that you are a good person to work for to make up for one guy who decided to ruin your reputation.

Your boss is not a trustworthy person or a competent manager. He took a complaint rather than sending Brent to talk to you and try to work it out. That was the wrong action, it sends the signal that you are not supported by management.

He colluded with his friend concerning whether or not they should hire Brent. That can be illegal as pointed out by @Kevinkline in the comments above

IANAL, but IMO your boss and his friend shouldn't be having these conversations. A bunch of Silicon Valley companies got in trouble for having a tacit non-compete agreement.

He should have stopped the friend before he mentioned a name and told him that who the friend interviewed was none of his business.

  • Thank you HLGEM. Some of the concerns you raised about my boss have already been racing through my head. I appreciate the proactive suggestions you provided on how to mitigate the situation. – Lumberjack May 13 '16 at 20:26
  • As I mentioned in a comment to a different answer: I would love nothing more than the opportunity to have that conversation with Brent. Unfortunately my boss gave me clear instruction on the matter. I was told keep it to myself and not let Brent know that I was aware of his concerns. – Lumberjack May 13 '16 at 20:28
  • I think the inability to hear the specifics has been a big part of the stress for me in this situation, and the bulk of the remainder of it has been the behavior of my boss. – Lumberjack May 13 '16 at 20:29
  • Also there is the stress that maybe his complaints are founded and I am failing as a manager. None of the reassurances from mentors or other team members has done anything to significantly assuage those concerns, tbh. – Lumberjack May 13 '16 at 20:31
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    Yeah my first thought when I read the question is that I've worked with some people for whom "manager told me what I should be working on" = micromanagement. If Brent is one of those types, then unless he's such a valuable rare talent that it's worth paying him a salary to work on whatever he wants.. then this situation probably isn't fixable. – Carson63000 May 13 '16 at 21:59
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First, you should talk to Brent and inform him to come to you first for these types of problems and not your boss. Second, ask your boss to instruct your people to talk to you first and not entertain any complaints. Of course things like sexual harassment or other severe forms of abuse are the exception.

Don't get caught up in a generalized term like micromanage. Ask for specific instances and behaviors. Let Brent suggest alternatives. You never know. It could be the way you phrase something or you're correcting him in front of others. You could another coworker or your boss to be a tie-breaker if you can't agree on your performance. Otherwise, you just have to tell Brent he is wrong and will have to deal with it like everyone else. You can only accommodate one complainer so much.

Since Brent didn't come and talk to you directly, I suspect your other team members are not giving you open and honest answers either.

Brent may be completely off-base as far as you micromanaging goes, but there may be a personal reason he is not willing to divulge. Not wanting to be micromanaged is a more polite and professional description that doesn't make him look like the bad guy.

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    Agree on this. Confronting Brent directly and forcing the issue is the best way to understand what exactly is getting under his skin. When you do this, be sure not to interrupt, and really listen to what he has to say. If he REALLY thinks you're a micromanager, he may have good reasons others aren't saying. Otherwise, he'll likely fumble with words and not really say anything of substance. – MK2000 May 13 '16 at 19:53
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    Thanks very much for your answer. We have a meeting on Monday where this will finally be discussed in the open, and I think that some of your suggestions will be really helpful. – Lumberjack May 13 '16 at 20:08

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