managing an anxious, micromanaging boss
April 15, 2010 9:19 AM   Subscribe

How do I remain emotionally stable with a highly anxious, micro-managing boss?

I am calm under pressure, due to some early training with highly irrational bosses and clients. However, I think this is the first time in my life I have worked for someone who is literally constantly anxious and stressed, and it is really getting to me.

I very much enjoy the actual work of my job. I like my department, and really love the overall company. I am paid well, and I am challenged and engaged. I don't see a ton of upward movement because my boss is not going anywhere, so I am looking for new opportunities within the larger company. My preferred timeline is about 6-8 months (due to bonus timing) and in a few years I plan to start my own business or try to run a small business.

I would like the next 6-8 months to be more pleasant than my day-to-day currently is. How do I handle my boss better?

The good: He's a good person. He definitely means well, and while he is very critical to his direct reports he always praises us behind our backs. I have a good reputation in the company, and I know my boss really values me, especially because I am very even tempered and can handle him. I am also good at pushing back on others nicely and firmly, which is something he cannot do (and often specifically asks me to do - which is amusing.) He relies on me for ideas and 90% of the time decides my idea is the right way to go.

The bad: Constant anxiety. He is a micromanager, to the level that he tries to micromange even MY direct reports. He has to know everything that is happening, all the time. His need for my reporting on everything that is going on takes up a lot of time that could be spent working productively. He feels the need to control and dictate what I am doing with my time. He needs to attend every meeting and dominate every conversation with clients - which also holds up progress (and my learning curve).

More upsetting to me is the constant fire drills - which are driven by his tendency to turn every molehill into a mountain. There is always a lot of blaming involved (sometimes towards me directly) and a lot of CYA that I find ridiculous. I have determined this freak out mode is driven by a constant fear that his boss will be mad at him, and I am confident that fear is irrational. I spend a good 80-90% of my time trying to put out these fires that are flared up bigger than they should be by his anxiety and subsequent knee jerk action (usually alerting some other anxious person and fueling the flames).

While I can handle the anxiety effectively and usually end up solving the issue, this pattern of behavior is taking a toll on me. Through absorbing all of his stress I am getting stressed when I am normally somewhat calm and don't find my actual work stressful (for example, I have probably gained 20 pounds since working for him, and I think it's stress related since I eat and exercise the same way, if not more in an effort to relieve the stress).

He was recently on vacation with no contact with us - I took this time as an opportunity to evaluate my job without him. It was such a pleasure and I was so productive that it was shocking. I probably doubled my effectiveness without the constant fire fighting and managing of him.

His other direct report feels the same way. My colleague has tried to address it with our boss, and there have been periods when my boss has improved, but he always returns to this pattern of behavior.

I have hinted to my boss' boss that I find working for my boss difficult, but I hesitate to throw him completely under a bus (I see that as unprofessional). No one outside our immediate group really experiences the same level of anxious behavior and micromanagement (I know because I used to work closely with him, but not for him, and it was an entirely different experience).

Any tips to get through the next 6-8 months would be very much appreciated.
posted by rainydayfilms to Work & Money (12 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I hate fire drills, especially unwarranted ones. One defense mechanism that I've cultivated is to have a list of priorities and completion dates of things I'm working on that week. When a fire drill comes up, I let my boss know that I can handle the fire drill, but deliverables a,b and c are going to be delayed by the duration of the fire drill, plus a little more to account for the smoke clearing. Sometimes the boss says deal with the fire drill, sometimes the boss pauses and realizes the fire drill isn't as important as the other things and gets a bit grumpy and goes to find someone else. But even despite the grumpiness, I feel better because I have a clear set of priorities and am able to focus on them.
You don't mention what type of work you do, so it's not clear if this would help in your situation, but I thought I'd throw it out there just in case.

My method for dealing with micro-management doesn't sound like it will work in your situation (my method: I find another boss). Hopefully somebody else can provide good advice on that part of the question.
posted by forforf at 9:37 AM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I know a guy exactly like that. I work "for" him in an ancillary sort of way.

Here is how I figured out how to deal with his anxiety-

- I decided that his anxiety stems from him wanting to do a good job for his superiors.
- I also want to do a good job.
- It isn't personal. He does this to everyone equally.
- It isn't a power play, it isn't micromanaging. It's more just "refreshing his browser" more often than I would.
- All he really wants to know is that things are progressing the way he believes them to be.

So I am just constantly prepared with a "state of the moment" as well as a "state of the project" one or two sentence report for him.

Him: What is going on with X?
Me: So far, so good. I am finishing up X.y.z right now, and X should be done in an hour.
Him: Ok, good.

I came to accept that my job isn't just doing my work, but also keeping the boss in his comfort zone.

It also helps that I never bullshit him and tell him the truth, even if that truth is "I'm not sure what is going on right now, I'm still working through it", and viewing him as a colleague rather than a boss.

(That's not to say that it is always peaches and cream. There are lots of circular conversations. When this happens, I just try to extricate myself as best as possible.)

Now, it gets annoying when that happens three times an hour, but once I accepted the above details, it became easy to
posted by gjc at 9:38 AM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would ask him how you think you can be more productive. I would then use this as an opener to talk about your interactions with him and how smoothing that out may make you more productive. Give him the impression that you are here to help him look better and that you will not let him down. Besides that, you may just have to ride it out until you get a new boss.
posted by jasondigitized at 9:45 AM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

he tries to micromanage even MY direct reports

This is your first problem. If your boss is going around you to micromanage your staff, there are two possible outcomes of this, and neither of them are good. First, it makes you look like you're not able to handle your job. Yes, this is apparently untrue and people who know you and your boss well will know this isn't so. But can you be certain that the person who will be hiring you for a different position within the company 6-8 months from now will know that? Second, as much as his micromanagement is driving you crazy, it's driving your direct reports even crazier. Probably to the point where some of them will leave, in part because you're not doing a good job shielding them from your crazy boss.

If your colleague has addressed the issue with him and gotten some (short term) behavior changes, this means your boss is probably aware of his micromanagement and is able to control it. It's incumbent on you, for the sake of both yourself and your direct reports, to confront him about it. Go in armed with data about how you end up spending your time (as well as the anecdata about how things change in his absence), and open up the discussion for agreements about how you and he can work together productively. If he's as good and well-intentioned as you believe, he should be receptive to this, especially if you emphasize making agreements that will satisfy both of you and your needs.

As to managing your own stress level, I heartily endorse finding a "mantra" that can help you shrug it off. My personal favorite is "F**k him if he can't take a joke", but you should select whatever phrase works best for you.
posted by DrGail at 9:52 AM on April 15, 2010

I’ve had a few bosses in my life who have done this.Please don’t think that I am a 5 year old for suggesting the things below, but they were the only things that worked with the micromanaging bosses that I have had in my life…as others have stated, sometimes the only thing that you can do is find a new boss.

The following has been the most effective for me (after discussing with the boss – this is what I will do moving forward so that we can work together), but it really depends on the bosses personality and ability to trust, too. These suggestions take time but are preferable to the constant micromanagement:
• Status report every Friday (a half-page summary of projects in progress and status send by email …completed day X will be completed day x). If he needs more handholding, and in person 30 minute meeting/progress report
• Staff meeting once a week, 30 minutes max, with an agenda, to review all projects (note that all coworkers should also be sending status reports, and address any problems) 0 in addition, during the meeting someone should take notes points of agreed upon activities, and this should later be distributed to everyone so that they “agree” to do activity X during the week, etc. The goal here is to avoid fire fighting sessions that happen throughout the week.

Again, I know that I sound like a moron for suggesting some of the above because wouldn't most business places do this? No (and I've worked/consulted for a lot of companies). THe micromanagers suck the life out of a job and need constant input.

If you have someone who reports to you and is laid back/great people person and has extra time - you could ask that person to send daily status reports to your boss and even chat with your boss on behalf of team X. If your boss needs this much handholding, though, I would accelerate your exit plan.
posted by Wolfster at 10:05 AM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

One thing we do is have a daily "stand-up" - everyone attached to a given project literally stands in a circle and says what they did yesterday and what they're working on today. It takes 5 minutes for a team of 15 people, and makes it clear to everyone what the status is.

(We started this on the software side - we're using agile development - but we adopted it on the web dev side as well to deal with some communication issues there as well. It's worked pretty well for everyone.)
posted by restless_nomad at 10:19 AM on April 15, 2010

Thanks for the rapid feedback.

I definitely agree that formal status reports and meetings are useful, we already have a weekly 2 hour (yes, 2 hours!) status meeting when he goes through every single person's work flow and tells us what to do next. In addition, I give him almost comically frequent updates (we speak probably 3-5 times daily about what I am doing) and I alert him to literally anything that is happening he isn't aware of or part of on a constant basis - this is what I am spending that 80-90% of my day on.

Agreed that my direct reports (and other members of the team) need some protecting, which is another large percentage of my time spent. Luckily people I manage are very happy with me, so that has been a source of some positive feedback up the ladder, he hasn't really impacted that.

The micromanagement is definitely irritating - however it's the tendency to make mountains out of molehills that really drives up my blood pressure. I often have the thought that things would be much smoother if we all calmed down (in my experience, that is true). And that is really the source of stress (micromanagement is just a source of wasted time).

I realized a few months ago that he actually loves the adrenaline caused by putting out fires, so sometimes he just ignites them on purpose. One day he gleefully told me about a firedrill going on with my colleague, and the sudden epiphany came to me: "He loves drama!"

I started on my exit plan immediately. I happen to love getting things done with a minimum of fuss and drama (at least we both love getting things done, which is why it's gone as well as it has so far).

Any other good short-term coping strategies out there? (love the mantra!)
posted by rainydayfilms at 10:51 AM on April 15, 2010

As someone who has had micromanaging bosses for some time now, let me point out that your boss could be the nicest man on the planet, but that doesn't help you or your team in dealing with the fires he creates and fans.

Two things jumped out at me as red flags: the fact that he wasn't like this to you while you were working with him but not for him, and the fact that he's stationary in his role.

Understand that he himself probably knows what he's like, but rationalizes it by saying to himself that he's being diligent, or cautious, or what-have-you. Or, he might be an adrenaline junkie who loves creating high-stress situations for the rush he gets when the issue is resolved. People like this love to characterize themselves as heroes for "putting out fires", even when the fires are self-created. However he rationalizes it, he seems to be seeing benefits to acting that way. Otherwise, he'd be on notice from his superiors to change what he's doing. So him changing his behaviour for any length of time is probably not going to happen.

Given that, I suggest the following:
1) Consider the possibility that you have an incompetent on your hands. Dude doesn't know or can't do his job, and is desperately trying to create an image of competence while being propped up from below and behind. Decide for yourself whether you want to continue to be a part of this guy's scaffolding.

2) If he's the "firefighter hero" type, you may simply want to look for work elsewhere. In the meantime, try to give him the blankets, buckets and axes he needs to put out the fires (I'm sure you already do this).

You could approach the issue humourously too, by giving him a red phone for his desk. :)
posted by LN at 11:17 AM on April 15, 2010

rainydayfilms, you posted just as I did. Apparently, we're on the same wavelength!

I still advocate a batphone for his desk. Maybe a police cherry, or a Danger Bomb Alarm Clock.
posted by LN at 11:26 AM on April 15, 2010

I'm living your life. In fact, I had to re-read this a few times to see if you're in our sister office. I get it. I'm living the life of "it feels like you're on a bad date with a friend's friend and you can't get out of it."

What is going on with me is that we have this mutual boss. I have a 1x1 with them about my immediate, paranoid, micromanaing behavior. I'm not there to tattle. I don't want to hurt her feelings because shoe on the other foot--it's total mean girl stuff and I don't want her to feel that way. BUT she's driving me nuts so I'm begging them to transition me off of her and report to other boss.

Do you have the option to report to a mutual boss? They could put it tactfully that your current boss has too much to do, objectives have changed, restructuring is necessary and you have a better boss to deal with.

Good luck. And if you're really at my sister office, I'll see you in tomorrow's meeting.
posted by stormpooper at 11:44 AM on April 15, 2010

I could have posted this about 15 years ago (and that boss died of a heart attack a few weeks ago, far too young). He mostly drove me nuts and eventually out of the company, but one of the few tactics that usually worked was to overload him with details.

One of his traits seemed to be that he could not prioritize - every single thing was equally important to every other thing. So he fretted over small details and made everything into a huge mountain of stress, then congratulated himself on solving this (self-created) problem that everyone else was just too incompetent to even see! Blargh. But using this tendency to our advantage, we could dump vast mounds of data/reports/proposals on him and he would read all of it compulsively, tying up his time for hours at a stretch. (Seriously, he absolutely could not ignore anything that came across his desk.)

Is there any way to flood your boss with information he just can't refuse? Drown him in so much sheer data he'll have to hole up in his office for several hours to process it all? Don't edit it for what's actually important, just turn on the firehose and let him wade through it all. Might buy you a few hours of peace and quiet occasionally.
posted by Quietgal at 12:19 PM on April 15, 2010

Ugf, forgot the "how-to" aspect. Every email gets cc'd to the boss whether it really concerns him or not. He gets a copy of every memo, every report, every freakin' piece of paper you touch. Every meeting that pops up on your calendar pops up on his too. Request his input on every decision that you don't care too much about (don't let him slow down the important stuff, but let him dither over what model of photocopier/fax machine the office really needs).

And ask him to review data, or code, or whatever the coin of your realm is. This was often surprisingly helpful with my boss, because his fanatic obsession with detail occasionally let him see stuff that the rest of us missed. (Because we were usually running late because this guy kept wasting our time with stupid meetings and nonexistent problems, but whatever ..)
posted by Quietgal at 12:31 PM on April 15, 2010

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