Dealing with a micromanaging boss, grad student edition.
February 27, 2014 10:53 AM   Subscribe

OK, I know this question has been asked in various permutations many times before, but of course my situation is different and special. I have a boss who is a serious micromanager and very indecisive on top of that. It's driving me crazy and I need advice on how to cope. I'm a graduate student in the biological sciences.

This is about my PI, so I'm posting under a sock puppet account. I've been in this program for about a year and a half now, working under her since the beginning. My PI is a lovely person and a good scientist, and I know that things could be worse but this is starting to really bother me and I'm not sure what to do.

My PI is indecisive, disorganized, absentminded, and a severe micromanager. This is a problem that seems to have been growing worse over time. I'm not sure if it's just that my patience has worn thin or if her behavior has actually gotten more extreme with time, though I think a bit of both. The combination of traits makes being near her rather stressful, as she seems to be constantly in Panic Mode and is liable to pull you out of whatever you're doing at any time to tell you about whatever minor task or idea she has on her mind at the time – even if she's already told you about it several times, or indeed even if she has just emailed about it.

Recently she came literally running over to me to spend 20 minutes breathlessly telling me about something that needed to be done "sometime next week" and about which she had emailed me so recently that it hadn't even hit my phone yet (the notification bonged about two minutes into her speech). Her verbal instructions contained no information that wasn't in the email and in fact mostly consisted of her repeating several things (mostly irrelevant-to-me things about her own schedule) that she had already mentioned to me many times over the last week and which were, again, included in the email.

That was a typical event of a sort that happens multiple times a day. It stresses me out because her unnecessary panic rubs off on me, and it's also just annoying and disruptive to be pulled out of my work in order to listen to her tell me yet again about something that I already know. It's also particularly difficult because oftentimes she has great difficulty making decisions and will burn up hours and hours in email discussions and meetings about things that I feel would be better handled if she could just make a decision and then tell us what she wants us to do or when she wants us to do it. I'm not talking about big, complicated things like study design or manuscripts where obviously a lot of back-and-forth is important, but rather trivial things where it doesn't really matter how or when it's done as long as everybody is on the same page – things where what we need is not a consensus, but just a decision. Any decision, so long as we can all agree to stick to it (something else that she has a lot of trouble with).

I don't seem to be the only one in the lab affected by this – in fact when I started working there everybody would be pretty much in the lab all the time (my PI's office is basically attached to her lab) but now the place is a ghost town where nobody goes unless they have actual benchwork to do. Everybody has migrated to some other room or building or indeed will work from home as much as possible, because it's difficult to work productively when she's around since there's a constant worry (frequently reinforced) that at any moment she might come up from behind and suddenly dump a huge load of her stress on you. It's hard to read a paper, or interpret an analysis, or write when you feel like that might happen at any moment.

Needless to say it's even worse in the field (a lot of our work is fieldwork) but I won't go into any more detail because this is already getting long. Basically I'm trying to figure out what my options are for dealing with this, other than avoiding her as much as is practical (not really an optimal solution), making sure that I stay on top of everything she wants me to do (which helps but not as much as you might think because her micromanaging seems to be only slightly influenced by whether or not something has been discussed in the past and her decisions seem to fluctuate by the hour), and communicating with her via email as much of the time and in as much detail as possible.

I feel like the base of the problem is that she's currently just crazy stressed out and overworked and that for whatever reason she's not able to find ways of dealing with that which don't involve spreading it around to her students. She'll freely admit that she's overworked, but she's also very proud and stubborn and will never admit that she's having trouble handling it. I wish I could take some of the load off of her but I am neither her administrative assistant nor her therapist, and while I want to maintain a friendly professional relationship on a student/mentor level I do not want to be friends with her on a personal level. If there are ways you can think of to help her relax that don't involve blurring that line then I'd be happy to hear them.

Keep in mind that this is a grad student/PI situation here, which is rather different from a normal employee/employer situation. There's no HR to complain to (talking to the department chair would be ill-advised) and if my relationship with her sours then it could easily doom my entire career. Understand as well that despite the stress I think she's a good PI overall; she hasn't always been like this, and in other ways she does an excellent job. She's a good researcher, she gives constructive advice, she seems to understand her students' needs (other than the need to be left alone sometimes to get on with our work), etc. I like my PI. I just wish she could calm the heck down and let me (and the rest of her lab) get on with our work. How do I handle this?
posted by Grey_Area to Work & Money (6 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You might consider using a simple ticket tracking system like trello. I have some customers who are prone to micromanaging the projects I work on. They are much less annoying when they can obsess over what thing is being worked on, what has been done, etc. without actually calling or talking to me constantly. They can make cards for tasks too, and you can break them down further.
posted by rockindata at 11:16 AM on February 27, 2014

You're going to have to 'manage' her.

If you have a good relationship with her, sit down and simply say, "I really enjoy working with you, I admire you as a PI and as a scientist. We have different styles of dealing with issues however, and I have some ideas as to how you can help."

1. I know that you like to get as much input on decisions as possible. While I know some things should be considered carefully, other things don't require my presense or input to be decided. Should this be the case, do you mind if I bow out of the process?

2. When I'm in the lab I'm very focused on what I'm doing. Rather than inturrupting me, as you're going now, is there a way we can schedule a short 15-minute update session daily that would allow me to shift gears from what I'm working on, to whatever you might need my feedback on? (Inturrupt seems like such a harsh word, but I can't think of any other way to put it.)

3. I'd like to recommend that we keep a project tracker so that you know what I'm working on, and where we are in the process. This would also allow you to add projects, and to allocate appropriate timelines and milestones for each project. (It may also help her get her shit together. It could be as simple as a list on a whiteboard or an Excel spreadsheet.)

4. I know that you're passionate about your work. Sometimes your passion feels like stress to me, which then stresses me out. I think that if we work together to touch base frequently, have transparency in our scheules and make communication easy, that we can both benefit from a calmer and more tranquil work environment.

I think by being gentle, and by having concrete suggestions for alternative ways for her to deal with her cray-cray, that you might be able to steer her barge away from the sandbar.

Only you know if this would work or not, but I think that if you were kind, firm and non-judgemental, that she might see the error of her ways.

I find that those folks who are in constant chaos really believe that they are IMPORTANT and VITAL and GETTING THINGS DONE. When what they are actually doing is chasing their tails.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:39 AM on February 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

This might not be micromanaging so much as the sort of normal creative back-and-forth that should be going on in a good science lab. A lot of students want a linear path set before them: the PI says 'you do this and this and this' and then you publish a couple of papers and get your PhD.

That's not really how it works, though. Science is a constantly moving nonlinear discussion/argument, and what seems like a good idea now may not be later. Or a better one might come up, either as a result of your data or that of someone else. You should have several projects ongoing, which maximizes the likelihood of something working.

Recently she came literally running over to me to spend 20 minutes breathlessly telling me about something that needed to be done "sometime next week"

That is a good thing. She has a new idea and is excited to tell you about it. She's trying to include you in the conversation. Grad school is not a job. You are exploring your part of the universe. If talking about new ideas and/or things that are exactly related to the field you're working in is a burden instead of the good part of your graduate school experience you're doing it wrong.
posted by overhauser at 11:49 AM on February 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Is your PI up for tenure/promotion soon? The "recently has been increasing" might also mean the situation is temporary, if there's something coming up.
posted by nat at 1:04 PM on February 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Posting under a sockpuppet account because I have a boss juuuuuuust like this. (I work in academia but am not a PhD student.) Lovely person, great teacher and researcher, but oh dear God have I wanted to throw him out of a window at times.

Things I and colleagues have found useful for managing him:

- scheduled meeting slots, once a week. We don't always have a meeting at this time but at least it's there in the diary if there are things to discuss. Then, lots of repeated "let's save that for the meeting," "can we discuss this at the meeting when so-and-so will be here?", "I'll have a think about that and get back to you on Wednesday at the meeting," etc. It has cut down on a lot of the impromptu fly-by drop-ins and phone calls that end up being two-hour-long unofficial meetings.

- corollary: meetings must be firmly structured, otherwise what we end up with is a very lengthy stream of consciousness monologue about Boss's thoughts/concerns/workload followed by "oh wait, is that the time?" and then he's off somewhere else. So now, every meeting has a printed agenda. Offer to be the person in charge of drawing up the agenda if possible - it is a pain but at least means you know the meeting will have one - and make sure there's a point for 'Any Other Business' at the end. Your boss goes off on a tangent, you redirect with 'Let's discuss that once we've got [Item] out of the way', etc. It is also easier to get decisions made when you're dealing with one item at a time.

- keep written records. Of EVERYTHING. (They should be in a place where everybody involved can access them, too.) Several advantages to this: a) it gives Boss an alternative to dealing with stressful issues, urgent to-do items, etc., by the previous method of phoning/visiting someone else to talk about it, but not getting anything constructive actually done or decided; b) if/when Boss forgets decisions made previously, they are now documented somewhere they can be easily found and referenced; c) you can encourage your boss to communicate things to you by email, when you can deal with them in your own time, rather than in person or by phone ('otherwise I'll forget what we discussed/we decided/you wanted me to do').

- keep the remaining unplanned, unscheduled, rambly let-me-offload-my-stress-onto-you discussions as short as possible - partly by working elsewhere, partly by a lot of 'I can talk for a little while now, but *checks watch* I've got a meeting/class/lunch/other thing to get to at 2 so I'll need to leave in ten minutes... could you email me?' etc.

Also, just accepting that Boss is the way Boss is and will forevermore be, and it actually works out pretty well for him, even if it looks from the outside like a crisis state we should be rushing to respond to. And he is actually a really great person with a lot of valuable academic insight to share. It's easier to see that, and to find him a lot less stressful to be around, with the above measures in place.
posted by smockpuppet at 2:57 PM on February 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

Your PI may be new enough to being a PI that she doesn't understand the power that she has over your time and life. It sounds a bit like she is behaving more in the mode of an excited labmate than a boss who expects you to drop everything for her train of thought.

So it may help you both for you to gently nudge her around that: "I'm working on X right now and later this afternoon I need to get Y and Z done. Should I rearrange that plan to fit in some time on New Thing, or could we talk about it at 3?" The point being that you had a plan for your time that you'd still like to execute but could modify; but you are not a passive audience.
posted by Dashy at 9:58 PM on February 27, 2014

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