'Keep Detailed Records Of Every Minute' And Other Micromanager Horror Stories

Jul 22, 2017

After we posted this story about the costs and implications of micromanagement, we received over 1,000 responses on Facebook, some of them sharing references to the 1990s cult classic movie Office Space and many of them relating their own stories of dealing with intense scrutiny from supervisors.

So we asked Steve Motenko, a Seattle-based executive coach, to give us some thoughts on your responses.

Many of them had to do with bosses who concerned themselves with time management. And bathroom breaks appear to be a big bugaboo for managers who like to keep very close tabs on their workers. (Some workers said they were harassed about leaving their desks to go to the toilet, so they ended up taking their laptops to work in the john.)

Time management

"My old job took a screenshot of my monitor every five minutes," Bill Yerds Huston wrote. "The owner would go through them daily to ensure I was working. I quit after 3 months."

Some bosses required Excel spreadsheets of how workers spent their day.

"As a research technician I had a boss ... that required me to keep detailed records of every minute of my day, and send them to her at the end of each day," Corrina Stoddart said. "It went something like this: '9am-9:10: check morning emails. 9:10-9:25: format spreadsheet. 9:25-9:30: phone call with you.' etc. etc. Every day for 2 years."

Motenko says: "I can't believe she lasted two years!

"There are rare instances in which [a close accounting of time] could be useful, such as when you're training or trying to improve time management for yourself, or because you're documenting it for a specific purpose," he says. "But when that's a default, that's a total lack of trust and a lack of understanding that people need to be self-determining in order to be effective and to be satisfied.

"In a way, the blame there is on the boss's boss, because they ought to know that that's happening."

These days, more people also work on multiple teams or on different projects and might report to more than one boss.

Laura Anneli writes that she had a job "where I had two bosses — a married couple who were the business owners. Mr. Boss was hands-off; Ms. Boss was a micromanager. They had completely conflicting and unrealistic expectations for the position."

Motenko says family businesses are "notorious for that sort of thing. Nowadays, most often you might have two different bosses, or two different kinds of projects or even more. It's tougher and tougher these days to satisfy all these obligations. It's about communication; the more complex organizations get, the more communication is necessary. So ideally, the husband and wife are open to sitting down with you and having a conversation. Ideally you can be honest with both of them and say, 'I'm getting conflicting expectations from both of you and it's causing me to not understand what my priorities are. It would help the effectiveness of my work product. How much creativity is allowed in my position?'

"They might not know that they have different expectations, and that's a problem."

When does it cross over into abuse?

"Micromanaging is just a fancy word for workplace bullying," Meg Garstang wrote.

Motenko says, "That can be the case. Sometimes micromanaging is a label that reflects an interpretation. That's a really hard question to answer simply, because it really depends on the situation and the personalities involved. The boss might be simply a perfectionist and might be committed to quality control, and might not realize that that the supervision is too close. On the other hand, if I'm a psychologically unhealthy person — and so much of this does go back to childhood — I'm going to tolerate less of it. I would say that the gray areas are more common."

The boss's perspective — especially about being late

Lindsey Dorsett-Golberg says she is scared to criticize any of her employees. "If I said ANYTHING to a couple of my employees about coming in 30 [minutes] late EVERY DAY or spending half their day looking at their cellphones or only completing about 70 percent of their work they would aggressively FREAK OUT ..." she says. "It makes me nervous to say anything to my new employees now. Then I read this stuff and have to check my anxiety. I could be a terrible boss like the ones you're mentioning!!!!!"

Leigh Ulrich says, "It hurts morale when an employee routinely comes in late or leaves early with no oversight. That said, asking their co-workers to police the problem behavior is both unprofessional and fosters a toxic work environment."

Michael Dunn adds, "Holding people accountable for being late is not micromanagement. Getting to work on time is called respecting your coworkers."

Motenko says: "Most of the current wisdom on offering feedback says that you start by talking about very specific behaviors. You're requesting a change in behavior. They may not be aware of negative impacts at all to the team. They just see it as a problem that they're having, as opposed to a problem the team is having. So I think it's important for the boss, in a compassionate way, to help bring awareness to the impacts on the team as a way to help motivate the employee to resolve the issue.

"In general, a conversation in which you want an employee to change behavior, a big part of the conversation has to be on outcomes that we share. What are we here to do together, what satisfies you about the work product ... how do we want to solve this? And then talk about the employee's behavior on that ... then it becomes less personal."

Control over office supplies

Cheryle Ross says: "This is short, but sums up my manager completely: 'I did not hear the lid of that highlighter click when you put it back on.' "

Motenko finds that anecdote hilarious, but adds: "There's a number of things there. One thing that many managers don't understand is that every rule that you create strips a little piece off of everyone's self-determination.

"Solicit buy-in on what the goal is and whether it is important from the perspective of customers, etc. ... On the other hand, if it's that you're controlling or you're really organized ... that's deadly. That's micromanaging.

"The foundation of any team is trust. The more you erode trust, the more you demoralize employees."

Email control

Denise Beck says she once had a manager that "demanded all emails, external and internal, be sent to her to review before they were sent to the other party. If she didn't like the phrasing, or didn't think it was clear enough, she would demand me to rewrite it to her satisfaction, including any typos she suggested. She also wrote me up for typing too loudly on my computer."

Motenko says this means that the boss "could be doing at a more strategic level, if she wasn't copy editing or proofreading emails. Again, at the beginning of employment, I could see a boss saying they want to see the most significant emails — but for that to be a regular thing or a consistent thing is clearly egregious. ...

"If your boss is able to hear how demotivating that is, how it feels to have a complete lack of trust that you can handle something on your own, you're going to have to bring that forward.

"At the very least you can say, for example, 'I'm curious what it is about my email style that makes you feel like you have to review.' Or 'what would it take for you to be confident that my emails are OK without you having to review every one?'

"A boss who does that doesn't realize the impact it has. Somebody's gotta let that boss know."

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