Managing a Micromanager

Michael Zigarelli

Copyright 2010 by All rights reserved.

If the title of this article caught your eye, you’ve probably known a micromanager or two. Maybe you occasionally see the profile first hand, in all of its domineering, insulting, oppressive, control-freakish glory. Or maybe you have the distinct privilege of working daily for a micromanager and you just want this person — let’s call him “Robert” (though more than a few Roberta’s fit this profile as well) — to back off, to treat you like an adult, and to let you do your job

Problem is, Robert doesn’t trust you and he’s not easily influenced. Most of the standard approaches to persuasion will not work with Robert, since he’s not very teachable and he has an enormous ego driving his management style.

So what’s the solution? How do you improve this situation, or at least survive it? How can you manage a micromanager?

One answer may be to “go with the flow,” so to speak. Never fight an autocratic boss. Don’t make demands on a dictator. In fact, don’t give Robert any hint at all that you want him to change. That’ll only exacerbate his controlling behavior. Instead, understand how Robert thinks and then go with the flow of that thinking. Use what’s called a “consultative approach” to influence: If he wants to be the king, let him be by going to his throne often and asking for the king’s advice.

You see, whether he says so or not, Robert loves giving advice. He has a Ph.D. in everything. So if you get in the habit of asking for that advice before he gives it to you (which is almost inevitable), you may change the nature of your relationship with him and eventually — and it could take awhile — he’ll give you some more breathing space.

Here’s how it works. Let’s say Robert’s been hovering over you, nitpicking at your work, giving you unsolicited step-by-step instructions about how to perform tasks, when in point of fact, you know how to do the work better than Robert does. Infuriating, right? Then on top of that, he gives you an assignment to lead a team, only to torpedo the alleged empowerment by telling the team exactly what to do and how to do it. Don’t let him see your anger. That will only fuel his mistrust and suspicion. Rather, on your next task, be shrewd enough to go to Robert and ask what he thinks should be done before he tells you what should be done. It doesn’t matter that you may already know how to do the stuff. And it doesn’t matter that seeking his counsel does nothing to immediately change Robert’s dysfunctional behavior. You have one and only one goal in this initial exchange: To demonstrate to Robert that you respect him.

Think about it: In Robert’s world, he’s one of the few people who can do things right. Most people can’t be trusted with autonomy, he thinks — not his employees, not his wife, not his teenagers, sometimes not even his dog. So they need to be specifically directed and controlled (“encouraged” or “led,” as Robert would say.)  You, on the other hand, because of your multiple requests for Robert’s counsel (and again, it may take months), are different. Robert will eventually perceive you to be the trustworthy and intelligent minion that he wants everyone to be. Ultimately, he’ll likely see you as a ray of light in his relatively dark work life

Lest we think this is somehow deceptive, unethical or counter-biblical, consider this: When dealing with a smart but difficult person, Jesus Himself used a consultative approach to influence. Recall the story in Luke when an “expert in the law stood up to test Jesus,” asking Him: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25-26). Do you remember how Jesus handled this?

Before Him stood a man who was quite learned, a scholar who was well-versed in the Hebrew Bible. Jesus could have just given the man the answer, of course. Or he could have told a story in response, as he so often did. But instead, recognizing that a great way to persuade a person like this is by showing him some respect, Jesus sought the man’s answer first, replying “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” The scholar jumped on that by citing Israel’s credo — love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength and mind — and love your neighbor as yourself. And then, only after respecting the man by soliciting his perspective, did Jesus give His response: “You have answered correctly.” Do this and you will live.”

That’s how the consultative approach to influence works. The scholar may not have walked away from the conversation liking Jesus, but he walked away with both an answer to his question and, in all likelihood, a little more respect for Jesus, simply because Jesus first respected the man enough to ask for his opinion.

You see, respect begets respect. Sowing and reaping are in full operation here.

The same is true in your workplace. To manage a micromanager, or to influence anyone who considers himself or herself pretty smart, take a humble posture rather than a resistant one. Let your “Robert” sit on his throne — he’s going to anyway — by asking for his counsel regularly, even if you don’t think you need it. If you make this a habit, three things will probably happen. First, you’ll glean some good ideas from these conversations that you may not have identified otherwise (if, that is, you’re more teachable than Robert is). Second, you’ll eventually earn the right to be left alone by Robert, the very thing you wanted in the first place. He’ll still be micromanaging others, but in all likelihood, you’ll have built enough trust and relational capital to gain the autonomy you deserve. And third, you’ll be the sort of living witness that God wants in the workplace””an authentic Christian whose inner peace and positive attitude may ultimately cause Robert and others to inquire just what it is that makes you different.

So if you’re serious about alleviating this situation, start by checking your emotions at your boss’ door and rising above your visceral response. Then, be patient, be respectful, and be shrewd by being inquisitive. Remember, managing your micromanager begins by managing yourself.

Michael Zigarelli is a Professor at Leadership and Strategy at Messiah College and the editor of