How to Deal

Managing a Micromanager

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By Lily Garcia
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, October 9, 2008; 12:00 AM

I am a research assistant at a not-for-profit research organization. While my immediate supervisor is a great manager, I interact mostly with a project director. My project director is a great analyst, a really nice person, and we get along very well. If he weren't such a nice person I'd probably kill him. He feels the need to be in control of his projects, yet doesn't have the time to do everything so he delegates it out, but he still needs to know what's going on. He doesn't micromanage every decision that I make, but will sometimes micromanage the overall process.

I am responsible enough and so good at my job that I feel like I should be making more decisions than I am. Sometimes I feel like I'm not being allowed to grow. Sometimes I feel like I'm not trusted, but if I weren't trusted, then why would this project director always want to work with me or rely on me for so much? I have been trying to take initiative to do more, but we're short-staffed so I'm swamped with work.

For what it's worth, I'm hopefully leaving next year to go to graduate school. Over the next year, how do I either politely get my project director to back off or how do I learn from his tendency to micromanage? I really value his opinion and I respect him a lot, but I don't need a lot of direction in order to do my job.

It's not you, as the saying goes, it's him. He probably trusts you as much as he is humanly capable of trusting anyone. Yet, his need to control the process to ensure that nothing, nothing goes wrong overwhelms his capacity to effectively delegate.

To some extent, each of us type-A overachievers harbors anxiety about ceding control of our work to someone else. I recall a graduate schoolmate of mine who lived by the words, "If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself." As chief editor of a scholarly journal, this meant line editing every article and sleeping very little. He was able to pull it off, but he was stretched to his limits. Astute managers understand that there is considerable power in being able to let go because it can expand your reach and your ability to get things done by many degrees. The key is to hire good people, train them well, and trust them to perform.

Your project director has yet to learn this lesson, and for good reason. Like my schoolmate, he has probably achieved excellent results by controlling projects as much as possible. He has not yet reached the point at which his style starts to become a limitation to achievement. And I guarantee you that he will not get there over the course of the year that you have remaining with the organization.

So, to answer your question, trying to get your project director to back off, even very politely, would be a waste of your time. His professional style is deeply rooted in who he is, and it has probably been working pretty well for him so far. Without a compelling reason to change, he will keep doing what he does in the way that he does it. Unfortunately, I doubt that your personal irritation with his approach could make the difference.

What will make the greatest difference in your project director's approach to you is your consistently thorough, timely, and error-free work. Over time, his grip on the project development process will probably loosen further. However, I do not think that you can realistically expect someone like him to learn to let go to the point that you feel that you have room for autonomy and growth.

If you find that you are no longer able to effectively function in the situation, I would suggest that you speak with your immediate supervisor about your project director's style and request to be assigned to a different project director, if possible.

Join Lily Garcia on Tuesday, Oct. 14, at 11 a.m. ET for How to Deal Live.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.


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