Is Your Boss Too Controlling? Many Employees Clash With Micromanagers

Jul 17, 2017
Originally published on July 26, 2017 6:38 am

Micromanagement is routinely the top complaint people have about their bosses, and in today's good job market where workers have more options, that's a bigger problem for employers.

People might have their own definition of when a manager crosses into being too controlling, but most people would probably agree that Marjon Bell's former boss would fit.

On her first day on a marketing job at a Virginia Beach, Va., insurance company, Bell's boss sent an email barring employees from bringing cellphones to the office. The email said that moms, especially, spent too much time on their phones checking up on their children.

That, Bell says, was just one of her boss's many rules.

"If we left campus for lunch, [we had] to email her when we left and email her when we got back," Bell says.

Predictably, few people took lunch.

The boss also monitored the instant messaging system, which displayed a green light when someone was logged in, and a yellow one after they had been idle.

"Usually you had like a 10-minute window before your light turned yellow, and then they changed it to only two minutes," Bell says. "And I came back from the restroom, and my boss was standing at my cubicle wondering where I'd been."

Bell says the micromanagement was systemic. Her employer offered a $500 monthly bonus that rewarded co-workers for micromanaging each other.

"If you came in five minutes late, if you left early, if you took a little bit longer at lunch, whoever reported you would get an accountability award," she says.

It was unclear whom Bell could trust, but she says morale was terrible. A disgruntled employee ransacked the toilets in the women's restroom, she says, "to stick it to the man." Management posted a notice outlining "rules on bathroom use" on the stall doors in response.

Bell quit after six months.

"I did the absolute bare minimum to get my paycheck," she says. "It did not make me want to help the company in any way."

Steve Motenko, an executive coach in Seattle, hears stories like this all the time. Micromanagement can kill motivation, employee creativity and job satisfaction, and yet it remains the biggest beef workers have about their boss.

"That's critically important, because it's complaints about the boss that drive most people out of organizations," he says.

That's especially a problem when recruitment is a top concern for employers, many of whom Motenko says aren't even aware of the micromanagers in their midst because departing employees often aren't questioned about it in exit interviews.

Motenko says micromanagement can reflect several problems. A bad hire or a lack of training might force a manager to constantly intervene. A disorganized boss often creates havoc that makes teamwork impossible.

These are all understandable, if regrettable, outcomes of poor management, but may not mean the person is necessarily a habitual micromanager — and circumstances make close supervision necessary, he says.

Still, many leaders Motenko has counseled have an overactive command-and-control style of leadership that leaves little room for worker autonomy, and he argues that doesn't fit most jobs today.

"We need employees who will do more than do what they're told — employees who will think for themselves, who will be creative, who will try new approaches," he says, "and all of that is squashed by micromanaging."

Studies show lack of autonomy at work elevates stress hormones and can have other negative health effects, potentially even hastening mortality.

It certainly took its toll for Chicago resident Abby Koch 15 years ago, when she worked for a jewelry store owner.

"She would literally say things like, 'Well, I'm not a micromanager ...' as she was standing behind me, literally looking over my shoulder," she says.

The owner's constant critiques eroded Koch's self-esteem and that of her co-worker.

"The other employee ended up having to take medication just to be able to go to work and not be crippled by anxiety," Koch says.

She lasted 18 months in that job.

"I ended up getting divorced, and I always thought my ... I don't know ... lack of standing up for myself in that situation may have caused my husband to lose some respect for me," she says.

Since then, she says she has always prized and chosen jobs that give her autonomy.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Have you ever complained about being micromanaged? If so, you have plenty of company. It's one of the top gripes employees have about their bosses. And as NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports, it's a big problem for employers, too.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: On her first day on the job at a Virginia Beach health insurer, Marjon Bell's boss sent an email barring employees from bringing cellphones to the office. The email said that moms especially spent too much time on their phones checking up on their children. That, Bell says, was just one of her boss's many rules.

MARJON BELL: If we left campus for lunch - to email her when we left and email her when we got back.

NOGUCHI: The boss monitored the instant messaging system which displayed a green light when someone was logged in and a yellow one after they'd been idle.

BELL: So usually you had, like, a 10-minute window before your light turned yellow. And then they changed it to only two minutes. And I came back from the restroom, and my boss was standing at my cubicle wondering where I'd been (laughter).

NOGUCHI: Bell says her employer offered a $500 monthly bonus that rewarded co-workers for reporting each other.

BELL: If you came in five minutes late, if you left early, if you took a little bit longer at lunch, whoever reported you would get an accountability award.

NOGUCHI: After a disgruntled employee ransacked the toilets, management posted new rules on bathroom use on every stall. Bell quit after six months.

BELL: I did the absolute bare minimum to get my paycheck. It did not make me want to help the company in any way.

NOGUCHI: Steve Motenko, an executive coach in Seattle, hears stories like this all the time. He says it's a big issue because micromanagement can kill motivation, the creativity of employees and job satisfaction.

STEVE MOTENKO: That's critically important because it's complaints about the boss that drive most people out of organizations.

NOGUCHI: Most companies understand that micromanagement is not a good thing, but preventing or addressing it can be a challenge. It's hard to define. When does behavior cross the line and become too controlling?

Motenko says micromanagement happens for various reasons. If a manager hires someone who is a bad fit or who hasn't received sufficient training, that might require frequent intervention, for example. But that may not mean that the person is a habitual micromanager. Still, many leaders Motenko has counseled have an overactive command and control style that leaves little room for worker autonomy. And he argues that doesn't fit for most jobs today.

MOTENKO: We need employees who will do more than do what they're told, employees who will think for themselves, who will be creative, who will try new approaches. And all of that is squashed by micromanaging.

NOGUCHI: Studies show individuals who don't have a lot of autonomy in their work experience higher levels of stress and other negative health effects. It certainly took its toll for Chicago resident Abby Koch, who 15 years ago worked for a jewelry store owner.

ABBY KOCH: She would literally say things like, well, I'm not a micromanager as she was standing behind me literally looking over my shoulder (laughter).

NOGUCHI: The constant critiques eroded Koch's self-esteem, as it did her co-worker's.

KOCH: Honestly, the other employee ended up having to take medication just to be able to go to work and not be crippled by anxiety.

NOGUCHI: Koch lasted 18 months in that job. Motenko, the management consultant, says often leaders aren't aware of their problem behaviors. But for those who do have the self-awareness, he says he coaches them to confront their fear of failure and recognize that doing their subordinates' work for them is a waste of resources and time. It is hard to teach a manager new tricks, he says, but it is possible. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.