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Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco.

Team Culture

Manage Up: How to Deal with a Micromanager

Leading doesn't only happen from the top down.


Many of us have chafed from time to time under an “I’ll tell you what to do” boss—a boss that commands you rather than allowing you to learn and develop yourself. These bosses are what I call “level 1 leaders.” The good ideas, passion, and enthusiasm we naturally bring to our profession get sapped. Frustration mounts. Eventually we just want to move on. In an April 2015 Gallup survey, 50 percent of the respondents stated that they left their job to get away from their manager.

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series on leadership. To start from the beginning, click here.

While the ladder of leadership can be a great tool for leaders to level up their workers, we can also use this framework to help us level up a boss.

Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco.

Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco.

A level 1 boss is characterized by telling people what to do—in person, on the phone, in email. But let’s say you have ideas you think your leader should hear. How do you best communicate what you’d like to be doing to a boss who’d rather order you around? Follow this four step process, remembering, your objective is to be heard, not sway the decision.

  1. Pick an issue you could support the boss either way on.
  2. Pick a time when the boss isn’t under too much stress from time or performance pressure.
  3. Agree to support the boss with either decision they make and assure them that you will support either way.
  4. Ask if they would like to hear what you (or “the team”) thinks about the issue before they decide.

We role-play this situation and this is the only consistent process which results in bosses agreeing to hear the worker.

Why does this work? Let’s break it down.

The point is to remove any contest of authority from the table. When you want to challenge the decision, it’s often instead perceived as a challenge to authority. Most people who engage in level 1 “I’ll tell you what to do…” behavior do not respond well to challenges to their authority. That’s why it’s important to pick an issue you can (honestly) support either side of.

Then you need to pick a moment when the stress of the job isn’t too great. Stress always pushes us, as leaders, and your boss, down toward level 1. When time or performance pressures mount, we tend to have less patience, less time for hearing what the people around us think, and less tolerance for “wrong answers and sloppy thinking.” It happens to you and your boss as well. Avoid those times.

When time or performance pressures mount, we tend to have less patience. Avoid those times.

Then state strongly that you will support either decision. Let’s say you are a computer engineer and there’s a debate over how a certain user interface looks. There are two choices. The team likes option A. The boss is pushing for option B. Since there aren’t any moral, safety, or ethical issues, it might feel like a big deal but it isn’t. Let the boss know you can design it their way if they want (and mean it). This takes the contest of authority off the table and assures your boss that you are a loyal lieutenant. It means you need to honestly and enthusiastically be able to support either decision.

Finally, ask if the boss is interested in hearing what the team thinks about it. When there is no choice, there is no responsibility. By opting to hear the feedback, they are now invested. Whenever possible give the other person a choice about whether and how they want to hear it. By this point, they should be open to hearing what you think. If they say no, so be it. Don’t protest, just try again next time.

When there is no choice, there is no responsibility.

One of my Chiefs from the USS Sante Fe went on to become the senior enlisted man on another submarine. He was the enlisted equivalent to the captain. The title is Chief of the Boat and we call them “COB.” He inherited an “I’ll tell you what to do” captain who wasn’t interested in what his team thought.

During their periodic meetings, the captain would tell everyone what he wanted them to do. The COB would reply with a “yes, sir.” If he had ideas to make things better, he would then say, “Captain, we will execute what you have ordered. However, I think we could do better, or accomplish more if we tried this.” Sometimes this captain would listen; sometimes he would just tell them what to do. Over time the meetings evolved from everyone being told what to do, to this captain hearing the thoughts, recommendations, and intents of the team. He would jokingly say, “Look COB, I know you are going to tell us what you think so why don’t you go ahead and start the meeting.”

Here are some strategies that won’t work:

  • Citing your extensive experience. (tells them you don’t see them as credible)
  • Citing your in-depth knowledge. (same issue)
  • Claiming you are trustworthy.  (you need to demonstrate trustworthiness)

If things don’t improve you will no doubt consider taking another job. Any decision to change jobs is a complex one, however, we use a simple test to see if we even should change. I ask people to imagine their son or daughter were in their job, and had to deal with the issues they deal with.  Would they want their child to quit on the bad boss? Then that’s the answer. By the time you find out that your health has been adversely affected by a toxic work environment, it’s already too late.

How about you? 

How do you “manage up?”

David Marquet

David is the former commander of the nuclear powered submarine USS Santa Fe and author of Turn the Ship Around!, which Fortune Magazine called the “best how-to manual anywhere for managers on delegating, training, and driving flawless execution.”

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