Practical Steps for Managing a Micro-Manager (hint: you can’t change them)

Everyone hates it… Micro-Managers! No one ever thinks they micro-manage others, but let’s face it… we have probably all had at least one. I’ve had my share. I kid others that if not for micro-managers, corporate training, and role-playing, I might still be working rather than retired!

I remember how it feels to work for a micro-manager. You never feel adequate, you feel as though you are failing, and your work is never good enough. After awhile, those thoughts make it seem as though you are groping through a heavy fog for direction and purpose.

As much as we hate working for a micro-manager, do they actually get better results? What are the characteristics of a micro-manager? Is micro-management an innate part of our personality or is it learned (genetics versus environment) or does it even really matter? How do you deal with and, possibly, even thrive under a micro-manager? Today, I’ll try to help answer these questions and, hopefully, provide you with some practical techniques or approaches to help you develop a plan forward.

The impact of micro-management on results

There are some individuals that might argue that micro-management is necessary to achieve positive results. They might point to someone like George Patton, as an example. Patton was a strong leader, yet his approach was very directive and demanding. A leader can be demanding without micro-managing.

When micro-managers are allowed or encouraged in an organization, individuals willingly give up their own opinions and defer to the micro-manager. I remember one manufacturing site environment that was led by a classic micro-manager. This individual demanded to see every document, every report, and review every action before it became final. After a while, individuals in that organization stopped being innovative, stopped feeling that their work mattered, and essentially relinquished their job to the micro-manager.

When micro-managers are allowed to lead, these negative things happen:

  1. Other leaders stop doing their own job – Why take a chance to be second-guessed? If he/she is going to rewrite my report anyway, I’ll just let them do it.
  2. Work quality declines – The micro-manager thinks that their hand on every activity will ensure that the work gets done right. In fact, the reverse is often the case. When the experts stop spending the time to do things well (because they know the micro-manager will redo it anyway), the motivation to go the extra mile is extinguished.
  3. Work productivity declines – When the micro-manager has to touch everything before it goes forward, he/she becomes a gate-keeper that slows down progress. I recall having a manager like this once and his “to do or to review” pile was over 3-feet high. It took weeks to get even the most simple report off his desk!
  4. Morale is negatively impacted – Clearly, individuals that are micro-managed lose the motivation to go above and beyond. They already feel unappreciated, so the ongoing feeling of inadequacy fuels a never-ending morale decline. Then, as a result, productivity and work quality are impacted.

Characteristics of a micro-manager

Before we go any further, I need to make a statement:

“Micro-management has no place in good leadership. An effective leader influences others to be productive largely through positive relationships. A micro-manager cannot trust others, thus, cannot create the positive relationships that define a good leader.”

Let’s look a little closer at a micro-manager:

  1. A micro-manager trusts only self – Most micro-managers have an elevated opinion of their own abilities and performance. As a result, they feel that the work quality needed will be achieved only if they have their hand on the final product. So, they only trust themselves to do work to the required level.
  2. A micro-manager lacks self-confidence – Most micro-managers I have known are insecure. This manifests itself in performance over-reach for themselves and others. Thus, they feel a need to overcome their own inadequacy by criticizing (actively or passively) the abilities and work of others.
  3. A micro-manager operates from a position of fear – The insecurity of most micro-managers results in a fear that they will not be successful. Thus, they feel a need to touch everything, to oversee to an extreme, and to keep a tight rein on others they manage.
  4. A micro-manager always assumes you are keeping information from them – The insecurity and fear that drive most micro-managers results in a feeling that, when you don’t inform them of everything, they will look inadequate to others. This fear of looking bad to others drives their over-reliance on information. They also have this fear that you might outshine them in front of their own management team.
  5. A micro-manager believes that only they are capable of making critical decisions – Many micro-managers think so highly of themselves that they feel a need to have their own fingerprints on every critical activity. So, they elevate their own status by demeaning others. As a result, your own feelings of inadequacy grow over time.
  6. A micro-manager is always looking for a way to deflect blame away from him/herself – Most micro-managers fear being all alone when a bad decision is made. Thus, they continually seek to protect themselves by either deflecting blame or by ensuring that their culpability is protected.

Practical steps for managing a micro-manager

Here are a few steps I have taken or directly experienced from others that might help you deal with your own micro-manager:

  1. Recognize that you cannot change a micro-manager – Yes, that’s right, you can’t make a micro-manager change into a trusting leader. So many times, I’ve heard colleagues tell me about how they believe that their micro-manager will start trusting them after they have gained some experience with their work style and work results. It won’t happen! It is possible for a micro-manager to mitigate their negative behavior, but they must do it. They have to initiate this significant behavioral change on their own. Even this is nearly impossible. In fact, I have never seen a true micro-manager loosen his/her grip on knowing every detail or verifying every action. You might be able to eventually gain some latitude with a micro-manager, but it is temporary (until the next issue or surprise) and is simply in hibernation. It won’t last! So, once you recognize this, you change your approach from trying to change your micro-manager to learning to manage him/her.
  2. Begin over-communicating – Micro-managers tend to always think you are holding back information they need. Thus, they feel a need to know what you are doing, the status of every project in real time, and what is next… in detail! I once had a micro-manager that exhibited this behavior. Despite the fact that I was responsible for operations in several countries with several hundred personnel, he constantly felt the need to know mundane details of those operations. Ultimately, I simply got tired of providing him with multiple updates daily on topics that should not have been on his radar. So, I began keeping a log of key activities during the week (a simple list). Then, every Friday, I would provide him with a detailed report of those activities from the week with a list of planned key activities for the following week. In essence, I started over-communicating. Yes, this did consume a couple hours of time each week, but I quickly found that this weekly report helped immensely in keeping my micro-manager informed enough to leave me alone.
  3. Have a frank discussion with your micro-manager – It could be possible that your micro-manager inflicts severe oversight on you simply because he/she believes you prefer that management style or that they do not realize how it impacts you. Perhaps, they are not a true micro-manager, but they just need a nudge from you to back off. This is probably rare, but I have seen it occur. This approach is more successful if you have a respectful relationship with your micro-manager. Simply telling him/her that your performance is being stifled because you don’t have the freedom to operate might encourage the micro-manager to ease up. However, don’t be discouraged if this approach is not successful.
  4. Get honest feedback on your own performance – The reason you are being micro-managed might be because you need it! It could be that you lack the experience or capability to actually perform to the level desired. Find a peer or mentor that can be unbiased and provide open, honest feedback regarding your performance and why your micro-manager might feel a need to provide extreme oversight for you. Another good indicator for this might be whether others reporting to the same micro-manager are also being micro-managed. If you are alone, it could indicate a need to modify your own performance rather than blame the micro-manager.
  5. Seek advice from others that have successfully worked with your micro-manager – In most organizations, you can easily find other individuals that have seemingly survived or at least coped with your micro-manager in the past. Because circumstances may be similar for you, ask for advice on what worked for that individual. What did that individual do to fend off or deal with the constant oversight that plagues you?
  6. Learn to cope until circumstances change – In some cases, nothing you can do seems to help. Your micro-manager cannot be influenced to loosen the reins or provide you more freedom. Techniques you have used do not help. And, to top it off, you must remain in this position because of geography, family circumstances, etc. In these cases, you must simply develop personal techniques to cope with the problem until it is resolved by other means (the micro-manager leaves, for example). In one of my difficult positions in the past, I forced myself to leave the site every day at noon to get away. I would get lunch at a drive up restaurant and listen to my car radio while eating. This time away gave me a chance to clear my mind and begin the afternoon with a clearer mind… a fresh start. Others I have known take a walk at noon, listen to music, or some other way to change focus from work to something more relaxing. Another way to deflect your anxiety is to focus on helping others. It is amazing how your perspective changes from your own problems when you are helping someone else deal with their own. In short, until something changes, you need to find a way to escape for a time to allow your body and mind to recharge.
  7. Leave – If everything else fails, it might be time to leave your current situation and find another role. Life is too short to spend most of your time at work in a situation that causes you significant anxiety. When you’ve tried everything else to no avail, begin looking for that next chapter. How do you know when it is time? My two keys for knowing a change is needed were: How do I feel on Sunday night when I begin thinking about work on Monday morning? Where do I want to be 5 years from now and can I get there from here? When you honestly seek the answer to these two questions, you’ll know when the time to make a change has arrived.

Being micro-managed is no fun. But, by understanding its source and how you might effectively deal with it can make life better and your stress less burdensome.

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Retirement Q&A

Retired

For those of you nearing, pondering, or working toward that last day of your career, I thought it might be helpful to provide some basic information that I have learned in my first three years of retirement. I must admit that I am not an expert on many technical aspects of these topics. However, I feel that I now have enough real-world experience that can assist you in your own preparation. If you have other questions that you would like me to try to address in future posts, just send me a separate note and I’ll add your questions to the list.

Just to set the stage, I retired at age 61. My wife is also retired. We have no pension and do not plan to work part-time during retirement.

  1. In your opinion, what are those key markers or indicators (financial or otherwise) that tell you that you can consider retirement? – There are three elements of preparing for retirement: financial (Do I have enough money to live how I want that will last the rest of my life?), emotional (To a large extent, my work has defined me for the last 40 years… can I give that up?), and social (How do I replace my workplace social network with a new network). So, you need to consider factors in all three areas to determine if it is time to consider retirement. If you are comfortable with your answers to these questions, the time might be right:
    • Financial – Hopefully, you have been looking at your own financial picture in preparation for retirement for several decades. At its core, you simply must determine if you have the financial means to provide enough ongoing income to live the lifestyle you desire and maintain that throughout the rest of your life. Several questions must be answered before you can check the financial box:
      • What income is required?
      • Do I have debt?
      • Will my lifestyle change (e.g., relocation, downsizing, etc.)?
      • Is my health good?
      • What sources of income can I expect in retirement and are they sustainable?
      • Am I prepared to handle unexpected large expenses (such as a new car, new roof, new furnace, etc.)?
      • Am I planning on leaving a legacy inheritance upon my death?
      • Can my finances withstand long-term care expenses?
    • Emotional – Most people do little to prepare for the changes to their routine and personal identity that come with retirement. Certainly, we all look forward to having more time for neglected hobbies. Filling the days with activities is not difficult. However, filling the days with activities you believe have value may be another thing entirely. Being prepared to handle these significant changes can mean the difference between a happy retirement and a depressing time of life. Several questions to help you prepare for this include:
      • Am I OK with leaving behind my career position, status, and everything that goes with it?
      • Do I have hobbies that I enjoy that can provide fulfilling activity and, possibly, interaction with others?
      • Is my spouse ready for me to spend more time at home?
      • Are there things I have been looking forward to doing once I have more time?
      • Can I truly relax (by this I mean… Can I be satisfied sitting on the deck for an hour each morning observing nature and enjoying time doing nothing? Or, am I miserable when I’m not actively involved in a project or other activity?)?
    • Social – Perhaps, one of the biggest shocks in retirement is going from daily/hourly interaction with your work team – possibly, individuals you have known and worked with for decades – to more isolation? In other words, will you go nuts without the frequent people interactions that defined your work life? Here are several things to consider:
      • Do you have other individuals in your life that you’ll spend more time with?
      • Do you enjoy quiet hobbies that you can do alone, such as reading, writing, crafts, etc.?
      • How much will it bother you to not be “in the loop” for work things?
      • Can you imagine, and accept, that your work colleagues will quickly be so consumed with their own work that contacts with you will become less and less frequent?
      • Are you readily able to make new friends and seek new social relationships?
  2. What are some of the unexpected things you have experienced, so far, in your retirement experience? – Whenever you move into a new, unchartered chapter of life, there are always surprises or things you didn’t expect. I have had a few myself:
    • My wife and I did not expect that we would buy a vacation home shortly after retiring (more on that below).
    • I think our actual monthly expenses are lower than we expected. We monitor our expenses carefully and had conservatively estimated what they would be in retirement, but, so far, they have been lower.
    • The free time is even more enjoyable than expected. I tell people, “Every day is like Saturday, except Sunday.” The big difference is that, as opposed to Saturdays when you are working, if you don’t get a project done today, there is always tomorrow… or the next day. There is time to read (an activity that I simply didn’t do when I worked), resume old hobbies, or take up new ones. It is OK to accomplish nothing significant today. It is OK to stay up late. It is OK to take a nap. It is OK to do things for others because you still have so much time to do what you want.
    • I have not missed work. I can honestly say that I have not yet awaked wishing that I could go to work. Certainly, I miss interacting with friends and colleagues, but the transition to retirement for me was easy… when I drove away that last day, I left my work life behind.
  3. How did you know when you were financially able to consider retirement and what tools did you use to monitor financial progress? – To be honest, I began monitoring my retirement savings progress shortly after taking my first job. I felt it was that important to ensure that I was staying on plan. The bottom line is this… when your combined retirement income (savings, pensions, and social security) safely exceeds your ongoing expenses AND you have a safety net to address unexpected expenses, inflation, etc., you are probably in a position financially to consider retirement. For me, there are three things that helped ensure that I stayed on track:
    • A trusted financial advisor – We have been advised for about 30 years by the same individual. Jean has a calm, financially conservative approach that has helped keep us investing intelligently, consistently, and in a focused way.
    • A personal finance tracking tool – I have used an Excel spreadsheet to tracking our retirement savings for many years. At least quarterly, I review account totals, then meet with our advisor annually to make any needed changes. About 5 years from retirement, I began projections of retirement balances that go 30+ years into retirement that considered social security, inflation, expected investment returns, projected spending, etc. to ensure that the numbers worked through the rest of our lives. This tool helped provide confidence when that ultimate retirement decision was near.
    • A careful spending plan – My wife and I are probably considered very conservative on spending. Our lifestyle was always good, but we didn’t feel the need to make many spontaneous or impulse purchases. We also were careful about big purchases, such as college expenses, wedding expenses, etc. By developing the habit of careful spending, we did not have to make significant lifestyle changes in retirement.
    • A commitment to avoid/eliminate debt – Debt is one of the most significant barriers to retirement for many. Our approach has been to pay off our mortgage as soon as possible and avoid debt to finance car and home repair expenditures. Thus, when it was time to consider retirement, we were not burdened by debt as an additional issue to consider. A lack of debt just makes the overall planning process easier and less complicated.
  4. The biggest concern most people have for retirement is medical costs. What have you experienced, thus far, around medical care and costs? – While it is true that medical costs in retirement can be significant, there are ways to mitigate those costs. First of all, if you retire before reaching Medicare eligibility age (65), you can purchase COBRA coverage for up to 18 months. This coverage is comprehensive, though expensive. If you pay for full coverage, you can expect to pay over $1400/mo for a couple with no other dependents. After COBRA, you can purchase medical insurance either privately or through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on the exchange at healthcare.gov. If your retirement income as a couple is below the threshold, you may be eligible for a tax credit that reduces significantly your cost. The ACA insurance should be viewed as catastrophic insurance, e.g., it may not be the most comprehensive, but it should protect you from potentially disastrous medical costs. In addition, if you are healthy, the ACA insurance might actually be less expensive that the coverage you had with your employer. The ACA insurance covers all preventive costs, such as annual check-ups, tests associated with it, and immunization costs. For us, COBRA followed by ACA insurance has bridged us from employer’s coverage to Medicare very well! One more thing about budgeting and medical insurance in retirement. For planning purposes, I have always assumed the worst-case costs. This would include premiums plus total out-of-pocket costs. Certainly, you should expect to spend less than that, but this gives you a planning amount that can help take unknowns out of your planning.
  5. What is your biggest worry or concern in retirement? – I have a friend that says his biggest worry is “whether I should use a 6- or 7-iron on my next shot.” I wouldn’t say that retirement is that worry-free, but it is a time of less overall stress. By the time you reach retirement, many of those things that busied your mind previously have been resolved… your kids are educated, out-of-the-home, and off the payroll (hopefully!!); you have either retired your debt or something close to it; you no longer have to set an alarm just to get up, fight the traffic, and hurry to work; and you have reached a financially stable point in your life. However, that doesn’t mean that all worries have evaporated. By this time of life, there are still issues to deal with:
    • Aging – Someone once said, “After age 60, if you wake up with a pain anywhere in your body, get used to it… it will never go away.” There is some truth to that. Despite your best efforts to eat right, exercise, and do the right things, our bodies will break down. Staying active and busy help keep our minds off these personal ills.
    • Family members – Many retirees have other family members that consume time, energy, and worry. It is amazing how many retirees are still caring for aging parents. Others have dependent children and grandchildren. Helping them may increase overall stress.
    • Finances – Hopefully, careful planning can circumvent financial worries. However, there is always that small voice in your head that whispers a worry every time the stock market drops.
    • Purpose – Many retirees worry about whether they are still contributing to society. In other words, some wonder if they still have a purpose or do they still add value. Of course, this is preposterous, but one way to fend off these thoughts and worries is to find a way to serve others.
    • Decisions – Though life in retirement is simpler than earlier days, there are still decisions to make. Some individuals find it more difficult to make decisions as they age. Or, they worry more about the decisions they do need to make.
  6. Is buying a vacation home or time share a good or bad idea? – We made the decision in our first year of retirement to buy a vacation home. We spend part of the year at this home each year.  Our decision was perfect for us because we found a lake cottage in an area where we formerly lived. We know the area, we still have great friends there, and we have plenty to do on and around the lake. We believe that our purchase was for an appreciating asset that can easily be converted to cash in the future if we are no longer able to visit. Before making any such purchase, you should consider the following – if you can answer affirmatively on each question, it may make sense for you as it did for us:
    • Can you afford it based on your retirement financial plan? – Don’t let this one expenditure destroy the plan you’ve made.
    • Can you foresee using the home/time share year after year without getting bored with that one location? – Will you wish later that you had more flexibility in locations?
    • Will the home/time share be an ongoing financial drain (repairs, maintenance fees, travel expenses, etc.)? – Be sure you carefully look at these in the context of your financial plan.
    • Do you have friends, family, or connections nearby? – This was important for us. We had a built-in network of friends in our lake cottage location.
    • How easy will it be to eventually sell or liquidate the home/time share? – If needed, can you convert this back to cash to supplement your income, if needed?
  7. Everyone seems to have a recommendation about when to begin receiving Social Security. What have you decided about Social Security? – We decided to begin receiving social security at age 63. We have heard all the pro/con arguments for taking it early versus delaying and decided this made most sense for us. Our financial advisor said she has calculated this many times for clients and it almost always makes more sense to begin taking it early rather than waiting, assuming the client was invested in other long-term growth assets. This is an individual decision and a significant one, so combine the best advice you can get with your own situation to make this important decision for yourself.
  8. What about Medicare? How should I plan and prepare for it? – We are nearly ready to begin Medicare coverage in a few months. I am in the research mode now. However, I have found that there is ample information available online AND friends that have already begun Medicare coverage are a tremendous source of help. In essence, do your research and determine the plan that best suits you. I have found that my insurance broker that provides home and car insurance was able to help answer most of the questions that we had. And, if you decide to purchase supplemental plans (such as Part G), shop among several insurers. We found a difference in price of over 35% between the highest and lowest insurers for the exact same coverage.
  9. What have you experienced regarding ongoing expenses? I hear some say that you should plan on securing at least 85% of  your pre-retirement income in retirement. Is that reasonable and a good estimate for planning purposes? – I personally don’t think these standard estimates should be used by most individuals as their target. The best way to estimate needed retirement income is to do your homework regarding your current and needed monthly expenses. I would recommend tracking carefully your actual monthly expenses. This should be done over at least one full year to cover any significant expenses, such as repairs, taxes, etc. Once you have a complete picture of your ongoing expenses while working, you can better estimate your retirement expenses. For example, you may consume less car fuel when retired. You may also eat out more. Focus on where your expenses will be rather than trying to achieve a percentage of your pre-retirement income.
  10. How do you spend your time? Do you get bored? – I think it is amazing how busy you get in retirement. You start doing things you have delayed for decades and enjoy new activities you’ve been waiting to try. For us, we are fully busy every day while at our lake cottage. These are activities we never did while working, such as kayaking, bike riding, etc. It is good to play more golf these days. My wife and I really do enjoy our extra time together. I admit, though, that there are times and days when there is not much to do. On those days, I read or enjoy other activities I didn’t participate in years ago. In short, for most people, you find that new activities fill the days of retirement in ways you didn’t expect.
  11. What are a few of my recommendations for a satisfying retirement? – Here are a few things I do that makes my retirement time even more enjoyable:
    • I still create a weekly to-do list. Yes, I know that seems contrary to all the free time I now have, but there are times when you just need to feel as though you are making progress and doing things of value. Creating a list keeps the important things at the forefront of your mind PLUS it gives you positive motivation when you check things off the list.
    • Shop for bargains. With the added time you have in retirement, you can take the time to shop for the best deals on things like restaurants, travel, etc. And, take advantage of discounts offered for seniors.
    • Feel free to rearrange your schedule. On many days, we now often eat our big meal of the day at lunchtime. When eating out, this allows you to take advantage of lunch specials that are not available for dinner. You can also get better deals on movies, golf, etc. if you are flexible on when you go.
  12. As you approach your later years in life, do you become more introspective? In other words, do you start to be concerned about the end of your life and what comes next? – Yes, I think for everyone, as you get past a certain age, you become more introspective. You start wondering what you might have done differently. You begin thinking about what’s next. There are three things that everyone should do to best prepare for that day when you’re gone from this world:
    • Ensure you spouse/children know the details of your finances and assets – I have heard many stories of left behind families having no idea what assets exist, where they reside, and how to access them. This should not occur. Be sure that a few people close to you know what you have and where to get it. One thought is to ensure that your financial advisor has information on all your retirement holdings, then ensure that family members know how to contact that advisor when the time comes. Don’t hinder your family by keeping this important information from them.
    • Prepare a will or trust – It is very important, as well, that you help your survivors by legalizing the distribution of your assets. Many individuals nearing retirement either have no will or it is sorely outdated (e.g., it still talks about guardianship for your now grown children). Take the time and minimal cost to update your will or create a trust to ensure that you minimize confusion, time, and heartache for those you love most after you pass.

Retirement for me has been a wonderful journey, thus far. I hope today that my experience can help you prepare and navigate through your transition from the work life to your next chapter.