Earlier this year, the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly upended our lives, sending millions of Americans to work from home in order to control the spread of the virus. Remote work has come with its share of adjustments, with some companies making the move literally overnight.

For some employers who aren’t experienced with remote work, a major adjustment can be learning to trust that employees who work from home are actually working. Resisting the urge to “check in” more than is required is important; do that too often, and you might accidentally become a micromanager. In fact, Alison Green — who runs the popular website Ask a Manager — reports an uptick in the number of people asking for advice on how to deal with micromanaging bosses on her site.

In this post, we’ll break down the problem of micromanagement in the workplace, including how to determine if you’re being micromanaged (or whether or not you’re a micromanager) — and what you can do about it. 

Some managers fear ‘out of sight’ means ‘out of mind’ for remote workers

Micromanagers often have good intentions, and may feel like they're being helpful.

Among the different stories of micromanagement on the site, Ask a Manager includes reports of workers being asked to send three detailed updates each day, or others who are required to spend the entire day on a Zoom call — with video turned on — to simulate an office setting. 

Clearly, the change from working in an office every day to being scattered across different locations can lead some bosses to feel like they’ve lost control of their team. In some cases, this feeling leads to an overcorrection that takes the form of micromanagement. 

Micromanagers often have good intentions, and may feel like they’re being helpful. In other instances, however, micromanagement comes from a lack of trust, an inexperienced boss or an anxious leadership style. This can lead to workers feeling demotivated and demoralized — meaning less productivity, increased burnout and loss of retention. These long-term effects are detrimental for not only your team, but the entire organization. 

Signs you’re being micromanaged — and how to deal with a micromanaging boss

Think you might have a micromanaging boss? Keep an eye out for the warning signs: 

  • You constantly have to check in with your manager to provide updates, even on small projects.
  • Your boss doesn’t ever seem satisfied with your work and frequently suggests improvements.
  • You feel you can’t make decisions about even the smallest tasks without consulting your manager first. 
  • Your work takes a long time to complete because your boss wants to approve every last detail.
  • Turnover has been increasing on your team.

Pay attention to what they care about, and offer support if you notice they’re stressed.

If those sound familiar, here are a few ways to lessen your manager’s micromanagement tendencies and make your work life easier:

1. Show that you’re trustworthy.

To build their trust and keep over-controlling behavior in check, demonstrate that you’re on their side by consistently doing good work, hitting deadlines and attending meetings without needing to be reminded. Pay attention to what they care about, and offer support if you notice they’re stressed. 

2. Keep them in the loop.

Manage your micromanaging boss by keeping them informed proactively. Provide specific, detailed status updates and schedule check-in meetings before they even ask. You could even introduce a project tracking system where your boss can see your progress. While this may require some extra work on your part, providing added visibility for your boss may help them loosen the reins.

3. Have a conversation.

If your manager’s control issues are getting in the way of your work, it may be time for a discussion. Approach the conversation with a goal of resolution and mutual understanding, and try to understand where they’re coming from — perhaps they’re getting pressure from their boss. Point to examples where their behavior has affected you, and provide examples of good work you’ve done in the past as a counterpoint. 

Clarify their expectations on what success looks like for your work. But more importantly, clarify what you need from your manager, and why it will help improve your performance. For example, ask for fewer check-ins because you work best with longer, uninterrupted chunks of time. 

Signs that you’re a micromanaging boss — and how to rein it in 

When leading remote teams, it can be hard to tell when you’re being a micromanager. But it might be time to reevaluate your management style if: 

  • You find it hard to delegate tasks and often explain how you would do the work, rather than focusing on the outcomes and trusting others to achieve them. Perhaps you even redo the work they’ve already done. 
  • You want to know what your reports are doing at all times, and frequently ask them to submit reports or updates.
  • You’re feeling burned out from taking on the entire team’s burdens.
  • You’re having trouble developing high-level strategies because you’re so involved in workers’ day-to-day tasks.

Here’s what you can do to curb your micromanaging tendencies:

1. Trust your team.

Let your reports do their work well. You hired them for a reason, so allow them to take ownership of their work and make their own decisions. Next time you assign a project, clarify what success looks like to you — but don’t give exact step-by-step instructions on how you want it done. 

2. Look at the facts.

Ask yourself if your worries actually match the reality of the situation. For example, if you’re anxious that your team is slacking, look for concrete evidence to support it: Has your team had trouble achieving goals, showing up for meetings or meeting deadlines? If your team has been struggling, then you can work out a plan to help them meet specific objectives. If not, try stepping back a bit — you can trust them.

Let go of the details by setting goals with your direct reports and communicating what success looks like.

3. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Being detail-oriented and hyper-involved with employees’ work may seem like a good thing. But you’re actually restricting their ability to grow and learn from their mistakes — something they can only do if they fail now and then. What’s more, you need to save your bandwidth for high-level, strategic decision-making. Let go of the details by setting clear short- and long-term goals with your direct reports and communicating what success looks like. Then let them take it from there, only offering guidance when needed.

4. Ask for honest feedback — and be ready to hear it.

If you suspect you’re micromanaging, ask your team for their feedback. Set up an anonymous survey or call a meeting, clearly communicating that you’re seeking honest feedback so that you can improve as a leader. Then, be ready to listen, and take action. 

Micromanagement may seem like a quick fix, but in the long run, it isn’t good for the health of either managers or employees.

By taking steps to combat micromanagement in the workplace, you’re paving the way to a happier, healthier and more productive workplace.