ManagementSpeak: Let’s get together to review the task list I asked you to write up.

Translation: Come to my office so I can tell you how you’re going to do it.

Today’s entry comes from “Bob,” … no, a different Bob … from something that happened a long time ago in IT shop far, far away.

“My boss micromanages me. What can I do about it?”

It’s a common complaint. If you’re algebraically inclined:

“My boss does x(i) and I don’t like it. What can I do?” where x is the set of all managerial behaviors, and x(i) is a specific member of the set.

It really doesn’t matter very much what x(i) stands for. The same short answer usually works, just as it does for the negative form, “My boss doesn’t do x(i) and I don’t like it. What can I do?”

The answer, for x(i=1 to infinity) is, find a different boss, and if you can’t, learn to live with the one you have.

There are, of course, a few exceptions. If your boss is creating a threatening or harassing environment, or your co-workers are creating one and your boss refuses to do anything about it, document everything and contact HR. If that doesn’t work, contact a lawyer. And, at the same time, find a better boss. But don’t just learn to live with the one you have. There are some things up with which you must not put.

But a boss who micromanages? Or is demeaning? Or overly critical? Or never gives you a compliment or thank-you?

Find a boss whose style is more compatible. Or, learn to live with it. Or, I guess, hope your boss gets promoted, demoted, fired, transferred, or hired away… and, learn to live with the situation until that happens.

In the case of micromanagement, I do have one additional suggestion to try first: Determine whether your boss is a micromanager, or is micromanaging you. There’s a big difference.

If a boss is a micromanager, that’s a personal style. It’s about the manager. A manager who is micromanaging an employee — just that one employee, that is, or maybe just two or three — doesn’t trust that employee to get the job done otherwise. That’s about the employee, and what it’s going to take to be a better one.

If that’s what’s going on in your work world, ask. Don’t use the word “micromanage” when you do, either. Ask, “I’ve noticed you’re supervising me more closely them most of the other employees. I’m guessing I need to do something differently. What is it?”

That’s if it’s just you, or just you and one or two others. Otherwise, find a different boss, or learn to live with the one you have.

Why is this? Why wouldn’t your boss want to know how to be more motivating, get more out of employees, be better liked, or what-have you?

Why? Because whatever it is about your boss you find disagreeable is part of your boss’s formula for success, that’s why. It’s part of what he or she has done throughout his or her career to become your boss.

It’s worked. If what you want to suggest would have worked, you’d be the boss instead, or at least that’s how the world looks when viewed through your boss’s corneas.

Think you’re going to change that through the magic of an epiphany-inducing conversation?

Think again.

Actually, when the complaint is micromanagement, what you’d be asking of your boss is even tougher. To understand why, go back to the two golden rules of delegation:

  • If you know how to do a job better than your employees, only delegate it if you’re willing to accept the risk of failure.
  • If your employees know how to do it better than you do, always delegate it unless you’re willing to accept the risk of failure.

Micromanagers feel, rightly or wrongly, they have the superior skills, so when they have to delegate … and every responsibility listed in a job description constitutes delegation just as much as a special assignment … it’s going to be grudging and closely watched by any manager who’s uncomfortable with the idea of deliberately risking failure.

It’s like the advice columnists say in the context of interpersonal relationships.

If your goal is to get the other person to change, the best thing for you to do is to find a different goal.

Assuming, that is, you want something useful to happen. If your goal is to have something to complain about, on the other hand, by all means go ahead and have a heartfelt conversation with your boss.

* * *

Eighteen years ago, in KJR’s predecessor, InfoWorld’s “IS Survival Guide,” I published my first piece on bad metrics, but far from the last.

And if I hadn’t published the column about corporate xenophobia and what to do about it fifteen years ago, I could publish it next week and it would be just as current. Check it out.