Micromanagers (Part 2/3): Gaining Trust

First, let me apologize for the long gap between parts one and two of this series. We lost both my in-laws in a span of three weeks, and the aftermath of their deaths meant I intentionally focused on my family for the past month-plus.

In my initial post about micromanaging bosses, I noted that a lack of trust is at the root of micromanagement. You can verify this by looking at your own feelings, and I can almost guarantee that part of your frustration arises from not being trusted. Addressing this lack of trust between you and your micromanaging boss won’t be easy. Of course, you can hang around and hope the boss changes, but remember, there is a high likelihood that the micromanager is blind to the impact of their ways. And, to compound the situation, many micromanagers feel their style is crucial to their success; so attacking micromanagement behavior directly is a losing proposition.  

That leaves you three choices: first, continue putting up with micromanaging behaviors from your boss; second, escape by changing jobs (but know you may end up with another micromanaging boss–they’re frustratingly common), or third, start taking steps on your part to build trust in the relationship. But, you might say, “Wait a minute. The problem isn’t with me!” Are you sure?  

You want to be trusted but are you trustworthy? Do you consistently behave in ways that inspire others to trust you? If you’re still reading, let’s talk about how to build trust in a relationship. It might be easier for you to think about the attributes of people you trust. 

Be reliable. Are you on time to appointments and meetings? Do you deliver assigned tasks on or before they’re due? Do you make and keep your commitments? Those repeated acts of follow-through engender trust from your boss. 

Be clear. This goes both ways. Are you prone to empty rhetoric, insincere comments, or exaggerated talk? Do you consistently hedge your bets or make empty declarations full of weasel words? If this describes you, it is no wonder the boss doesn’t trust you. Make your positions clear. Speak plainly so that your commitments are certain and specific. On the flip side, proactively seek clarity from your boss; especially when it comes to his/her expectations. When the boss is confident you know what is expected, they can more readily trust you. 

Communicate often.  Humans, as a rule, don’t like to be left in the dark. We don’t think positive thoughts when we don’t know what’s going on. If your boss is constantly asking for status updates, maybe it’s because you do not volunteer information. Withholding information can be a natural defense mechanism with a micromanaging boss, but if your boss already doesn’t trust you, then it’s completely counterproductive. Your boss should know what you’re working on and receive regular updates on that work. Even if your boss doesn’t require it, submit weekly reports on the same day each week with status updates on your top five priorities for this week and clarify your top five priorities for the coming week. Lest you feel like this is pandering to the micromanager’s way, reporting on your own work is part of your professional obligation. With those I coach, I repeated say, “The work isn’t finished until you’ve reported on it to those impacted by it.” I predict that your boss will love your weekly updates. But, you will also benefit. This discipline will make you more focused and, therefore, more productive, because no one likes to report “no progress” multiple weeks in a row.  

I would hope those proactive new behaviors on your part may be enough to trigger a reduction in micromanaging behaviors by your boss. If not, here’s what I suggest as a next step. Trust (or the lack of it) is definitely relational. So, lean into the relationship with your boss and make it personal. 

What does that mean? Normally in business, we’re advised to not make it personal, but hear me out. I’d start a conversation with your boss like this… “A while back, I was frustrated, because I didn’t feel like you trusted me. So, I decided to first work on making myself more trustworthy by focusing on becoming more reliable, making a purposeful effort to communicate more clearly, and sharing information with you more frequently. I want you to know that you can count on me to honor my commitments and in the interim not have to wonder where things stood on anything I had committed to deliver. However, I’m still sensing from things you say and do, that I still haven’t earned your trust. I’d like your insights on what I’m not seeing or doing.” 

By choosing to describe how something affects us, two positive effects occur. First, by not directly attacking the offending behavior, we don’t force the micromanaging to reflexively adopt a defensive posture. And, second, we paint a picture that is difficult to challenge, because it is our perspective. Of course, there are still relationally-challenged managers who are prone to say, “You shouldn’t feel that way,” but they tend to be rare. 

If your boss asks for specifics, I recommend that Feedback Model taught by Mark Horstman at Manager Tools.

  • Step 1 (Ask): May I share something with you?
  • Step 2 (Describe specific behavior): When you [describe the behavior]
  • Step 3 (Describe behavior impact): It makes me feel like you don’t trust me to do my job and leaves me frustrated
  • Step 4: (Discuss next steps): What can we do to build greater trust between us?

 If you find yourself working for a micromanaging boss, I trust (pun intended) these simple steps will help you build greater trust in your ability to do your job. If you’re the boss, ask yourself whether you are a micromanager. Part 3 in this series addresses how you, as the boss, can deal with your own micromanaging tendencies.