• October 31, 2014

My Boss Is a Micromanager

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

Question (from "Bettina"): It was 8 a.m., I had the morning paper, and the phone rang. "Have you gotten the course-designation forms in yet?"

I was still head-fluffy and reading about Afghanistan, and I asked, "What?"

It was my department chair, about to chew me out for some nomenclatural/numerical change in some department courses. The forms weren't due until September, it was summertime, and it really was not urgent—except to Dr. Boss, who, at the time, was waiting for his dying mother to come out of intensive care, so he thought he'd grab his cellphone and harangue a few colleagues.

He drives us batty.

Any department event is sure to generate 10 to 20 e-mails filled with reminders, exhortations, threats, and other trivia. He's the only chair I've ever had who takes attendance at department meetings, publishes the results, and makes snippy remarks to anyone who didn't attend. ("Surely you couldn't have had anything more important. Your colonoscopy could wait.")

He patrols the halls to see if we're in our offices. (We don't have to be. We don't do lab work, and can easily do our class planning and research at the library or at home.) He calls us into his office, or writes hordes of memorandums about any particular problem. If there are old cardboard boxes piled outside our offices, Memo No. 1 says "unsightly," No. 2 says "fire hazard," and No. 3 says "let me know the time when you've removed it."

Well, he is efficient, and departmental odds and ends do get done. But why can't he see we're adults, who don't need poking, pushing, and nagging?

Answer: Ms. Mentor once had a colleague like that—who'd rearrange everyone's paper clips and dust off Ms. Mentor's keyboard with a tiny brush ("See how easy it is to be tidy?"). At department potlucks, Prof. Neatnik would start picking up dishes while people were still eating.

The weak and untenured would moan. The full professors would hide their desserts on their laps and nibble at them furtively.

Ms. Mentor supposes the Neatniks of the world do keep others busy, alive, hungry, fuming. Perhaps, she says wanly, your boss gives you extra energy through making you angry and whiny.

Ms. Mentor doubts it.

She could, of course, give a standard profile of the boss and the Neatnik. Maybe they grew up in orphanages, where they were kept to an excruciating standard of neatness, and if they erred, they were beaten and denied their porridge. Maybe they loathed having 14 siblings and rebelled against the constant chaos and disorder. Maybe something went terribly awry in their toilet training.

But "why" doesn't really matter. "He had a terrible childhood" does not mean that other people must tolerate unpleasant behavior. You, the victim of a micromanager, do have options.

You can, of course, be the perfect toady. You can turn in reports early, full of charts, jargon, and impressive fonts. You can plead for more service assignments ("Shouldn't I also check on ... and report back next week?"). You can sing the praises of "our brilliant leader." You can bring goodies ("once again, your favorite scones").

You can sit at the right-hand of the chair at meetings, prepared to record each priceless pearl. All that may gain you some favor, for only a few people will mutter, "What a tool." But you'll get no respite. There will be more assignments and more phone calls ("Isn't the revised report done yet?"). You'll be appointed to every committee.

That could propel you into administration, especially if you're willing to handle assessment, the current boondoggle to end all boondoggles. But if you're expected to publish, being the powerhouse of departmental paperwork will take all of your time. It will kill your career.

There are other strategies. You can tell your boss, "I'll do it," and then do it late, or badly. Mention loudly a teaching obligation, a research project, or a grant application with firm deadlines. Ask for an extension on the boss's paperwork, even if you don't need it. If you're seen as unreliable, or as Above It All, you won't be the first speed-dialed person the boss harasses when he's anxious or needs a target for his wrath.

You can also try to retrain your boss. You can nag him a little ("What's the exact deadline?") or pepper him with petty questions ("Really, what font should I use?"). You can try redelegating ("Priscilla really knows more about this")—unless Priscilla is your best friend.

You can try joining with Priscilla and others to reform, resist, or overthrow your leader, but most academics haven't the heart or the time to do that. They got into academe because they loved school and learning, not because they yearned to engage in brutal power struggles over not very much.

In the business world, victims of a micromanager will flee for other jobs. According to studies reported by Robert Sutton, a business professor at Stanford University, the average yearly turnover in business personnel is 5 percent. But when the boss is, in Sutton's term, "an asshole," the turnover jumps to 25 percent or more. Employees are constantly applying for other jobs. Those who stay, as most academics must in today's tight job market, are demoralized. They take more sick days; their families suffer.

They hide, except for office hours. They get together with colleagues to grumble, not to celebrate or to share. They flinch at the sight of an administrator, and they put up grim signs: "The floggings will continue until morale improves." Desperate staffers at one university even started a prayer group, hoping that a higher power would hear them and remove their dean.

The best bravely put their energies where they can do best, in teaching and in research. While they're engaging students in exciting subjects, they can forget for a while the bullying boss who's sending scolding e-mails. Their show will go on.

And so it will, even if your boss is Attila the Hun. Few martinets stay in place, as they used to, for 30 or 40 years. Underlings can sometimes find a candidate, one who doesn't need constant ego strokes, to run against the micromanager. A thousand flowers can bloom again.

But if Ms. Mentor were in charge, she would also give more credit—more esteem, more money, more tangible rewards—to the lower-level administrators, such as department and committee heads. As Michelle A. Massé and Katie J. Hogan's contributors point out in the recently published Over Ten Million Served: Gendered Service in Language and Literature Workplaces (SUNY Press, 2010), even vital committee service is mostly thankless, and too often routinely expected of women. Everyone gets burned out.

Yet your thoughts are still your own, and Ms. Mentor recommends Walt Whitman's advice to "re-examine all you have been told" and "dismiss whatever insults your own soul." And do not answer your phone.


Question: More and more administrators seem to have "interim" in front of their titles, as in "interim chancellor" and "interim minor associate dean." Is Ms. Mentor "interim," or is she forever?

Answer: Forever.


Sage Readers: As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes gossip, rants, and queries from her flock, veteran or interim. She encourages those seeking specific job tips to check other Chronicle columns and blogs, especially Career Talk and On Hiring, as well as The Chronicle's forums, where questions can be answered more speedily and fully. Ms. Mentor regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never quickly.

Confidentiality is guaranteed, and identifying items in published letters are always masked and scrambled. Miscreants usually think it's someone else's ox.

(c) Emily Toth

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. She is the author of the recently published "Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia" (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her e-mail address is ms.mentor@chronicle.com.

Comments

1. cmletamendi - October 20, 2010 at 08:46 am

I think that Dr. Boss's behavior is contributing to a decrease in morale and loyalty in the staff and faculty. In lieu of calling the university 'home' the employees may find refuge at some other place they may feel more welcome to do what they have been going to school to do all of their lives - teach. Suppose professors are doing an extracurricular activity with the students? Dr. Boss has no right making everyone's business public. There has to be some EEOC violation there. The bottom line, is that he is inadvertently affecting the professors' productivity now that he has given them something to worry about.. sad... questions? comments? email: letamend@nova.edu.

CML, MBA

2. eacowan - October 20, 2010 at 08:57 am

The English department in the university where I was a professor until retirement found a useful tool to use against a micromanaging department chairman. They created an anonymous departmental underground newsletter that circulated widely and was read even by the chairman in question and also by the university's administration.

The chairman did indeed go down the halls with a clipboard, taking notes on faculty who either were in their offices or not. He was parodied as beginning every memo to the faculty with the phrase "Taking the macro view..." with lots of references to "input" and "output". And certain faculty, all identified only with pseudonyms, who toadied to this chairman were unflatteringly depicted in the newsletter. It was all terribly funny, and the chairman did eventually step down.

The underground newsletter built up faculty morale and made the department generally cohesive in the face of a grumpy and micromanaging chairman. I recommend using this device within a department so handicapped by such a chairman as this was. --E.A.C.

3. malhotrad - October 20, 2010 at 08:57 am

As I read through this article, I could not help but laught all the way to the end of the story. Believe me, I have lived through several of these micromanagers and they do like to tell you everything from how to teach your course to how to organize your office. I am a tenured full professor and if they can be annoying to me, I cannot imagine the plight of tenure track. Imagine the poor administrative assistants who work for them. I do not think higher education needs this kind of micro management, but who is going to bell the cat. And yes, everyone is interim. I have had interim associate deans, interim deans, interim vice presidents, interim provosts, and interim presidents too! Sometimes, I actually check my title to see if they gave me interim tenured professor. It does affect morale in an extremely negative way. The very fact that I am writing such a lengthy comment shows that how low morale can be. I should be working on revising and resubmitting one of my (interim) research paper.

4. richardtaborgreene - October 20, 2010 at 09:18 am

Deans are not managers.

It is good to work in a top ten university department at one point or another in your academic life---to see deans who are only tolerated as long as they do not irritate faculty.

Drop down the rankings a hundred places and you have deans who think faculty work for them, the deans. Unfortunately, some of these petty tyrants are backed up by administrators who fire faculty over trivia.

The key is-----do not work at institutions that BAD. The college and department described above are beneath contempt. They do not deserve you or anyone else.

5. theblondeassassin - October 20, 2010 at 09:41 am

An effective strategy in the short term can be to find someone on the faculty who is even more micro-oriented and nitpicking, and get them to create additional work for the micro-oriented dean.

So, for example, if the dean or chair starts enforcing statute 4, find the person who knows the loopholes in Part 33 (i) or how statute 27 (Part C) contradicts it.

Get that person to write a memo back for every memo that's sent around.

Sure, that person has to take a hit for the department, but there's always one person that will enjoy doing just that sort of thing.

Just never make THEM chair or dean.

6. anocher - October 20, 2010 at 01:09 pm

Not to get off-topic, but I am currently exploring the bullying that occurs in the academic workplace as a potential dissertation topic. Anyone with comments, or opinions, and/or experience of being bullied, please, please drop me a line at an79@nova.edu--and thank you in advance!! All replies will be kept strictly confidential, and no real names will be used in any publication anywhere, ever.
Anne

7. loyalemployee - October 20, 2010 at 03:07 pm

I worked at a large, prestigious university for nearly 9 years. After 3 years, a promotion, and several performance-related bonuses (i?) a 50 year old graduate student was hired to direct my small donor-funded center. He was a personal friend of the faculty, did alot of their work and eventually took over my duties and those of my colleagues. NOTHING was delegated that he could access. With this personality disorder anyone else's competence dimishes theirs. (!)My equally-qualified colleagues and I raised many alarms with HR and the faculty director. We were ignored. He was looking very busy and doing alot of the faculty's annoying tasks. After nine months of hoping for the best while working in a very hostile work environment, we were laid off in a non-performance-related reorganization because the faculty were powerful. He hired our replacements within the month. MICROMANAGERS CAN BE VERY DANGEROUS IF THEY PLEASE THEIR BOSS. IF you need to be employed you MUST leave before they force you out.

8. 11159766 - October 20, 2010 at 03:29 pm

According to my own observation, and the research I have read on the subject, workplace bullying, especially by the person in charge, does not create cohesion among the bullied but disengagement and sometimes variations of shunning and further bullying.

9. reformhigheredu - October 21, 2010 at 08:24 am

I work at a university where the university president micromanages a department obsessively and hires friends to spy on employees.

10. chloe1 - October 21, 2010 at 11:16 am

I find the comment from loyalemployee very true and very disturbing. I too was a victim and suffered emotional abuse from my boss daily for 3 years. I was the Executive Director at an assisted living or memory care and alzheimer's. My residents,family members and staff adored me as I "was married to the job." I took my responsibilities to heart as I had people's lives to care about. I walked in the shoes of all my staff and was hands-on, even providing personal care to my residents. Working 10-12 hours daily, on call 24-7 was rough, but the smiles and laughter I shared with my residents was priceless. BUT, everyday from the start I wondered why I was hired and often said, "I only work here" meaning, I had no say. My boss was a micro-managing bitch who even critiqued emails so they had to be gramatically correct and concise. She commuicated thru emails even though her office was right down the hallway. MY staff respected me but since she made her presence known, they would often go to her before or after talking to me. Authority was so screwed up. So you ask why I stayed? Because I loved my seniors and worked hard to make "their home" great. The parties and events I had were so much fun and they looked after me, knowing how hard I worked. That was my gratification amongst the many tears of frustration and migraines I suffered. Unknownst to me, I was laid off by my boss with no warning or signs. I was devastated as I had a perfect performance record and had made the home well known. NY state has no legal action which I could apply to sue them as I consulted with several lawyers. My residents to this day miss me after 1 1/2 yrs. I know I was a threat to my boss because I did my job 150%. She always wanted control. Sadly, I'm still unemployed because for every job advertised, thousands apply. Life is a true struggle now. Any comments...dianemh@frontier.com

11. lb271 - October 21, 2010 at 01:44 pm

Early in my career at a respected, mid-sized university, I worked for a micromanager- as other commenters have noted, it was awful and demoralizing. After about a year, I finally said to my boss "I can get a job elsewhere - I quit.". Apparently, this was the last straw for my department and they all made a formal complaint to HR. I was asked to return to my position but requested formal mediation through my university's conflict management centre. This was a positive experience and I would recommend this route to others. I took several courses in conflict management (at my university's expense) that have continued to be beneficial in my career- even though I've moved on. Conflict is inevitable- it's worth investing time to learn how to manage it.

12. reformhigheredu - October 21, 2010 at 10:16 pm

#11 you were fortunate to get called back to your position. Unfortunately, at many institutions, HR is in collusion with upper management (they are friends or somehow related to the univ. president, the dean, the vice president, etc.)For many employees, going to HR makes matters worse (in many cases, HR personnel lack conflict management skills or just don't have the background or experience to even be in HR). You were also fortunate that your staff had the courage to stand up for you (many would fear losing their job). It all depends on the environment, sometimes its better to just move on.

13. dougsmith - October 22, 2010 at 09:23 am

My wife works directly under the HR manager. And unfortunately for her, the HR manager is the one who is doing the micromanaging. It drives my wife batty -- to the point that it is all she can talk about when she gets home. I told her she has to get the heck out of there.

14. shariyat5 - October 22, 2010 at 08:07 pm

Micromanaging your faculty is unprofessional.Dont worry the words gets out, especially amoung the ranks of adjuncts and we avoid this boss like the plague. Ive had a few of these.There have the same earmarks.They have open doors to students who complain about everything under the sun.They call you to tell you the students are saying you are discouraging them ( maybe they should try doing the work ! )They will compain your math is wrong and the student needs a higher grade! Ive quit three of these jobs myself.I had one chair who was aafraid fo the students and asked me to change grades 3 times ( Its illegal folks ).Trust me its not worth it and unions wont help you. Find a dept chair or dean who doenst micromanage.Life is too short to work for this kind of bully boss.

15. stillaprof - October 23, 2010 at 11:09 am

I prefer a micromanaging Chair to one who does nothing at all. I work at a large public university where the Chair resented his workload and colleagues -- i.e. few meetings, no minutes for meetings that did occur, didn't show up for office hours, insulted students, late with dept paperwork, sloppy prep for tenure cases etc. But he did have time to indulge his prejudices, engage in character assassination, bully and insult underlings etc. The reputation of the dept still suffers because of him.
So I guess this is the other side of the coin.
If either extreme occurs, I would suggest keeping a log to keep your options open, just in case you find your job/position in jeopardy.

16. tcli5026 - October 23, 2010 at 09:02 pm

Comment #4 by richardtaborgreene is all well and good, but seems a bit out of touch. He states, "It is good to work in a top ten university department at one point or another in your academic life---to see deans who are only tolerated as long as they do not irritate faculty." Well, great. But, by definition, only a relative handful of professors work at a "top ten university department." What about the rest of us? Richard tells us to quit, to not work at institutions that are BAD. Who can argue with such advice? But, does Richard not recognize that this is much easier said than done? Or, is he ensconced in a top 10 university with options just gathering at his feet?

17. jrawilson2009 - October 28, 2010 at 12:09 pm

Dean of multiple trades: Academic, Human Resources and Workforce Development. In my last 2 of 3 Dean appointments, these 2 bosses were micromanagers; especially the last one. I had more education and staff respect than he; except for the jealous and/or ethinically discriminating ones who envied my position.

Micromanaging staff is a practice I will NOT commit to. It is humiliating, decreases morale, synergy, collegiality, and productivity, and is down right disrespectful. Unfortunately, it also breeds disrespectful behaviors between coworkers; especially by those trying to climb the career ladder by any means possible.

My last boss thought he could teach the doctoral courses I've completed in management and organizational leadership, even though he lacked a master's degree. That's a joke!!!

This last dean post was not with a traditional college or university but with a career college. I'm sorry, but their is MUCH more their so called 'college' needs to learn about supervision and employee motivation. Also, the HR VP was ineffective.

I wish I could catalyze a national or international job evaluation component which requires 360 evaluation feedback which mandates the inclusion of evaluating one's tendency toward being micromanaging, bullying and discriminatory.

I loved my work but became highly uninspired because of his extreme micromanaging style: Visiting everyone's office 2-3x's daily; Asking you "How are you doing?" which meant What are you doing? He used to ask that until we complained but it started up again. Multiple telephone calls. He even disliked emails! Can you believe that!! He'd prefer you run to his office multiple times a day. Well if I wasn't busy with more substantive work that would not have been a problem!!!

HEd Admin

18. jrawilson2009 - October 28, 2010 at 12:15 pm

(Resubmitted with corrected typos, which I hate. Sorry about that!)

Dean of multiple trades: Academic, Human Resources and Workforce Development. In my last 2 of 3 Dean appointments, these 2 bosses were micromanagers; especially the last one. I had more education and staff respect than he; except for the jealous and/or ethnically discriminating ones who envied my position.

Micromanaging staff is a practice I will NOT commit to. It is humiliating, decreases morale, synergy, collegiality, and productivity, and is down right disrespectful. Unfortunately, it also breeds disrespectful behaviors between coworkers; especially by those trying to climb the career ladder by any means possible.

My last boss thought he could teach the doctoral courses I've completed in management and organizational leadership, even though he lacked a master's degree. That's a joke!!!

This last dean post was not with a traditional college or university but with a career college. I'm sorry, but there is so MUCH more their so called 'college' needs to learn about supervision and employee motivation. Also, the HR VP was ineffective.

I wish I could catalyze a national or international job evaluation component which requires 360 evaluation feedback which mandates the inclusion of evaluating one's behaviors to highlight and lessen micromanaging, bullying and discriminatory practices.

I loved my work but became highly uninspired because of his extremely micromanaging style: Visiting everyone's office 2-3x's daily; Asking you "How are you doing?" which meant "What are you doing?". He used to ask that until we complained but it started up again. Multiple telephone calls to your office. He even disliked receiving and writing emails! Can you believe that!! He'd prefer you run to his office multiple times a day. Well if I wasn't busy with more substantive work to do that would not have been a problem!!!

HEd Admin

19. 87735501111 - November 24, 2010 at 12:17 pm

Micromanagers are bad, but let's remember that sometimes this is done to good end. A friend's dept. head started taking attendance at a regular yearly meeting, which elicited cries of "this is the first I've heard of it!"

Sad thing is though, that was the annual meeting for grad student progress review. So let's remember that sometimes it is good to hold faculty accountable for things they are actually responsible for...

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