A reader writes:
My boss is intermittently non-communicative and micromanaging, neither of which I can tolerate. We will go weeks without meeting to discuss a project and then at the last minute she will “fling” across very unclear direction to me to execute (usually in the same day). She typically talks to me about a project as if we’ve been planning and discussing it for weeks. I literally have to tell her, “did I miss a memo? I don’t have any requests from you asking me to do this until now."
It’s driving me crazy and it’s causing a breakdown in what once was a really good relationship. On the other hand, when she does “fling” her very unclear direction, when I ask questions to get clarification, she seems exasperated. So then I schedule a meeting to discuss my questions, and she goes in completely the opposite direction by editing documents for me or wanting to watch me schedule meetings in support of the project. All I can say is WTF!!!! And finally, last year I presented at our annual sales meeting, which is like the Academy Awards at my company, and this year, she won’t answer me why I haven’t been invited (I went to the sales coordinator and he sent me the info).
I am so confused, as I have always been given very high ratings, and even this quarter, I’ve gotten very positive feedback, but the performance eval score has not improved. I was told that the company is defaulting everyone to this score to make it more difficult to get a higher rating.
I have been with this organization for several years, have 15 years of industry experience in my field, and I am perfectly capable of doing these tasks on my own. All that I ask is to be treated as part of the team and not someone in a supporting role who is always the last to know things. I’ve even tried to schedule meetings with her, but she doesn’t show up. I feel like she is trying to sabotage my employment there because our numbers are down and either wants to find cause to lay me off/fire me or wants me to leave.
Talk to her. About the big-picture, not about a specific incident.
I see this a lot on both sides -- from managers and from employees. Someone is increasingly frustrated about something the other is doing, sees it as a pattern, is wondering what the hell is going on, and yet, for some reason, doesn't sit down with the person and talk about it. People tend to address each specific incident as it comes up, all the while growing more frustrated, when what would really help is to talk about the overall big picture.
So what that means is this: Tell her that you'd like to schedule some time to talk about how things are going. (And if she cancels, reschedule and tell her it's important.) When you meet, say something like, "I want to talk about something that I've noticed happening with the two of us recently. I might be misinterpreting this, but sometimes you give me an assignment and seem surprised that I don't know details about it yet. And I've been getting the sense that you're frustrated when I ask questions about it. We used to communicate really well, and lately it seems like we're not, and I wonder if there's something you're seeing that I'm not, or something I should be doing differently. I'd really like your feedback, and please don't worry about offending me; I really want to hear your thoughts."
Your tone during this matters. You want to be calm, non-defensive, and genuinely receptive to feedback.
One other thing: Her swing between non-communicative and micromanaging is a typical one of managers who aren't managing well and feeling frustrated as a result. Frequently a manager will start off at one extreme, discover that it doesn’t get the results she had wanted, and react by moving to the opposite extreme, only to find that doesn’t work either -- because neither extreme works. The secret these managers are missing is that they need to be more hands-on in certain specific areas and more hands-off in others, and usually they're getting it backwards. They need to be more hands-on in clearly communicating their expectations for the outcomes of the work at the start, in making sure they and the employee are on the same page about how the work will proceed, in monitoring the work while it’s ongoing, and in creating accountability and learning afterwards ... and more hands-off in actually pushing the day-to-day of the work forward or doing the work themselves.
What that means for you is that she's displaying the signs of a frustrated manager who doesn't know how to get that balance right, and that's an opportunity for you, the employee, to manage up to help her:
* Ask to try a different system for checking in and getting questions answered. For instance, you might have a regular weekly meeting, plus ad hoc conversations throughout the rest of the week as the need arises. I'm also a huge fan of keeping an ongoing list in your email program of issues, questions, and information for your boss, which you tweak throughout the day – so when she can grab a few minutes to talk, your list is organized and waiting.
* Apply the principles of good delegation upward. When a good manager delegates a responsibility to an employee, she should articulate the desired outcome, constraints, and prioritization. Do this yourself when your manager gives you an assignment, in order to make sure you’re on the same page. For instance, if your manager asks you to oversee the development of a new logo, you might say, "So we’re looking for a logo that’s professional and modern, with a global feel. It sounds like the budget needs to be kept under $2,000, and I’m guessing I shouldn’t tackle this until after we’re done with the spring conference. Does that sound right?"
You should also read this post I wrote on being micromanaged, and see if anything in there helps.
But my advice here is to talk to her, big picture. Find out how she's seeing things and what she thinks is going on. Good luck!