360° Answers: Dealing with a Micromanaging Peer

Feb 5, 2013
13 Min Read

Each of our workplace experts has weighed in on the following question from a reader to give you four points of view.  For other editions of our 360° Answers series, please click here.

Here’s the question, with our experts’ responses below:

I'd like to get your input about how to deal with a coworker who micromanages laterally. I am a manager, and one of my peers, another manager, often takes it upon herself to tell the other managers how they should run their departments (even though we haven't asked and it's not within her realm of responsibility). It doesn't happen all the time, but every few months or so she'll go on a tirade and drive all of the managers crazy. For example, she'll get on a dress-code policy kick and scrutinize every article of clothing staff wear, and then send repeated emails to department managers saying that it needs to be dealt with. The most recent time this happened, when I went to check on the "offensive" clothing, they fell completely within the code -- perhaps she just didn't like what the person was wearing?

She tells us which staff members need disciplining (when they don't), tells us how to deal with clients, recites well-known procedures to us over and over, and will even go so far as to reorganize our service desks because she doesn't like how they look! And I don't mean just a little -- I'm talking moving computers to a completely different location, and leaving post-it notes everywhere about why something isn't right or shouldn't be the way it is.

Usually I try to see where she's coming from and consider whether she has a valid point, but often it's just trivial things that don't matter or don't make sense. I've tried ignoring her, giving in to her, and being firm and telling her why my department chooses to do things a certain way and that we won't be changing it. Nothing seems to help. I think she acts this way because she cares about our organization and likes to see things run smoothly, but it's too much at times, and ultimately not her responsibility. Our organization functions well and overall our staff have good morale. I am perfectly capable of handling my team and, if I do say so myself, do a darn good job of it. How can I get her to back off when she gets like this?

Alison Green says:

You’ve tried ignoring her and you’ve tried explaining to her why you do things your way, but you haven’t tried being direct: explicitly telling her that she needs to stop what she’s doing. That needs to be your next step.

Sit down with her and say something like this: “Jane, I need you to stop advising me on how to run my department. You’ve given me a great deal of input about how to manage my staff, how to enforce policies, how to handle clients, and even how to arrange our desks. While I appreciate your desire to ensure things are running smoothly, these things are mine to handle, and it’s disruptive to me and to my team to have someone else giving direction. If you ever have a serious concern, please bring it to my attention, but I need you to give me the space and the respect to run my department on my own.”

From that point forward, if she continues to poke into things that aren’t her business, you need to clearly set and enforce boundaries, with statements like, “As we talked about, this is not your purview. I’m handling this myself.” And if she engages in actions that aren’t hers to do, such as rearranging desks or leaving instructional post-its for your staff, call her on it immediately; for instance, “I need you to put those desks back the way they were, and please don’t move my team’s things again.”

And you’ll need to do this every time, because that’s how you’ll train her to butt out. If you slip and let some things go, you’ll only undermine the efforts you’ve already made.

Alexandra Levit says:

I think it's time you had a formal sit down with the micromanaging peer.  Ignoring her might be the path of least resistance, but at this point it sounds like her behavior is negatively impacting the productivity of your team - and this is a problem that's yours to remedy.

Ask her to lunch.  If it isn't completely out of the ordinary, go offsite so you won't risk being interrupted or joined by another teammate.  Tell her there's something important you need to talk to her about, and preface the discussion with a comment along the lines of what you said in your e-mail to us:  "I admire how much you care about our organization and I know that you want to see it run smoothly."  This will help to mitigate her natural response (i.e. defensiveness) to what you're about to say.

Next, tell her that while you appreciate her input on your team's discipline, dress, etc. you are capable of managing these issues yourself and that you'd prefer it if she would confine her improvements to her own group.  Use a "this is what's best for the organization" type of argument, such as "Right now my staff feels that it's getting confusing cross-direction, and their work is suffering."  Try to be assertive rather than wishy-washy.  You are a manager for a reason and your judgment should be trusted.

If this doesn't work and she continues to interfere and wreck havoc around the office, you should talk to your boss on the down low.   Just remember to be solution-oriented and bottom-line focused in your comments, as the last thing you want to do is come across like you are whining or complaining.  You are not a tattletale and this is not a mere personality conflict.  Be clear that you are genuinely concerned that because of this woman's actions, the organization is not operating as optimally as it could be.

Eva Rykrsmith says:

It sounds like your coworker with perfectionistic tendencies truly wants to help. But it also sounds like she is putting team morale at risk and opening up the doors for personal conflict. The irony here, of course, is that she is not making things better (as she thinks), but instead creating a situation where she puts organizational effectiveness at risk. Especially if this is negatively affecting your department, you might need to give her direct, assertive negative feedback or constructive criticism. And I mean really direct: take the focus off of what she has brought up and talk about her behavior of continuously voicing unsolicited suggestions as a whole. If you do decide to have this conversation with her, make sure to do it from a place of compassion rather than as a circumstance of annoyance.

As a follow-up and compromise, (or if you prefer a gentler approach) you and your peers could brainstorm a way to give her a productive outlet for her constant need to improve. For example, you and others in the office can start to come to her with real issues that need a solution. Alternatively, you can host a quarterly managers’ meeting where you have an open discussion and give each other feedback—positive and negative—about what you each can change to make the organization as a whole more productive and successful. All ideas will get heard and the feasible ones will be implemented. Adding this structure will put the focus back where it belongs—on the organization.

Anita Bruzzese says:

I’m not sure why you’ve put up with this for so long, because she should have stopped the first time you talked to her about it. Now it’s time to stop trying to understand her reasoning, explain your feelings, etc. Her meddling is not only undermining your authority and possibly hurting your career, but it’s confusing and counterproductive to your staff.

You should say something like, “Mary, you’ve gone too far. You’ve overstepped your authority and it needs to stop. Now.”

Make sure you’re calm when you deliver the message, and work to eliminate any indication of anger or annoyance. Don’t talk about how it makes you feel or how she must be feeling, etc. You have to focus totally on her actions and mention that it’s happened before and cannot happen again.

If she continues on her merry way and does it again, I’d go straight to your manager. This is a situation that, as I said before, hurts the productivity and morale of the office. Anything that has bottom-line consequences like this will not be ignored by the your boss and needs to be addressed.

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