How to deal with micromanagers in a COVID-19 world

From The Cohort, Poynter's newsletter for women kicking ass in digital media

May 5, 2020
Category: Business & Work

This article originally appeared in an issue of The Cohort, Poynter’s newsletter for women kicking ass in digital media. Join the conversation here.


From the day I created a newspaper for my middle school in 9th grade, I was hooked. All my subsequent summer workshops, internships and extracurriculars were done to help me reach my ultimate goal at the time: attend journalism school at Northwestern.

My teenage self never would have guessed I’d end up on the trajectory my career is on now — a unique combination of editorial and tech at not only one tech company, but three: a startup founded by one of the first Google employees, LinkedIn, and now, Prezi.

While my plans didn’t end up exactly as I had expected, it’s been a decision I’ve never looked back on. A big part of that is because of the people I’ve gotten to work with, both in an editorial capacity and cross-functionally, including engineers, product managers, marketers, data scientists and more. At each of the companies I’ve been at, I’ve been lucky enough to have worked only with managers who embody the traits that most would agree define a truly great manager: empathetic, empowering, supportive, and trusting, among others.

But I know my situation isn’t the norm. 

As many of us enter another month of quarantine, we’re experiencing new ways of working and living that come with its own set of challenges.

“Staying on top of the daily news for the coronavirus pandemic is a challenge and newsroom leaders want to be successful,” said Carrie Holt, a digital executive producer at Local Now.

Holt has experienced her “fair share” of micromanagers during her 20+ year career in news and digital media and said the tendency to micromanage may be elevated by the pandemic.

“Every newsroom leader wants their coverage of COVID-19 to be the best, lead ratings and win awards,” said Hold. “The pressure is on for editorial teams to deliver phenomenal results and it can be difficult for a manager to stand back and let that happen.”

Luckily, there are tips for how to set expectations and communicate clearly so that you can operate efficiently, and, ideally, on your own schedule.

Make priorities clear

One of the biggest reasons that managers micromanage is due to lack of trust, said Iwo Szapar, CEO of Remote-how, a platform powered by and for leaders of distributed teams. For employees, it’s important to ask the manager to be explicit about what they expect of you.

“To build up this trust, you should encourage the manager to set clear goals and priorities,” Szapar said. “It can be daily, weekly or monthly so we know what should be delivered and what are the deadlines.”

For managers, it’s also important to understand how your team best operates. After all, micromanaging is ultimately in the eye of the beholder, said Poynter leadership faculty member Cheryl Carpenter.

“What may seem like a regular check-in to you as a manager might seem like micromanaging to them,” Carpenter said. “It’s about knowing your people and knowing what level of independence they expect — and frankly, if they’ve earned it.”

If you’re still feeling micromanaged even after priorities are established, Adrienn Hopkins, Prezi’s director of human resources (and my dedicated HR partner to help me work through difficult workplace situations) recommends taking a step back and using a prioritization framework like the Eisenhower Matrix to double-check that you’re accomplishing the tasks you and your manager aligned on.

“It’s easy to lose track of prioritization and keep in line with what your manager is looking for when everybody is remote and stressed,” Hopkins said.

Tech can be your friend

Once you’ve set priorities with your manager, products like Slack, Zoom, Trello, and Google Docs make it much easier to share updates and collaborate with colleagues. Technology is even more critical as this work from home experiment evolves into a more permanent solution for some workers.

At Prezi, we use Prezi Video for both asynchronous and live video meetings to keep in touch with one another (and to make our meetings more fun!).

Most of us will be familiar with live video meetings. Asynchronous communication is likely less common in your organization or newsroom, but it may be something you want to bring up as a new way of working with your boss.

Async is communication that happens at different times, meaning that you shouldn’t expect (and likely won’t get) responses right away. It allows for more flexibility in your work schedule, time to support family and friends, and the ability to optimize your efforts and skills, according to Samantha Lee, a community advocate at GitLab, the world’s largest all-remote company. For journalists, async communication could be especially useful for longer-term or collaborative projects.

Write it down, then write down some more

The impact technology has had in aiding remote work is undeniable, but it can only go so far without a proper foundation. That’s where documentation comes in.

With teams spread out and working from bedrooms, bathrooms and home “offices” in different time zones, it can be difficult for managers and teammates to keep track of who is working on what and when.

To provide more transparency, news and media companies should embrace a combination of asynchronous communication and documentation, said GitLab’s Lee (you’ve likely seen GitLab’s Remote Playbook making the rounds online, which advocates for async communication).

“Documentation and async work go hand in hand. With good documentation, questions are already answered and processes are documented — so managers don’t need to worry about being available to train or answer questions,” Lee said. For employees, “async work, combined with documentation, allows teams to become self-sufficient, effective, and reach a better work and life balance.”

Updates and documentation don’t need to be formal to be impactful. A simple Slack message can go a long way.

Practice empathy

We’re all in a situation that has turned our lives upside down in different ways. One way to combat any additional stress is by having empathy for one another.

“Managers are responsible for story accuracy and quality control under extremely tight deadlines. The pressure is on to make the right decisions and they’re feeling the stress, too,” Local Now’s Holt said.

Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay, executive editor at C&EN BrandLab, has been called a micromanager before. According to Mukhopadhyay, who has two direct reports and 20 freelancers who report to her, she is naturally attentive to details. But after receiving feedback that this came off as micromanaging, she made adjustments that allowed her to let go of some of the details and focus on the bigger picture.

“One thing I realized is I never gave my direct reports the ‘why.’ ‘Why am I constantly in their business, why am I asking them?’” she said. “I’m a person who needs constant clear communication. The fear of balls being dropped is what keeps me constantly asking. But if you communicate clearly and regularly with me that things are under control or things are going off-rail but [you say] ‘I have it and I’ve got it under control,’ then I’m fine.”

Another way to have empathy is to assume best intentions.

“In recent years, I dealt with a boss who would ask for my opinion, then question me because a manager in another department may have suggested something different,” Holt said. “It’s likely he was leaning on that person because they worked together in the past. I finally told my boss, ‘I know it’s hard for you, but I need you to trust me.’ Opening up and telling him how I felt made a difference. After that, my boss stopped second-guessing me. He would only ask questions if he truly didn’t understand my reasoning behind my decision. Bottom line, he didn’t even realize he was doing it until I brought it to his attention.”

Talk it out

As was in Holt’s case, having an honest conversation can be all it takes to fix an otherwise difficult situation.

“When we sense that we are being micromanaged, we get annoyed, frustrated and we easily fall into assumptions — he/she thinks I am not working or not working enough,” Prezi’s Hopkins explained. “Point out examples and the impact on you, your work and productivity. Having the conversation gives you and the manager the chance to build a stronger relationship and collaboration. ”

Poynter’s Carpenter recommends reflecting on three things before approaching your manager:

  1. Ask yourself: What’s this person missing that I can control? “Inquire of yourself the behavior to change. Micromanaging comes from when the person isn’t getting enough information.”
  2. Understand the context. “Is this person normally a micromanager or is this person micromanaging this project? It might be an agenda you don’t know about. Ask them, ‘Tell me about the outcome of this project and what you hope for and what your worries are about?’”
  3. Make a plan for a difficult conversation. When you let your boss know that you don’t feel like he/she trusts you, it usually gets someone’s attention, Carpenter said. “[Trust is] a big word. If they say they don’t trust you, you have to be poised in the moment and ask them how you can reassure them.”

Szapar perhaps summarizes it best: “It all comes down to trust and empowering people to take the ownership so they feel accountable. This is the best way for how we can all get rid of micromanagement.”


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