Ask Women in Product: What’s the best way to handle a micromanager?

Sydney Russakov and Sara Vienna offer practical tips to strengthen your working relationship with your (micro)manager.

Photo by Krizde via Twenty20

This week’s question: What’s the best way to handle a micromanager? My manager has emotional ties to the product and is having a hard time letting go. I would like to be empathetic but also assert ownership in order to drive this forward, even if it does take a new direction.


Answer from Sydney Russakov, Product Manager at Evernote

So you report to a micromanager who has deep emotional ties to the product. Perhaps they’ve been at the company for a while, or maybe they were the PM who took the product to market. Your boss knows the product so well and wants so much to make sure you don’t fail at your job that it feels like they don’t trust you to make any of the decisions. It’s now at the point where your interactions with your boss leave you feeling undervalued and demoralized. And in the darker moments, you question your own talents and skills.

So what’s a product manager to do? Assuming that you have no notable issues with your work performance, the way forward involves recognizing that the manager/employee relationship is a two-way street. You’ll first need to figure out what’s driving your boss’ behavior, and then you’ll need to strengthen your working relationship.

Understanding Your Boss’s Behavior

The first step to improving the situation is to identify the potential sources of the problem. Here are a few possibilities.

Your boss may have imposter syndrome. Yes, really. It’s not uncommon for managers of all levels to suffer from some degree of imposter syndrome. Sometimes they’re unable to strike the balance between the demands of their managerial work and their individual contributor work, which could start a trend in which they focus more of their time on boots-on-the-ground product work. Before long, they inadvertently encroach on your product areas, answer questions meant for you, and “help out” a lot more. This chain of events can end up triggering feelings of imposter syndrome in your mind, which could make the situation worse.

Your boss may have worries about the product. These can range from the obvious to the not-so-obvious issues that only they are aware of because of their proximity to the product or tenure at the company. The problem may not be with how you manage the product, but with the product itself. Your boss could be stepping in because of deeper, hard-to-articulate concerns about the product rather than any doubts about your ability to deliver.

Your boss may have never managed a great PM like you. You were hired for a reason; you’re an awesome PM with the ability to get things done and work cross-functionally. If your current boss was your hiring manager, they know this! It’s possible that your manager is new to managing or has had prior experiences with direct reports where they’ve had to step in frequently to ensure that things get shipped.

Take a moment and reflect on the interactions that you’ve had with your boss in the past few weeks. Are there clues hidden in plain sight that could reveal what’s driving their behavior?

Tackling the Issue

As with any relationship, your relationship with your manager needs time and effort to become a trusting one. The good news: there are things you can do to strengthen the relationship and lessen any rifts between their management style and your working style.

Ask for opportunities to grow. If you feel comfortable, broach the subject in an upcoming one-on-one. You do not need to go right in and say, “I feel like you’re micromanaging me,” but you could bring up recent examples. Some ways you might want to frame this:

  • “I’m trying to work on my public speaking skills and the weekly update meeting would be a great place to start. Could I present my team’s work at the next one rather than having you lead? I think this would also help stakeholders engage with me more.”
  • “I’ve appreciated your help in learning the product since you know it so well. Going forward, can you encourage others to direct their questions to me? I want to make sure the team feels comfortable coming to me.”
  • “Thanks for tackling that question in the leadership meeting. Next time, can I have a chance to answer first? You can always supplement or reinforce what I say if needed. I want to make sure the wider organization knows they can trust me.”

Understand & tackle your manager’s concerns. As mentioned above, your boss may recognize issues about the product that they haven’t yet shared. Ask about their concerns and find ways to incorporate those themes into your roadmap. Present your boss with a Product Proposal that helps remedy some of the issues they’re concerned about. If none of the solutions fit within your immediate planning, find time to ideate with your boss on potential solutions. This approach will not only give you an opportunity to make your boss feel heard but you’ll also get to know them better as a person and a product thinker.

Proactively provide updates on not only their far-thinking concerns but also on the items that you’re tackling today. Work a weekly written update into your schedule so that your boss knows what to expect and waits to ask questions until they get that email. Get in the habit of having data handy if your manager asks for evidence to back up your thinking.

Be openly willing to fail. This one might sound like the scariest one on the list, but there’s a difference between being set up to fail and being given the opportunity to fail. You’ll likely need to ask your boss for these new opportunities, so be confident in your ask by providing examples of successes that support this proposed increase in scope or responsibility. Even outside of managing your relationship with your boss, being given the opportunity to explore the unknown allows you to carve a path for yourself at the company. Presenting at the next meeting with leadership or taking on a new project will give you an opportunity to expand your skill set, earn trust, and gain visibility throughout the organization:

  • “I know you usually present our update at the all-hands, but would you be willing to let me step in? I know it’s a big audience, but I’d love to workshop it with you and try my hand at presenting.”
  • “I hear we are going to integrate with Company X. I know I haven’t launched a product/integration on my own yet, but this sounds like a great opportunity to learn about that process.”

What Now?

You can still be empathetic while asserting yourself as a PM who is able to manage projects that are close to your manager’s heart. If things continue down a path that impacts your day-to-day and career progression, find time with someone on your People/HR team and have a conversation or seek a mentor’s advice. Continue to work on your relationship with your boss, don’t give up, and continue being the great PM you are.


Answer from Sara Vienna, Head of Design at BL3NDlabs

Micromanagement stems from psychological fear and is typically seen when a manager feels a lack of control. While micromanaging behavior is more common when there are employee performance issues, it can also be present even when an employee is performing well.

If you consider micromanagement as simply trust issues at work, you’re missing the nuance. Blind trust is blindly given. Authentic trust, in contrast, is earned. To get authentic trust, you must also give it. It’s all about relationship building.

“There are many types of trust. Non-authentic, basic trust can be unrealistic, naïve, foolish, or blind. Yet, many people still operate at work with this simple kind of trust.”
Nan S. Russell, Psychology Today

So how do we build authentic trust? The way forward involves several steps: you need to empathize, self-reflect, communicate, anticipate, and move forward. Here’s how you might do that.

Empathize

Start by asking yourself these questions and taking the time to note your answers.

  • Are there events in your manager’s life and career that could be affecting their point of view?
  • Is this behavior out of the ordinary for them, or the norm? Do you see this pattern applied to others in your company?
  • Why does your manager have emotional ties? How would you feel if you were in a similar situation? How would you want a PM to work with you in that scenario?

This is your career — you own it — so don’t be afraid to write your thoughts down. Just make sure your notes are well-protected. They are for your eyes only.

Self-reflect

This exercise requires you to be objective. It’s not easy! Write down answers with specific examples to the questions below.

  • How is your work environment affecting you?
  • How are you performing? What kind of feedback have you received?
  • Do you feel in control or are you swamped?
  • When you make a commitment, do you honor it?
  • Are you showing up on time and on point?
  • Are you making deadlines or managing expectations/scope appropriately?
  • Do you communicate proactively and keep all the stakeholders informed of the product roadmap, plans, and status?
  • If you managed someone in this role and they performed as you did, how would you rate their performance?

Call yourself out and be accountable — the good, the bad, the meh.

Communicate

Everyone is busy. Details get lost in a hectic work environment. Make communication and feedback a regular habit. Open up your first discussion with any insights you’ve learned from the exercises above and listen with the goal of understanding your manager’s perspective. Let your manager know you see how they could be emotionally tied to the state of things.

While you have these conversations, openly ask for their feedback and try to consider it as objectively as possible. I’ve found it’s easiest to first bring up the feedback discussion during key milestones, for example — the start or end of a project. From there, make regular feedback sessions happen often. Your manager will be busy but their job is to manage you, so asking for their time and feedback is your right and responsibility.

Once you’ve shown that you understand your manager’s perspective, let them know how you intend to set the business/product up for success. Offer examples of how you’d own a feature/milestone/objective and back your words up with actions. Use research — including qualitative and quantitative data with concrete examples — to help your manager evaluate your plan objectively.

Anticipate

The next time you have a deliverable or project, use it as an opportunity to anticipate what your manager might need to get comfortable and build that authentic trust.

For example, if you take on a Competitive Analysis task, but you’re new at it, consider researching best practices within your company and across the web. From there, share your proposed process and ask for input. When you present your analysis, be sure to reference your manager’s guidance so they know you’ve heard them and applied their direction to your work. Be open to changes and feedback.

Another tactic is to incorporate learnings from a similar past project and to let your manager know you did so. “When you gave me feedback on X, that helped me shape out this project and here’s how.”

Move Forward

Whether you’re actively working to correct a situation of poor performance or you’re performing well but haven’t yet earned authentic trust, know that you were hired for a reason. You may not be able to change your manager’s behavior right away, but you can influence your coworkers with your professional approach.

If the relationship with your manager proves toxic even after you’ve taken the steps above, you can consult with HR, a mentor, or find a more suitable workplace knowing that you’ve improved your skills and professional maturity by going through the process. Your well-being should be priority number one, so don’t be afraid to make career changes. When you’re thriving personally, you’ll succeed professionally.