My Boss Is a Micromanager

Brian Taylor

October 19, 2010

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