Managing a Micro-Managing Manager

kaboompics.com_Blank white paper with pencil, glasses, black keyboard and cup of coffee

I stepped into the head pastor’s office the day before our mission trip. I carefully stepped over my comedically long to-do list that was uncoiled in front of me like in the cartoons. The pastor had sent me an email that morning asking to meet, and as I sat down across the desk from him he asked me, “So, what’s going on with mission trip? Tell me everything.” And he meant it – every plan, every Bible study lesson, every work project, every van seating arrangement.

He even wanted to read through the background checks of the chaperones going on the trip. We spent much of the day having him criticize or try to re-plan a trip we were leaving on the next day. I learned that day I worked for a pretty intense micro-manager. It was tough working under that sort of leadership, but over time I developed some strategies to succeed in that atmosphere.

Check out these tips developed from a recovering “over micro-managed” youth leader.

OWN IT.

The first and probably most important thing I learned at that first church was to own the fact that I was in this situation. It was terrible and frustrating, it was more work and stress for me, but once I accepted it and anticipated it, it was just an annoying quirk. I began laying out my plans a month earlier than I used to, in word documents with anticipated “FAQ’s.” I basically prepared a plan so well-laid out, so completely covered, that someone else could have led it simply by looking at it. Then, when I was asked for a meeting to discuss in too much detail every piece of my event, I would instead offer my plan in an email for the pastor to read. He would respond with a question or six, but it was better than the marathon meetings we used to have. Ultimately, this can build trust in you and your abilities, since it shows a lot of forethought and preparation. Laying groundwork like this can limit the micro-managing itself, and perhaps lead to less of a need to be this overly thorough.

CHANGE YOUR TUNE.

We can’t always anticipate every whim, question or concern a micro-manager may have, so it becomes important to change how you choose to communicate with them. The first change in language should be upfront boundaries. Begin with a plan of how and how much the manager will be involved. Get check-ins on the calendar and when you are asked things about the project outside the check-ins, say things like, “Yes, I’ll have a complete report on that at our check-in next week.” By stating it that way, you remind the manager of the plan and that you are following it. Getting frustrated or argumentative doesn’t help anyone in these situations, so having this calm response is good. How we communicate sets the mood in which we are able to or, in some cases, not able to work. I like to end each interaction, whether it’s planned or ambushed, to end with me thanking the manager for his/her concern. Sometimes it feels like a bitter defeat, but it sets the tone for the remainder of the project.

And here’s a Pro Tip: Micro-Managers NEVER like being told they are micro-managing. Even when they really, really are.

PREEMPTIVE STRIKE!

Even after owning it and planning scheduled check-ins, it’s good to remember that this manager (hopefully!) is behaving this way out of worry and desire for the success of the ministry or event, and so sharing a note or comment when you can goes a long way. I made it a priority that when I walked past the pastor’s door if it was open I would share a tidbit about my plan once that day. It was always in passing and didn’t take any additional time, but he stopped into my office for surprise consulting meetings a lot less often after that.

CREATE A BUFFER.

Sometimes, even when we do all these things right, it can still be too frustrating or emotional to deal with being micromanaged, especially at the beginning. Creating a buffer for communications is a great way to help keep things calm and professional. I began sending the check-in information in an email a day before the meeting, which almost always led to a few follow up questions and then me being able to say, “Should we still meet or is it alright for me to use that time to address some of these proposed changes?” and the meeting to be canceled. Notice how I used my language to not promise any changes, just to address them? Creating this digital buffer was helpful because the chemistry had grown to become toxic and confrontational. I also decided to type responses to his emails, save them as a draft, then reread and edit them later to make sure it was a peaceful, productive response. This is the gift that technology allows us, to edit and draft our responses so that we can defuse and be deliberate. Use this to your benefit, so that you can minimize blow ups or emotional exchanges.

Also, notice my response of “using that time to address some of the proposed changes” is deliberately vague. Changing my language to make the manager feel like his/her voice and ideas were heard and are considered while also giving me room to not use them if I deem them to be unfruitful is exactly what the previous “Change your tune” section is all about!

DO GOOD WORK.

In the best case scenarios, if you communicate in a structured way, you plan out a schedule to inform and update, and you provide a clear, upfront plan for everyone to follow, the event goes really well and the manager begins to see you can do this on your own. By doing well, we can begin to build a manager’s trust in our abilities which can help ease the manager’s micro nature going forward. But, sometimes we are paying for the personal hangups of a manager or the past mistakes of another youth person, so there’s no guarantee things will change.

Before you draft that resignation letter, please consider adding these habits to your ministry leadership. They are good things to do in any situation, really, and will make you a better planner and a better leader. Being in contact with whoever is overseeing the pastor is a good way to make sure that your efforts to counteract the behavior, too, since sometimes our best efforts just won’t be enough. Ministry shouldn’t be a power struggle, and your calling is too important to let you get wrapped up in such nonsense. And if you manage to manage that micro-managing manager, then keep up the good work!

This article was originally printed with Youth Specialties here.

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