Q: I’m an elementary school teacher and feel completely micromanaged by my principal, Joan. She wants me to blind copy her on all my emails to parents, even when they’re not controversial. She wants me to check in every morning to show her my plan for the day. It’s her way or the highway. She nitpicks what I do down to the last detail. She even asks me questions about whether and when I plan to make photocopies! I don’t know how she has time for this, and it feels excessive. Joan doesn’t do this to anyone else, and it’s making me dread showing up for work each day. Frankly, it’s humiliating. I’m not a new teacher or a young teacher. In fact, Joan is the one who is new. She’s only in her third year as a principal. No other principal has ever behaved in this manner toward me. At first, Joan left me alone, but last year she started butting in on all of my business. She wrote me a good evaluation at the end of last year, so I don’t get it at all. Help!
A: As your letter illustrates, micromanaging has a downside. It undermines employees and sows self-doubt. It also strips workers of motivation. That said, your question raises more questions than answers for me. I don’t have the full picture, and apparently neither do you. Perhaps Joan has some concerns about your work and communication with parents but didn’t convey that feedback clearly in your written evaluation. Is it possible that you missed something? Or that as a new principal she felt nervous about criticizing you and now is overcompensating? It’s impossible to know without asking her. So, start there. You could say, “It’s concerning to me that you feel it’s necessary to preview all of my lesson plans and emails to parents. I’m confused because it’s inconsistent with your formal evaluation of my work. I’ve also noticed you don’t check in this often with other teachers. Could you help me understand?” You also could ask her questions such as, “How can we best work together?”
There’s a remote chance this has very little to do with your work. Some people micromanage as a way of alleviating their own anxiety or insecurity. Perhaps Joan got a phone call from one parent who felt you were too abrupt, or fielded a complaint about one of your lessons, or feels pressure to raise the test scores of a few students in your class. As you talk to her, step into her shoes and try to understand where she’s coming from. If you can identify her biggest concerns, it will be easier to strike a mutually acceptable compromise. For instance, if she’s worried about one parent’s reactivity, perhaps she’d agree to only prescreen the emails you send to that particular individual. If she simply feels you need more oversight, she might agree to weekly as opposed to daily check-ins.
If Joan claims she has no concerns at all about your work, then her micromanaging is unreasonable. It shouldn’t be her way or the highway. Different students (and parents) respond to different approaches. Her nitpicking behavior might even violate the terms of your contract. If you’re unsure, check with your union or human resources department. But keep in mind that while some people default to that behavior because of their own neurotic tendencies, that doesn’t seem to be the case here. If this were simply a personality issue, then Joan would be acting this way toward your colleagues, too.
In addition to talking to Joan, do anything you can to minimize her need to micromanage. Make sure you’re productive, reliable, positive, and communicating clearly. Does Joan monitor when you make copies, for instance, because you wait until the last minute and show up late for class? Does she check your emails because they’re riddled with misspellings or grammatical errors? Make sure you’re incorporating the daily feedback you’re getting, too. Every time she has to repeat herself, you reinforce her micromanaging behavior. Restate what she tells you so she knows you’re taking it all in, and so you can be sure you understood correctly. Hopefully, your principal will start to feel comfortable pulling back. If and when she does, let her know you appreciate that she’s showing more trust in you.
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