Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

What to Do When Your Micromanaging Boss Is Holding Up Your Entire To-Do List

There’s nothing left to tackle on your to-do list. Unfortunately, it’s not because you’ve been a productivity superstar. It’s because every last thing on your list is at a standstill—pending an approval, edits, or guidance from your manager.

Managers often do this with the best of intentions. They want to see, review, and endorse everything that goes out of the department to make sure it’s the best it can be. But in the process of doing that, emails build up in their inboxes, and employees sit around, waiting for the approvals they need to move on with their projects.

How do you handle a bottleneck that’s impeding your ability to get your work done? Here are a few tips to deal with a micromanaging boss.

Plan for It

You know that friend who’s late to everything? She’s the one who says “I’m almost there!” when she hasn’t even pulled out of her driveway yet. You may deal with her perpetual lateness for a while, but when you know there’s an important event that she absolutely has to be on time for—like your wedding—you tell her that it starts an hour earlier than it actually does. And then she shows up perfectly on time.

In the same way, you have to plan ahead when you know you’re going to encounter a bottleneck. That could, for example, mean getting the report into your manager’s inbox a week earlier than you otherwise would, to allot some extra time for him or her to review and approve it. Or, if you’re writing a company newsletter, maybe you get your manager’s approvals on each of the story ideas before you actually start writing—instead of working to complete the entire newsletter and then presenting it to her approval, forcing a tight deadline that probably won’t be met.

Remind, Remind Again

The absolute worst thing you can do is send a request or assignment to your boss by email, and then simply wait (and wait, and wait) for a response. That’s practically begging for your task to get caught in the bottleneck.

At the root of the issue, your boss is probably very busy (and perhaps a bit disorganized)—and that means that he or she may need a reminder or two to make sure tasks get accomplished. So, maybe you email your boss on Monday afternoon with your request or assignment for review. On Tuesday, as you pass by his office during lunch, you stop in and say, “Just wanted to remind you that I need your review and approval on the Smith proposal by end of day on Wednesday—it’s in your inbox now.” And then Wednesday morning, you pop in again to ask, “Will you be able to get me your changes and approval this afternoon? I can re-send if you need.”

I know, it sounds annoying. But frankly, your boss will likely appreciate the reminders—and if it helps you get what you need, it’s ultimately helping your boss (and the entire department) succeed.

Ask to Take the Lead

While it’s clear that your manager prefers to review and approve everything that goes through the department, if you make him or her feel more confident in your abilities, he or she may be willing to hand over the reins.

For example, I recently had a manager who liked to have the last look at everything my team and I wrote—down to the most mundane emails—and it was significantly slowing down everyone’s progress. I finally took a chance standing my ground on a small assignment I knew I had nailed: “Hey Lisa, there are two webinar invites that are due today. I reviewed the copy and there were very few edits. I know you have a lot on your plate already; would it be OK if I went ahead and moved them forward?”

She (somewhat reluctantly) agreed, and I was finally able to cross that item off my to-do list—and she saw that it turned out fine. Once I had tested the waters, I slowly started feeling more confident about making those calls on other assignments: “I don’t think this one needs your review, so I’m going to go ahead and finalize it. Is that OK?” And most of the time, she agreed. Sure, if we were writing a company-wide email communication on behalf of the executive team, we’d need her approval. But if I was making minor edits to an existing sales brochure or PowerPoint deck, she agreed that she didn’t need to review. And that opened up her time and loosened the bottleneck.

Have a Frank Conversation

Of course, your boss may be more of a stickler—and his or her response to your attempt to sidestep the established process may be, “No, I still need to review it. I’ll get to it as soon as I can.”

In that case, you need to address the issue more directly. During your regularly scheduled one-on-one meeting (if you don’t have one set up—you should), bring up the issue and how it’s affecting the team: “I know you have quite a few projects and assignments that are waiting for review. Is there a way we can make the process more efficient? Is there anything I can do individually to make it easier on you?”

For example, maybe she’d prefer you to specify the deadline in the subject line of your email, so she can prioritize her inbox based on what’s due immediately. Or, maybe your boss would prefer that you bring a list of pending items to a weekly check-in meeting, and you can address any questions—and immediately check off approvals—as you go.

But even if you can’t determine an immediate solution, alerting your boss directly will help him or her realize it’s not just a matter of disorganization or an overflowing inbox—it’s a problem that’s impacting the entire team’s productivity. And that can be the wake-up call your boss needs to figure out a solution.

Photo of hose drip courtesy of Shutterstock.