My boss insists on checking over any work I do before it goes to anybody outside our division. When he makes changes, they aren’t really improvements. I don’t think he’s trying to claim credit for my work, because he lets me send it under my name after I put in his changes. But I feel belittled, the needless review creates extra work and delay, and people think I’m late doing my part of projects, when the real problem is it’s waiting for my boss to check. How can I get him to be less controlling?
One approach is to discuss your feelings frankly with your boss, but don’t do it! Your frank feelings are, “Your unwillingness to delegate to me is a personality flaw, or at least a lack of management skill,” and that not only won’t help, but also is probably a misdiagnosis.
Professor Carrie Leana researched the factors that predict whether a supervisor requires an employee’s work to get his approval before it goes out, or delegates to the employee. She found that differences among supervisors, in their need for dominance and their opinions about the proper role of supervisors, did not predict how much they delegated. But a supervisor’s perceptions of any particular employee’s capability, responsibility and trustworthiness was a relatively strong predictor of how much he would delegate to that employee. Interestingly, there was no significant relationship between a supervisor’s perceptions of a particular employee and objective measures of the employee’s job performance.
So, if you want your boss to delegate more to you, focus on his perceptions of your work, not on his personality or your objective performance. For starters, try to build his trust by sending him work with fewer things he will want to change. Look for patterns in the changes he makes. Does he edit grammar or style in ways that you think are unimportant or incorrect? You can adapt your style on future work to do it his way rather than yours, even if your way is more correct. All it will cost you is some pride in authorship.
It is more problematic if his changes are about substance. If he has a pattern of deleting or obscuring results in your work that would displease your agency’s officials, then figure out from those changes how much you need to soften the truth for your boss to let it through. Then you face the choice of whether to give your boss what he will accept, or give him the product as you think it should be, knowing that he will change it before it goes forward. If you are willing to conform your work to what he will accept, then eventually he should learn from experience that he does not need to always check it.
Another approach is to standardize what you produce. If there is a work product you do repeatedly, like a report you file every week or an email you send every time you get a certain type of request, try to make it a template with the minimum amount of different information in each iteration. For example, maybe all you need to change in each week’s report is inserting the latest numbers, or all you need to change in the email responding to each request is the requestor’s name. After your boss gets used to seeing your standard product come through time and again without any surprises, he is likely to feel more comfortable allowing you to send it out without waiting for his review.
You could also try to use two other factors that Professor Leana found to be significant. One is that supervisors are more likely to delegate when the employee’s decision is on a less important matter. You could try to use this by getting your boss to agree that some of the types of products you produce involve less discretion and risk, so you can send those types out without his review. The other factor is that supervisors are more likely to delegate when they have a heavier workload. So, if you want to talk to your supervisor about altering his rule that all your work must pass through him, he may be more amenable during a time when his workload is particularly heavy.
You cannot change your supervisor’s personality, but you can affect his micromanaging behavior. Focus on building his trust that if there is something in your work that might raise a red flag for him, you will ask him about it, and otherwise he can feel safe letting you send it out without his review.
Dear Bureaucrat is a new feature on Federal Times, providing advice for people who work in the public sector and the opportunity for the federal workforce to submit questions about their careers to David S. Reed, founder of the Center for Public Administrators, a 501(c)(3) civil society organization that builds communities of practice in the public sector. Reed has spent 35 years in and around government. He has worked for large contractors, owned a small contractor, and is currently a government employee. He holds a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School, and is a frequent speaker at public administration conferences.
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