When Your Boss Is Always Breathing Down Your Neck

My boss is always breathing down my neck. She checks on my e-mail and sends e-mails with numerous CCs about reports I'm working on. She doesn't smile and there is no common ground for chit-chat. The stress is killing me. Any suggestions?

A relationship with a boss can be similar to one with a spouse or parent or anyone who is a factor in your life. Sometimes these people frustrate you, and this can devolve into annoyance at their individual ticks -- how your mom never remembers punch lines, for example -- until you can no longer stand to hear her clear her throat.

The relationship with a boss may seem different. After all, you probably don't share much personal information with her beyond that you're going to be late because you have a doctor's appointment. But because you spend so much time together in a tight space, you're likely to concentrate a large amount of your thoughts and energy on her. If you have a bad relationship, often even the smallest thing she does can make you angry with her.

In your case, it's gotten to the point where everything your boss does bothers you, and before you can talk to her about how she's micromanaging you, you need to take a break from the office. Only then does it make sense to try to think about something beyond how much you hate when she swings by at 12:05 every day to check in on what you've accomplished that morning.

"She needs to get away from her boss for a short period of time, to regroup and relax," says Kenneth de Meuse, an Eau Claire, Wis., psychologist and associate vice president of research at Lominger International: A Korn/Ferry Company, which works with managers to develop their skills. "She seems like she's at wit's end. All of this is part of getting back to neutral. She can't control her boss's behavior, but she can control hers. This gets her at gaining that sense of control."

When you're on a white-sand beach or in your backyard hammock, don't forget about work entirely. Spend some time analyzing your boss. Try to understand that she has a reason beyond being overbearing for checking on whether you sent an e-mail.

"Being a manager today is not an easy job," says de Meuse. "Management is being squeezed. They are being asked to do more with less. Her boss might be in that squeeze. I'm not justifying the boss's behavior, but I'm asking this employee to show a little understanding about where the boss is coming from." As for your frustration that she doesn't smile or have a few minutes to talk about what a nice day it is outside, some people just aren't approachable. It's their personality. Some are warm and will always say "hello" when they pass your desk. But some are permanently businesslike and can seem cold. One is not necessarily better than the other when it comes to managers. You just have to understand which kind of person you're dealing with.

When you return from your sojourn, you should feel relaxed enough to talk with your boss about how she looks over you shoulder a little too much. You should be able to have this conversation without becoming unreasonably upset if she doesn't smile once during it.

"You're trying to raise the boss's consciousness," says Robert Hogan, a psychologist in Tulsa, Okla., and president of Hogan Assessment Systems, which develops personality tests to help businesses determine who to hire. "You're trying to tell her that she's micromanaging you and you don't particularly love it."

Frame the conversation in terms of you being a better employee. Start by saying, "I've noticed you've been checking up on me. What can I do to do a better job?" Get her to tell you which tasks are most important to her, then assure her you can handle them. This should establish a sense of trust between you. She's told you what needs to be done, and you've affirmed that you're capable of accomplishing it -- without her breathing at your back.

"You're basically saying, 'Tell me what your concerns are, and I will make sure those are no longer a concern,'" says Hogan.

Weaning your boss off micromanaging won't happen overnight, so give her a couple of weeks. However, she may never be able to stop hovering over you. "Some bosses are insecure," says Hogan. "They're afraid someone is going to get them in trouble." In which case, you may need to take a permanent break from her.

Schaefer is a freelance writer in New York.

Work Therapy

Anxious that you're not doing a good job? Angry that your boss is taking credit for your work? Worried that a junior co-worker is going to leapfrog ahead of you? Write to worktherapy@wsj.com with your workplace stresses for tips on how to cope. Please indicate if you don't want to be identified.


Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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