For my senior thesis, I interned with the local public health department because I wanted my studies to actually make a difference, not just stay in the realm of theory.
So I reached out and asked if I could help with a project. My timing was perfect as there was a new program I had an opportunity to support.
I was responsible for creating a survey that would establish a benchmark of school tobacco use policies within the county. This data would help the public health department determine what programs and resources they needed to provide to the area school districts. It was all in an effort to reduce tobacco use among teens, using funds from the tobacco settlement case.
I studied survey design and worked closely with the woman managing me. We talked about the ideal length for the survey, what information we needed to collect and the best way to gather valuable insights.
I was really proud of the survey we drafted together but we needed to the department head to sign off on it.
A few days later, I was sitting in the office of the department head.
"I made some changes," she said as she handed back the survey to me. "Update the survey design with these and we'll be ready to send it out."
I looked over her comments. She completely redid the survey, not a single thing I did had remained.
When I showed the redlined survey to my manager, she sighed and shook her head, "She's micro-managing you. The survey you designed was perfectly fine."
My sense of excitement for and commitment to my internship diminished significantly after that experience. I did the bare minimum that was asked of me in order to protect myself from experiencing the shame, humiliation and disappointment of being micro-managed again.
When I started my internship, I had a lot of ideas for other ways I could support their efforts but opted not to pursue them anymore. The usual enthusiasm with which I approach projects waned. I didn't like how the situation changed me and dampened my spark. Yet I wasn't going to just walk away, I had to fulfill my responsibilities so I could complete my undergraduate thesis.
Sadly, my story is not unusual. Most of us have experienced a manager who doesn't know how to give adequate direction. When their inability to set shared expectations becomes apparent, such managers choose to exert control rather than engage in meaningful conversations.
What's worse is these situations are upsetting for everyone. Managers get frustrated when things aren't executed according to their vision and eventually lose trust in their teams' abilities to perform. Employees check out when they don't feel valued or appreciated. These scenarios result in a vicious cycle of diminishing quality and a culture of blame. It's bad for business and bad for morale.
Dealing with a micro-manager is never fun and yet these dynamics persist. Even when the very offender themselves dislikes being micro-managed, they perpetuate the cycle.
This problem occurs when there's a lack of self-awareness combined with a deep seeded fear. I know this from my experience managing people.
I have pretty high standards for the work I produce, this includes when I volunteer. When I first started "being in charge" I struggled to accept the ways other people would approach a given task. Years ago, I would give someone vague directions when delegating a task. When it didn't come back completed to my standards I found myself just doing it my way because I didn't want to lose any more time trying to explain it all over again.
Not surprisingly, when I did that, I didn't get the best work out of people and found myself continually doing their jobs. A lot of this stemmed from the fear I would be outed as a fraud if things weren't just right. I was a novice at so much and barely trusted my own abilities to complete a given project, let alone trusting my skills to adequately delegate. I compensated for that by exerting as much control as possible.
But I quickly saw that such an approach was unsustainable. I was exhausted and the people I was working with didn't feel good either. The energy of our work together shifted from excited by the possibilities to begrudgingly getting by.
Something had to change and that something was me. A big part of my struggle was letting go of the fear of being seen as a bossy woman, a criticism I often heard growing up (and ironically exemplified when I micro-managed people). I learned how to communicate my expectations clearly while inviting creative contributions from others.
I also shifted how I reacted to mistakes - staying calm, measured, and grounded led to more positive outcomes in the long term for two reasons. First, people stuck around longer when I showed them kindness. And second, they were more vested in learning from mistakes, offering valuable ideas and solutions.
In other words, micro-managing kills co-creation whereas communicating both directly and with compassion paves the way for more innovative ideas to first be shared, developed and ultimately flourish.
While my internship proved to be a disappointment, I was able to regain my excitement for the project when I returned to school to work on my thesis. I researched the history of the tobacco movement which turned out to be much more fascinating than I anticipated.
The tobacco movement is an instance where grassroots organizing proved a lot more powerful than the sway of corporations. Within the first twenty years of my life, smoking went from occurring everywhere, the mall, restaurants, offices, and planes to being banned. All of this was because people came together to bring about change in their local communities. That catalyzed shifts at the regional, statewide, and federal levels.
It's an inspiring story of the mighty few who banded together and prevailed because they worked with the resources and talents they had available to them. And they made a compelling case that was hard to argue with. Years of scientific evidence pointed to the dangers of smoking, even for those exposed to it second-hand.
The story of the tobacco movement gives me hope as we continue to navigate opportunities to right the wrongs of our predecessors. Be that within organizations, our local communities or society at large. We are now hip to the fact that we don't need to keep doing things the same way, and there's growing evidence of the harm done that we don't want to repeat. The next step is to shift how we're showing up, which includes confronting our inner micro-manager so our intentions match our impacts, and we effectively pave the way for others to co-create solutions with us that are better than we ever imagined possible.