Advice | Work Advice: Sniffing out micromanagers in interviews

In recent columns, we’ve seen how some managers’ idea of collaboration can cross the line into micromanagement. They delegate tasks, then hover and try to dictate how to carry them out; second-guess employees’ methods afterward even when the result meets the requirements; or engage employees in needless, redundant discussions. Readers and online commenters described being bogged down by managers who don’t trust their skills or judgment.

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Those columns focused on people who are already stuck with micromanagers. So I put out a query on Twitter: In interviews, how do you get micromanagers to “out” themselves so you can avoid working for them in the first place?

The first thing to understand is that “micro” is in the eye of the managed. What you see as overbearing and nitpicky, the micromanager may see as necessary or a point of pride — so you might not even have to dig that hard to uncover it.

“Micromanagers do not realize that what they’re doing can be aggravating to others,” said Maria Reppas, a communications professional from Richmond. “They’ll own it in a way that you wouldn’t think that they would.”

The second thing to understand is that an interview is as much about learning whether a workplace is a good fit for you as it is about proving you’re a good fit for the job. A manager you consider overbearing would probably be equally frustrated at having to manage you, so asking the right questions in the interview can save you both time and stress. Fortunately, getting straight answers is often as simple as asking straight questions.

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‘What are your expectations?’

“Micromanagers tend to be very time- and process-focused,” so asking questions about scheduling and procedures can reveal their expectations, says Matt Abrahams, author of the upcoming book “Think Faster, Talk Smarter.” Abrahams recommends asking hiring managers how they schedule and track projects and how often they expect to receive and provide feedback.

“People will absolutely say, ‘I want to be copied on everything,’ ‘I want multiple check-ins a day,’” says Reppas. To her, a manager requiring that degree of contact indicates a lack of trust. But someone doing a complex, detail-oriented job, or someone who struggles to stay on track, might welcome that level of oversight.

‘Can you tell me about your management style?’

Reppas said that in her past job-hunting experience, hiring managers were often quite clear about how they lead. They might describe themselves as “hands on” or say they wanted to be “involved in everything.”

From that point, Reppas would press for “details on how they go about their day and how they manage their staff.” In one interview, a prospective boss told her, “Think of me like a summer storm. I get mad for a short while, and then it blows over.” His candor about his style told Reppas all she needed to know about whether the position was a good fit for her.

‘What do you value in an employee?’

Asking managers about their ideal employee can also tell you a lot. Abrahams recommends asking, “What are the two most important behaviors you look for in your employees to be successful?”

The purpose is not to see if you can make yourself look like a match, but to see if the manager’s answer aligns with what you naturally bring to the table. A manager who values punctuality and consistency might not be a good fit for someone whose strong suits are adaptability and innovativeness.

Of course, sometimes managers will say, and even genuinely believe, they want a “self-starter” who can work independently — but then will jump in and take over the moment you seem to be heading-off the path they envisioned. That’s why it’s important to follow up by asking for examples of times when employees met their standards — and didn’t.

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‘How do you deal with mistakes?’

Reppas says her personal philosophy is this: “Anytime you introduce humans into a process, you introduce a chance of error.” With that in mind, she asks interviewers how they deal with employees when — not if — they make mistakes or fall short of expectations. Her ideal manager lets employees fix their own mistakes after coaching them on what is needed.

As a manager herself, Reppas explains to interviewees how she distinguishes between everyday goofs and ongoing patterns of error that indicate disengagement or disregard for standards. Managers who treat every mistake as catastrophic probably won’t be pleasant to work for.

Although Reppas has had good results asking direct questions, some micromanagers may not be as candid or specific. Abrahams recommends listening to the language interviewers use in their responses.

“Does the manager say ‘we’ or ‘you’ when describing tasks you will be responsible for? The use of ‘we’ might indicate over-involvement,” Abrahams said in an email. Also, describing desired outcomes in absolute terms — “‘The way to do this is …’ or ‘Success only comes when …’ — [may] signal rigidity of approach and expectations,” he said.

Also, says Abrahams, note the level of “specific, nitty-gritty details” a manager focuses on when discussing your résumé and application, or comments that indicate the manager did a lot of digging beyond what you submitted. Maybe the manager was burned by former candidates who omitted significant details about their work history, or maybe the manager is just the suspicious type. Asking questions about your predecessor and speaking to current and former employees can help you get a fuller picture.

Finally, what if they don’t answer your questions, or seem put off at having to explain their management style and expectations? That in itself is an answer: They don’t appreciate being questioned, or they haven’t put much thought into the how and why of their own management style. Everyone has flaws and makes mistakes; it’s the willingness to acknowledge them that makes the difference between an intolerable manager and a human one.

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