What to do when your client manager won't leave you alone

One of the reasons you became a consultant was because you wanted a degree of independence. Learn how to react and change the situation when a client manager feels the need to direct your every move.

While those of us who do consulting and contract work always try to establish ahead of time who we’ll be dealing with and whether the situation will be to our liking, the truth is that we can never really know for certain. Through the initial interviews and discussions, the best we can hope for is that the impression we’re given by our future client is rooted in reality.

But sometimes it isn’t. We sign on to do a job for a manager who seems at first to understand what we have to offer, only to find ourselves lectured repeatedly on design issues that we, frankly, understand more deeply, and coached on everything from how to write code to how much sugar we should put in our coffee.

Isn’t this one of the reasons consultants don’t want full-time jobs? We value our independence. We don’t want to be bossed around, and we certainly don’t want to be detailed to death by a boss who’s temporary at best.

Still, this boss is actually a client, and the professional consultant is in the business of leaving clients happy. So what’s the right response when a micromanager is hovering over your shoulder?

What’s behind it?
If you’re being overdirected, and wish to handle the problem diplomatically, it’s important to determine early on whether your client manager’s intent is really to be giving you heavily detailed direction. Often, a manager’s impulse to overmanage is really an effort to interact on other levels—to try to hone in on your communication style or working rhythm, or to get quickly to the root of your problem-solving style. It may be a subconscious impulse, and if that is what’s really going on, you can probably politely curb the excessive direction by letting your initial actions clearly indicate your working style.

In your early weeks on the job, be forward and open in demonstrating your style and choices, so that your manager rapidly gets a clear sense of who you are professionally and how best to interact with you. This approach may well remove the manager’s impulse to constantly hover over you, and you may avoid the need for any awkward confrontation.

Sort out direction from suggestion
There are other possible explanations for this situation. If you find yourself micromanaged, odds are it will happen early in the new working relationship. It will happen at a point when you really don’t know the manager you’re reporting to very well yet. And this being the case, you may not be used to this manager’s style of communication.

When you find yourself being overdirected, listen carefully to the language being used. It’s possible your manager isn’t actually intending to tell you how to do your job; it’s possible that what sounds like direction is actually a suggestion, and that the language being used seems ambiguous simply because the manager doesn’t know you well. Miscommunication could be at the root of the problem.

You want to handle it in a cooperative way, of course, but you need to bring it to an end. Well-mannered doesn’t mean passive. When you receive input from the manager, whether the tone is ambiguous or clear, say back to the manager what you hear being said to you, and preface it with a prompt for clarification, such as, “You want me to …” or “You’d prefer to see …” or something similar. This will let the manager know that what has been said is being heard as direction, and that clarification is expected: “Yes, that’s what I’d like for you to do,” or “No, no, it was just a as you think best.” In either case, you’ve removed ambiguity from your communication, and that’s a step forward.

Assert yourself with well-considered options
If none of the above seems to apply, and you are indeed being micromanaged by someone who seems to need to orchestrate your every move, you have a serious professional dilemma.

The inherent contradiction of this manager giving you how-to lessons, when you are on site precisely because no one else has your expertise, underscores that this is ultimately a personality problem. You didn’t sign on to deal with the personality issues of indigenous personnel, so you must bring these issues back into a professional domain, where they can be dealt with openly and unambiguously.

Try a new approach with your micromanager. Pay close attention to the detail directives that are given to you, and take them with you back to your desk. Treat them as decision input and put them back out to the manager a bit later next to options (better ones) that represent alternatives to the instructions you’ve received.

Even if the manager insists that you proceed as instructed, you’ll be demonstrating your decision-making competence as well as your deep awareness of the task, its issues, and the possibilities. This alone may curb the manager’s invasive impulses.

Don’t flinch where your independence is concerned
Of course you want to keep a client happy, and you definitely don’t want a reputation for being difficult. But it’s about more than keeping up a positive professional image and not making waves: It’s about your effectiveness.

The bottom line here is that you—the consultant—are hired because you offer something unique. If the client had what you have in your head in-house, you wouldn’t be needed. If a manager is telling you how to do your job, the company that hired you (the company is ultimately your client, not the manager) isn’t really getting your best. You’ve spent years developing your own style and cultivating your specialized knowledge. You owe it to your client to give your best. If your temporary superior is impeding your ability to give your best, diplomacy may be called for, but acquiescence isn’t the way to go.

Remember that you have something unique to offer because you are independent. Don’t compromise that independence. Find a way to stand firm on your method and your work while interacting with even the most difficult client managers as professionally as you can. You have an advantage that no in-house staffer shares, and you can repeat it as a mantra: It’s only for a little while….

About Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson is a 20-year IT veteran with extensive experience in business intelligence and systems integration. An enterprise architect with a background in social psychology, he frequently consults and lectures on analytics, business intelligence...

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