A micromanager who hovers over your shoulder when you’re talking to a help desk caller, makes you perform endless rewrites of status reports, and rarely has anything positive to say about anything you do can make your work life miserable, or worse, ruin your career.

This week, I’ll share advice from two career consultants who agree that micromanagers cause serious problems for their staff members and for the companies that employ them. The consultants sharply disagree, however, about what you should do when you realize you’re working for this kind of person.

Approach 1: Practice assertive communication
Mark Kimbell, president of Kimbell Associates, specializes in personal career coaching, management training, and organizational development. “I don’t think anybody wants to waste their time and effort. And micromanagers, by definition, are doing work—or at least closely supervising work—that someone else is being paid to do,” he said.

“I can only think of two reasons why people micromanage,” Kimbell said. “First, they don’t trust you to do the work, so they feel they’ve got to monitor you while you do the job.

“Second, they don’t realize they’re doing it. It doesn’t occur to them that if they don’t micromanage, the work is still going to get done and is going to get done right.”

In either case, Kimbell recommends using assertive communication. “When you have a problem with someone, whether it’s your manager or the CEO of the company or the pizza delivery guy, you have to have a face-to-face conversation.”

“You have to ask your manager, ‘Why do you feel like you have to look over my shoulder?’ The manager may say, ‘Gee I didn’t know I was.’ On the other hand, the manager may say, ‘I have to watch you because the couple of times I haven’t watched you, it [the work] has been done incorrectly.’ At that point, you have a training issue.”

Kimbell recommends asking your micromanager for a chance to complete a task on your own. “Tell your manager, ‘If I come up short, then let me know what I did wrong, because my goal, Mr. Manager, is to save you the time you’re spending helping me do this job.’”

“If you don’t have the ability to do the job,” Kimbell said, “you may be better off being reassigned or even terminated. If you have the ability but you don’t have the skill, then you should ask for additional training.”

Approach 2: Get help from HR or get out
Boston-based Susan K. O’Brien has a graduate degree in organizational behavior. She worked as a corporate career advisor before launching her own career consulting service, Career Management Systems.

While O’Brien agrees with Kimbell that micromanagement is a problem, she strongly disagrees with Kimbell’s advice on dealing with it.

“Micromanagement is a personality aberration of insecure individuals,” O’Brien said. “Confronting them is likely to make things worse.”

The first thing O’Brien recommends is documentation. “Begin to document the micromanagement in writing,” she said. “If the micromanager says one thing but acts out something else, you need to document that pattern.”

According to O’Brien, when the micromanager gives you an assignment, you should follow up with an e-mail message like this: “This is my understanding of the assignment and the time line. If this is incorrect, please get back to me.”

O’Brien said that the next step is to go to human resources with your documentation. However, in O’Brien’s experience, this tactic may backfire. If the HR department intervenes, the employee may face the prospect of retaliation.

If you don’t get satisfaction from human resources, O’Brien recommends going to an outside source, such as an employee assistance program or a career counselor, to get some help and a plan to deal with the situation.

“Get your job search up and running,” O’Brien said.

She believes that working for a micromanager is a no-win situation that can adversely affect your health and your career. “Micromanagers make you feel like you never do enough,” said O’Brien. “No matter how well you think you’re doing, micromanagers make you feel like you never do anything right, and that your job is in jeopardy.”

Only one long-term solution
Confronting your micromanager directly may get you temporary relief from the problem, but there’s only so much you can do to change someone else’s behavior. O’Brien’s admittedly grim assessment of micromanagers may be the most realistic.

“Micromanagers never change,” O’Brien said. When her clients complain about their micromanaging bosses, O’Brien gives them this advice: “If you can’t get a transfer to a new manager, you’ll probably have to leave the organization.”

What’s your take on micromanagers?

Should you confront someone who’s micromanaging you, or start looking for another job? To share your coping strategies with fellow TechRepublic members, please post a comment below or write to Jeff.