Dear Thomas,
How do you handle a boss who is doing micro-management and needs to be in control of all the details of your work? I'm talking about someone who doesn't trust me even though I always do a good job.

Dear Frustrated,
It takes a degree of maturity and awareness to manage people by fostering their own initiative and feelings of power and worth. If you are in a work setting where managers have been well-trained, you may be able to work out a rational solution to your problem: Tell the manager you want to do a good job and welcome ideas and suggestions at a weekly meeting. You could add, if he or she asks why you'd like to institute weekly meetings, that it’s confusing and difficult to get these ideas at random times during the week. If that doesn’t work, and your company has a sophisticated management scheme, you could go to a higher authority and suggest the same approach. If either case, this solution would allow you to both yield and assume degrees of power.

But the workplace is often not rational and is full of complicated power arrangements. In fact, the "weekly meeting" approach could get you even deeper into trouble if you are faced with a particularly controlling boss.
In that case, you may simply have to be more subtle. Assert yourself, though not through a direct confrontation with your boss. In other words, give away your power as little as possible, not just in relation to the interfering manager, but with everyone else as well. In doing this, you may find yourself having to take chances and display your good judgment and ability, even if that means bending the rules and indirectly threatening your little Napoleon.

If your manager is being sadistic, you have to be careful not to lock into his or her pattern by being masochistic--swallowing all your anger and frustration. Know the amount of oversight you can tolerate, and be sure you cultivate opportunities to express your power somewhere to compensate when the pressure from your manager gets too great.

The same dynamics apply in a marriage or romantic partnership. It’s all a matter of attitude: You can accept a degree of control, but as soon as it goes too far, you have to rattle your sword and show that you have your limits and want your own power.

Remember--in any excessive display of power, there is plenty of fear and anxiety underneath it all. If you cower and act out of fear yourself, your situation will only get worse. If you react too strongly and try to overwhelm your boss, you are headed for disaster. The best solution I know is in the style of the great Chinese teaching found in the Tao Te Ching, here in Stephen Mitchell’s smooth translation:

The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.

Yield without giving up any power. This advice might sound paradoxical, but believe me when I say it can be very effective.

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