The rise of 'helicopter bosses' - and what to do if you encounter micromanaging in the workplace

Much like with helicopter parenting, helicopter bosses exert too much control over their employees, which can lead to an unhealthy relationship

illustration on helicopter bosses
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Micromanagement is nothing new, but the rise of remote working has led to an unfortunate new workplace buzzword - helicopter bosses. 

Hybrid working has many plusses - less time wasted commuting, more time to spend with family and pets, and lower travel costs (all the more important with the continuing cost-of-living crisis) - but there are some drawbacks, such as the rise of helicopter bosses trying to exert more control over their employees. With constant Zoom meetings and a lack of trust due to employees being out of sight, the amount of surveillance can feel overwhelming.   

A 2020 study from the Harvard Review found that a fifth of remote workers felt their supervisor was constantly evaluating their work, while one-third agreed that their managers, “expressed a lack of confidence in their work skills". 

Helicopter bosses can heighten workplace anxiety and make it harder to reach your full potential. We delve into how to spot the signs and what to do if your boss is micromanaging you, with the help of a psychotherapist turned workplace coach. 

What is a helicopter boss?

The term 'helicopter boss' derives from 'helicopter parenting,' where parents effectively hover over their children constantly, not giving them any space to make their own decisions.

"The term 'helicopter boss' is used to describe a type of manager who is overly involved in the work of their subordinates," explains psychotherapist-turned-executive-coach Desirée Silverstone, director of Head Honchos. "They are often referred to as micromanagers, as they pay close attention to every detail and take a hands-on approach to overseeing their employees' workloads. Helicopter bosses will typically make all the decisions for their employees.

"Helicopter bosses' relates to the concept of helicopter parenting, which refers to the practice of parents being overly involved in every aspect of their child's life. This involves controlling and managing every detail and decision that affects the child, from their academic and social lives to extracurricular activities.

"When children are parented in this way, they often develop what is known as 'learned helplessness,' in which they submit to the parental will to feel loved and safe. This is a form of survival because the alternative would mean abandonment on an unconscious level. These children often have poor self-regulation and tend to suffer more from anxiety and depression."

Why can micromanaging be harmful in the workplace?

The problem with micromanaging is that it takes away the employee's ability to learn through learning from their mistakes and decisions. "Micromanaging does not fulfil the role of a good leader because a good leader encourages their team to take initiative and grow in their roles," Silverstone explains. "A good leader is a mentor and coach, someone who offers guidance and support while also allowing their team to flourish through self-motivation and exploration."

So what's the root of a controlling management style? According to Silverstone, perfectionism is often at the root of their behaviour. "Managers might also have difficulty delegating tasks due to their own sense of perfectionism," she explains. "They may feel that if they don't take complete control over projects, then the outcome will not be up to their standards and quality. Additionally, they may be unwilling to relinquish control due to a fear that mistakes will be made by others and reflect badly on them.

"Another possible reason why managers micromanage could be an inherent lack of trust in the team members assigned to a task. The manager may view their subordinates as unable or inexperienced and therefore feel that they need more direction than usual. This lack of confidence in their team's capabilities could lead the manager to become overly involved in order to ensure that tasks are completed satisfactorily and efficiently."

How to deal with a helicopter boss

While it may be difficult to deal with micromanaging in the workplace, but there are a few pointers that can help ease the pressure. Silverstone suggests:

  • Set boundaries: "The best way to deal with a helicopter boss is to set clear boundaries so that the expectations and roles are well-defined." 
  • Strive for an open dialogue: "It's also important to ensure there is an open dialogue which helps foster trust and understanding."
  • Ask your boss to focus on collaboration: "Communication should focus on collaboration rather than control, which will allow for better problem-solving capabilities among team members."
  • Ask for independent work to be a priority: "It's essential for employees to have time and space for independent work in order to feel like their contributions are valued."

Lauren is the former Deputy Digital Editor at woman&home and became a journalist mainly because she enjoys being nosy. With a background in features journalism, Lauren has bylines in publications such as Marie Claire UK, Red Magazine, House of Coco, women&home, GoodTo, Woman's Own and Woman magazine.

She started writing for national papers and magazines at Medavia news agency, before landing a job in London working as a lifestyle assistant and covers everything from fashion and celebrity style to beauty and careers.