Fixer: Boss is on verge of breakdown

Sam Sales helps a reader whose HR director has transformed into a micromanager overnight

My HR director became a micromanager overnight. Something happened in his personal life a few months ago, which trust was a big part of, and soon he was saying he wanted to stop people ‘stealing’ time from him at work. He has created multiple reports and processes (one of the processes has 45 steps) as well as daily, weekly and monthly huddles. He is alienating his staff, but insists everything is fine and that he has stopped people ‘pretending’ they are doing their jobs. He is a good person and I feel sorry for him, but I need help.

From your description, I assume your manager has been through a significant life event such as a divorce, separation or estrangement of some kind. This type of experience is comparable to a trauma. And we know that people react to trauma in unique ways: some internalise what they’ve been through, some need to withdraw from their social circle for a while to regroup, and others throw themselves maniacally into other parts of their life, such as work.

Work, I’d suggest, is the one domain your boss feels he can control, so the insane level of reporting he is putting in place and the way he is throwing out accusations about his staff could be an attempt to increase his influence and feel he is in command of this situation, even as the rest of his life becomes chaotic and unpredictable.

It’s clear that he needs professional help, but he is unlikely to welcome that suggestion from someone working for him, given how suspicious he is of employees’ motives at present. Could you get together with colleagues – these things are always better done by small groups – and take your observations to someone senior? Or perhaps he has a friend in the business you could talk to?

If you do go to someone senior, emphasise that your concern is for a well-respected and liked colleague’s wellbeing, rather than a gripe about the extra work he is making you do. Any sensible leader will see it is important to sensitively intervene. That could mean a spell away from the business, access to counselling and support when he returns to work. But over time, I think you’ll get your old boss back, and he will appreciate the way you’ve stepped in to save him from what could become a complete meltdown if left unchecked.