Who me? Never!
Most of us would disavow being a micromanager. Yet, I’m sure that most of us (dare I say, all of us?) have micromanaged to some extent at some points in our lives. I know that I have. And, most of us at some point have had a micromanager as our manager. David Allen, popular author and productivity consultant best known for his methodology “Getting Things Done,” suggests that most successful people he’s known could be characterized as “highly creative control freaks.” Most of us would call these individuals “micromanagers.”
We properly desire to protect the work that we are responsible for. We are motivated for it to be done well, correctly in our mind, and certainly on time. However, overly protecting and controlling can be our downfall. Since we cannot do it all, we have to grow and mature our team and the systems they use or else the work doesn’t get done. To do this, we have, first, to learn to trust our team and then work to build that trust. You do this by creating a system and working it, so you can let go of lower level work, without letting go of the bigger picture of what you’re trying to accomplish. You build a trust-worthy system that you can trust.
As we think about our managing, and how we likely do some micromanaging, it is helpful to ask what micromanaging looks like.
Muriel Maigman Wilkins provides four sets of signs that we might look for:
- You are never completely satisfied with the deliverables you receive from your team. Something was left out, the hand-off to the client wasn’t smooth, the documentation wasn’t up to your standards, etc.
- You feel frustrated because you would have done the task differently. You believe that it won’t be a good job unless your exact instructions are followed. You zero in on the details and take great pride in making changes so that the result is more to your liking.
- You constantly want to know where all of your team members are and what they are working on.
- You ask for frequent progress updates. You expect to be cc’d on emails.
Yes, when you are managing it is important to make sure that the work is done with skill, to the expected specifications, and on time. It is easy to believe that these activities – day-to-day interaction at the lowest level of the work – are necessary for you to receive work from your team that meets your standards of excellence. However, unless your team members are really slacking off, not trained in what the job requires be done, not motivated, etc., such an in-your-face-all-the-time approach is not required. The leader needs to be more strategic. To get out of the weeds. To let go of the details and trust your team to handle them.
In fact, a micromanaging approach negatively impacts your team, your organization, and yourself. It tanks individual and team morale. Productivity takes a hit. And, your team’s growth and learning is negatively impacted. You dilute your own productivity and you run out of capacity to get important things done. So much for this being a winning approach.
Once you come to the conclusion that you are a micromanager or have tendencies to micromanage, and that you need to do something about it, what might you do? Four suggestions:
- Get over yourself. Stop rationalizing your micromanaging behavior as it leads to a disempowered, demoralized team. Rather than finding reasons to micromanage, focus on why you shouldn't. Excuses such as the following, do not justify your micromanagement:
- It will save time if I do it myself since they won’t get it right.
- My credibility is on line. I can’t trust them to meet my standards.
- It must be done on time. They missed a deadline once and I can’t take that risk again.
- My boss wants me involved. I need to prove my worth.
- Focus on the managing, and not on the “micro.” Begin by letting go of the small things. Look for low-hanging fruit that you can delegate to your team. Create an environment for honest, open dialogue. Engage in explicit discussions with your direct reports about the level of detail you need to be engaged in and where they are expected to involve you. Be clear on your priorities, the things where you can add real value. And, make sure that is where you are expending your energy.
- Delegate the “what,” not the “how.” It’s entirely proper to set a clear expectation about the deliverable and to indicate at a high level how you think the work might proceed. However, dictating the specifics of getting the result moves you into micromanaging. Your job as a manager is to clearly set the conditions of satisfaction for any task you assign. Articulate what you envision the final outcome to look like, but don’t give blow-by-blow instructions on how to get there. When in doubt, share the “what” and ask (not tell) your team "how" they plan to get there. It’s OK if their approach is different than yours would have been so long as the necessary result is achieved.
- Expect to win (at least, most of the time). Underlying your need to micromanage is a fear of failure. By magnifying the risk of failure, your employees engage in “learned helplessness” where they start believing that the only way they can perform is if you micromanage them. Change your approach. Focus on setting your team up for success. Be clear what that success looks like. Provide the resources, information, and support they need. Give credit where credit is due. Over time, you may experience a loss from time to time but you’ll end up with a team with a strong track record.
Many workers who work for micromanagers become timid and tentative, possibly paralyzed, thinking, no matter what I do, it won’t be good enough. At that point either the worker asks for guidance or forges ahead and possibly fails in the eyes of the manager.
An effective manager sets up those around him or her to succeed, not fail. They set up the tasks so that the workers succeed and grow in their ability to take a project, identify new information they need, seek that information, and move forward.
What can the micromanaged do to help the micromanager?
- Help your manager to delegate to you more effectively by prompting him or her to give you all the information you will need up front, and to set interim review points.
- Volunteer to take on work or projects that you’re confident you’ll be good at. This will start to increase your manager’s confidence in you, and his or her delegation skills.
- Have a plan that you have shared with your manager. Communicate progress on your plan, as well as any changes you’ve made, to your manager regularly to discourage him from seeking information just because he hasn’t had any for a while
- Concentrate on helping your boss to change one micromanagement habit at a time. He or she is human too and is allowed to make mistakes.
We all became managers and leaders from a time when we were individual contributors and team members. In those roles we either were told what to do or figured it out on our own. Both those situations set us up for being a micromanager. If we were always told what to do, it’s natural for us to tell our team members what to do in excruciating detail. If we figured it out for ourselves, we want to save our team from having to waste time figuring it out, so we tell them what to do.
As I’ve argued in this essay this is wrong both for you and for the team. It’s demoralizing, leads to disappointment for you, and low performance for the team. Take the time this week to review how you assign work to your team and if there is any element of “micro” in it, begin the work of changing. Make it a great week for you and your team.
. . . . jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
David Allen, Are you Micromanaging Your Mind?, gettingthingsdone Blog, August 2007.
Muriel Maigman Wilkins, Signs That You’re a Micromanager, Harvard Business Review, November 2014.
MindTools Content Team, Avoiding Micromanagement: Helping Team Members Excel – On their Own, MindTools.com.
Caterina Kostoula, Stress Is Making You Micromanage, Which Is Making Everything Worse, FastCompany, October 2017.
Forbes Coaches Council, Micromanaging? Here’s How (And Why) You Should Stop, Forbes.com.