Micromanagement is mismanagement

Leadership  Productivity
27 February, 2017

Are you a micromanager? Handy tips to keep your inner “control freak” in check

‘My boss wants me to cc: him on every email’

“He asks for frequent updates’

‘She loves getting into the details and relishes pointing out mistakes’

‘He schedules ad hoc meetings with my team members even when I am not there’

These probably sound familiar to you—and that’s because most of us have worked with a “control freak” at some point in our careers. The funny thing though, is that while nearly everyone complains about being micromanaged, few actually admit to being micromanagers.

So, where are all the micromanagers hiding?  

The likely answer: take a look in the mirror! Chances are that you are unwittingly repeating some of the same behaviours you observed in your previous managers. It’s a vicious cycle.

Even if you were lucky enough to escape working for such a boss, various other factors can turn you into a micromanager—fear of failure, excessive caution, high need for control, lack of trust in the team, rigid perfectionism, insufficient training, and so on.

New leaders tend to micromanage even more, driven by anxiety and inexperience.

The challenge is that many leaders get confused between being hands-on versus micromanaging. Remember that being on top of the details is not a bad thing. The key is to know what level of detail do you need to get into, and when and how to step in to help your team members.

Check your micromanagement propensity

Take a look at the typical justifications and behaviours of controlling managers—do you recognise any of them in yourself?

  • ‘I’ll just do it myself to save time.’Micromanagers take over the tasks of their team members, justifying this as being more efficient. In reality, this sends a signal to your team that you are already convinced they’ll get it wrong—so why even bother to let them try?
  • ‘I have to be closely involved at every step, there’s too much at stake.’If you find yourself saying this once in a blue moon, that’s okay. But if every single task is of such paramount importance that you can’t trust your team to handle it, then you’ve got a problem.
  • ‘I’m the leader, so I need to take the decisions.’Sure, leadership entails making the big calls—that comes with the territory. However, plenty of micro-decisions can easily be handled by your team. In short, if you find yourself spending hours deciding the perfect font for that PPT, your inner control freak is making its presence loud and clear.
  • ‘I must double-check everything; after all, the details are the top priority.’Micromanagers tend to not see the forest for the trees. Instead of focusing on higher-level strategic thinking and the big picture, they get caught up in the trivial details. Yes, the details are important—but ensuring their accuracy falls to the other members of the team, not its leader.
  • ‘I don’t need to explain why I want things done a certain way.’ Micromanagers withhold important information from their teams and refuse to offer the rationale behind their directives and changes. Do you find yourself resorting to statements like “that’s just the way it’s supposed to be” when team members ask you for a reason? That’s a red flag.

‘Okay,’ you might be thinking, ‘So I’m a bit of a micromanager. What’s the big deal? It might annoy my team, but at least the work gets done properly.’ As it turns out though, it is a big deal. And while it might work in the short term, micromanaging is a bad long-term approach.

It’s most visible impact can be seen in team morale. Without their leader’s belief in their competence, team members quickly become demotivated and disengaged. This takes a huge toll on productivity as well as retention. Our relationship with our team members is based on trust. If we don’t give them enough space, then it would imply a lack of trust. Also, one of our core principles is 100/0 (100% accountability, 0 excuses). And if want to hold team members accountable, then how can we not give them sufficient room to perform?

Additionally, if you insist that your team members can’t accomplish anything without your continuous involvement, you are cultivating a culture of “learned helplessness”. How will your team function at times when you are not around? What happens when you need to travel, or go on leave? Work is likely to be impeded because of the overt reliance on you for every single thing. Micromanagement also violates a key component of your job—to develop people, harness their full potential, and groom them for future growth.

Micromanaging in turn also reduces your productivity. You are not able to spend time on the things that you should be focusing on. In short, your progression eventually suffers.

So, micromanaging doesn’t just make you unpopular. It is harmful—for you, for your team, and for the organisation.  

So, here are five suggestions to curb your inner micromanager:

1. Get to reallyknow your team

This is the foundation upon which successful delegation rests. Invest time and effort getting to know your team members and learning their areas of expertise. Once you have a handle on this, you can assign work in a way that lets people play to their strengths. This strategy will allow you to trust team members with their tasks—which is far better than delegating at random and then wasting hours pouring over each detail.

With a knowledge of the team’s talents, you are also better placed to help them grow. Set realistic stretch goals that allow each person to accomplish a little more at a time; this way, you won’t be overwhelmed by anxiety and they won’t be overwhelmed by your feedback.

2. Communicate generously

‘No news is good news’, goes the saying—and managers often seem to adopt this as their motto. Many leaders reach out only to give negative feedback; positive feedback is perceived as dispensable. Unfortunately, this means that all the team ever hears from their manager is criticism and correction. No wonder they end up feeling frustrated and demotivated.

People do their best work in environments where they feel supported and included. As a leader, it’s up to you to build a sense of shared purpose and trust. Celebrate each person’s strengths, recognise their hard work, and highlight their growth, making it clear that you are invested in their success. Let evaluation be one aspect of your communication—not all of it. In addition, create a two-way street for important information. Explain key organisational developments and let your team know what you’re up to. When they see their leader being forthcoming, they’re likely to return the favour and come to you with updates. Setting norms for staying in the loop will go a long way towards reducing your need to get into the weeds.

3. Provide clarity

Without clear expectation setting, your team is essentially groping in the dark—which means you are setting them up for failure. Be clear about the desired results and timelines as plainly as possible, and encourage people to ask questions, so any ambiguities can be addressed. Bring this same clarity to your feedback processes as well. Don’t simply redo the work—instead, provide constructive feedback that enables the person to get it right the next time.

While communicating your expectations, remember to focus on the “what”—not the “how”. In the Harvard Business Review article, Signs That You’re a Micromanager, my business school classmate, Muriel Maignan Wilkins explains this idea:

‘There’s a difference between sharing that expectation and dictating how to get to that result. 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 (rather than tell) your team member about how they plan to get there. You might be surprised that their approach, while different, may yield excellent results.’

4. Define the right operating rhythm for the team

In line with providing clarity on expectations, it is important that you and the team are aligned on what are the key decisions that are need to be made and executed. Who will play the key roles that go into a decision? How will people make and execute the decision? How will bottlenecks be resolved?

Being clear about roles and responsibilities and using a decision lens can be very helpful. Ultimately, your organisation’s success will be based on making better decisions, making them faster and executing them more effectively. 

5. Empower your team

Simply delegating a task to your team isn’t enough—you also need to delegate the authority that will allow them to execute successfully. Resist the urge to interfere at every step. Make yourself available for any questions or requests, but leave the decisions and the details to them. I know this is a Herculean task for many of us, but it is crucial for people to take ownership of their own work. At the same time, do make sure your team has the tools and resources they require.

Another way to empower your team is to foster open dialogue and do away with the dated “the boss is always right” mindset. Create a climate where questions, suggestions, and even challenges are welcomed. Be willing to explain the reasoning behind your decisions and to consider new suggestions. A truly confident leader can also actively solicit feedback to curb their own micromanagement tendencies. Are there any checks and controls that can be eliminated? Are there better ways for you to stay in the loop? How can you be involved without getting into the fine print? Brainstorm these issues with your team—you may be surprised at how helpful the answers can be.

As leaders, it’s up to us to recognise the difference between being hands-on and being a micromanager.

It’s great to be passionate and involved in the work of our teams, in a way that enables excellence and growth. However, when you cross the line into the micromanagement zone, then it’s bad news for everyone.

Micromanaging can be a difficult habit to get out of – so, you will need to recognise the patterns and then work on addressing it. In the words of former US President Theodore Roosevelt, ‘The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint to keep from meddling while they do it.’

I look forward to your thoughts.

P.S. While it is important to avoid the pitfalls of micromanaging, it is probably worse to be hands-off to the point that you don’t know what is going on. Under-managing your team can be disastrous. You need to make sure that you are not abdicating your responsibilities. You need to be accessible and know when to step in. Do ensure that you are continually adding value to the team.


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