This article: ‘Are you Micromanaging? STOP IT. See Why’ is the tenth article in a series about Self-Handicapping Leadership written by Phillip Decker and Jordan Mitchell for ManageMagazine.
Micromanaging Leads to Failure and Bad Leadership
Theodore Roosevelt (the 26th President of the United States from 1901 to 1909) said, “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and the self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it” (Berkun, 2014).
The golden rule of great leadership is that when employees succeed, leaders succeed (Decker & Mitchell, 2016). So, great leaders foster an open and engaging environment that allows employees to succeed and thrive. One great obstacle to this is micromanagement.
Signs that You are Micromanaging
Micromanagement means the leader in question acts as if the subordinate is incapable of doing the job, giving close instruction, offering many ‘helpful’ suggestions, dumping all of the responsibility on the subordinate without any authority, and checking everything the person does.
Micromanagers seldom praise and often criticize. Whatever their subordinates do, nothing seems good enough. Good delegation is, therefore, the antithesis of micromanagement.
Gerald Piaget tells a story about a man sitting on his roof tearing up newspaper and throwing it off. When his neighbor asked him why he was doing such a messy (useless) task, the man on the roof replied that he was keeping the wolves away. Exasperated with the mess, the neighbor exclaimed, “But, there aren’t any wolves around here!” The man on the roof said, “See!” implying that tearing up the newspaper is working. The neighbor just walks away shaking his head in disbelief.
As far as the man on the roof is concerned, he is doing what he knows brings success – no wolves – and he is helping all of his neighbors to remain safe. He does not seem to realize the wolf problem was solved long ago and he could now be doing more productive things with his time. His neighbor thinks he is causing a mess and wasting time but takes the issue no further. He feels sorry for him, walks away, says no more, and avoids him in the future. Employees witness self-handicapping like this daily from their leaders.
Micromanaging is a management illness
Much has been written about micromanagement. It’s a popular topic and is frequently the correct diagnosis for management ills. Most micromanagers know no other way and simply don’t believe that outstanding work will be done without their constant intervention. They are like the guy on the roof tearing paper; it has always worked in the past and there is often unawareness that the micromanagement is harmful or that people under their span of control suffer from it.
Often the result of micromanagement is diminished team performance and lack of accountability on the part of the boss and employees. Micromanagement is likely one of the most difficult areas of self-handicapping to deal with – it comes from some deep-seated insecurities about life and how to operate.
“the difference between how a person treats the powerless versus the powerful is as good a measure of human character as we know” (Sutton)
This article is about letting go, giving power away, and managing each employee differently. By another name – we are talking about great delegation. Micromanaging can be difficult for many of us and it is not something you can easily change with a training program. But, remember this: “the difference between how a person treats the powerless versus the powerful is as good a measure of human character as we know” (Sutton, 2010).
There is no faster way to hurt yourself with self-handicapping than to abuse those who get the work done for you. The problem of self-handicapping arises when the leader does not realize that what he does can be abuse.
Dominating or Passive Micromanaging
Micromanagement can be dominating or passive. The dominant methods of micromanagement can include taking over, anger, verbal assault, rewriting history, intimidation, ever-changing standards, and constant close instruction. Passive micromanagement can be just as powerful and much more difficult to recognize.
Passive micromanagement techniques include using existing vulnerabilities (poor me), deception, withdrawal, caretaking, crisis orientation, and entrapment. Other tactics include false flattery, carrot-dangling (holding out rewards which won’t really get realized), playing dumb, helplessness, and denial. Another is “band wagon” – telling someone that everyone else has already agreed to the plan to get you to go along.
Characteristics of Micromanagers’ Relationships
Relationships build between a micromanaging leader and his employees. Micromanagers tend to collect employees that are caretakers – passive micromanagers. These employees may have a higher need for security and be more willing to work for a leader that seems to have a tight handle on everything. Yet, workers today must own their own work, their own competence, and take charge of adding value for the customer – without direction. Micromanaging is a severe handicap in today’s business world.
Are you Micromanaging in Search of Predictability?
The need for predictability usually goes hand in hand with micromanaging. We all want some stability and consistency; these are core functions of organization. But predictability is different – it is the need to predict a future state, regardless whether it is calm or chaotic.
When we constantly strive for predictability, we can handicap ourselves. These behaviors include becoming uneasy when things go too smoothly, avoiding uncertain situations or being helpless in such situations, worrying constantly, checking up on employees or coworkers repeatedly, finding out what the ‘boss’ wants before you decide how to act, trying to keep emotions out of work, and avoiding intimacy.
Searching for predictability is highly related to micromanaging because people are often driven to micromanage to ensure a stable environment. This set of behaviors can prevent us from taking risks or opening up to employees. It can prevent learning because we avoid situations that are not thoroughly planned or controlled before we enter.
The Downfall of the Micromanager
Micromanaging doesn’t work – except in task-oriented, time sensitive situations, with low power employees – and not always then. The employees will hunker down, not drive for anything unless told, and the micromanagers’ reaction to problems is to do it alone, work harder, do more, with no collaboration or sharing of the leadership burden. Their heroism is often their undoing (Martin, 2003).
Martin, in his book, The Responsibility Virus, says that when heroic leaders take on too much responsibility and approach the point of failure, they often do an abrupt turnaround, flipping to an under-responsible stance in order to avoid the accountability of a failure. Then, as failure looms, followers begin to be angry with the leader for not leading and the leader becomes angry with followers for not helping to solve the problem (the Box of Blame).
Typical Sign that you are Micromanaging
Micromanagers often are “gatekeepers” and try to isolate their subordinates from all independent streams of information (Bezroukov, 2014). They will cut their employees from vital meetings, withhold important information, and ensure that the information that is communicated is twisted and distorted to serve their own motives.
Micromanagers often feel threatened when there is an attempt to correct their bad behavior. They may use buzzwords, which come across as “standard responses” void of personality. Micromanagers can adapt quickly to determine what button they need to push for each individual. They never truly “empower” others, because they share responsibility but not authority. Finally, they often focus on activity rather than outcome.
Are you Micromanaging Crisis Situations?
All poorly run systems, whether it is an addictive family or an organization riddled with micromanagement, will frequently lapse into states of confusion and crisis (Schaek, 1990). Crisis creates a great deal of directed effort and intense feelings. It brings people to work together and allows them to feel accountable for an important goal.
Guess what you need in a crisis: a task-oriented, micromanaging, “strong” leader. Since organizational management is about creating a steady state, many executives make the assumption that the crisis can be reduced if confusion is reduced. They see the two as separate, but they’re not.
So when a leader micromanages to establish control and constancy – especially with some intimidation thrown in, their staff fall all over themselves and one another. Why? Because they try to predict what will happen next, what the boss wants, and how to deal with it. This confusion eventually prevents anyone from taking responsibility and accountability.
When the staff is busy trying to figure out what’s happening with the boss, they are not taking responsibility for the customer and being accountable for customer outcomes. This confusion is self-imposed and leads to an even larger knot – lack of accountability.
Most leaders who find themselves with an organization in a constant state of confusion and crisis management, believe that it is possible to “figure out” what is happening in the organization and solve it. Doing this means constantly going back to understand how you got to a certain state, but few people will agree on the history.
When management consultants say, “you have to understand the history of this,” they are not being helpful, because you can’t negotiate the past of micromanagement. It is best to move forward and negotiate future action and agreements.
If you are you Micromanaging – Stop it, the Price is too High
While some subordinates may fight back (and be fired), working for a micromanager makes most subordinates become timid and tentative – even paralyzed. This paralysis is a form of learned helplessness – a mental state caused by abuse – where the person becomes unable or unwilling to avoid future encounters with the same abusive behavior because he has learned that he cannot control the situation.
Pessimists are more prone to learned helplessness; and interestingly, people can learn to be helpless through observing another person encountering uncontrollable events. Many people who work for micromanagers are prone to say:
“No matter what I do, it won’t be good enough.”
This strengthens the perception by the leader that the employees need closer supervision.
In Case you are a Micromanager its Causes can be Deep Rooted
Micromanagement often is rooted in one’s personality – and prescriptive lists of what to do differently are not a solution. Maybe the manager has learned this behavior while climbing his management career ladder. More likely it was learned at an early age – even as a toddler.
Micromanagement looks somewhat like and may be connected to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD causes people to focus too much on the details, to the point of losing touch of reality.
A micromanager tries to control every detail to the point of losing focus of the bigger picture. Employees often use this weakness and keep the boss focused on detailed procedures or documentation rather than the lack of outcomes. For more reading in this subject, we suggest Ann (1987) Letting Go of the Need to Control or Chambers. H (2004) My Way or the Highway: The Micromanagement Survival Guide.
Some Baby Steps towards Overcoming Micromanaging are:
- Delegate a whole piece of one job/project rather than simply assigning tasks and activities. Delegate the challenges and define success. Let the employee/team determine the intermediate steps and detailed output. And then leave them alone and prove you can stop micromanaging.
- Don’t ask for a list of options and recommendations the next time you feel like doing so. We all know the employees will search for what you “really” want and provide that. Instead tell the employee/team to solve the problem and report back when it is solved and how.
- The next time you need to train someone; share experiences, don’t instruct. Allow the learning to take place through allegory and do not turn the lesson into a directive of “just do these steps”.
Ann, M. (1987). Letting Go of the Need to Control, Hazelden.
Berkun, S. (2014). Scott Berkun Blog. Retrieved November 9, 2016.
Bezroukov, N. (2014). Understanding Micromanagers and Control Freaks. Retrieved November 9, 2016.
Chambers. H (2004). My Way or the Highway: The Micromanagement Survival Guide. Berret Koehler.
Martin, R. (2003). The Responsibility Virus: How Control Freaks, Shrinking Violets-and The Rest Of Us-can Harness The Power Of True Partnership. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Micromanagement. (n.d.). Retrieved November 9, 2016.
Piaget, GW. (1991) Control Freaks – Who They Are and How to Stop Them From Ruining Your Life, Doubleday.
Schaek, A. W. (1990). The Addictive Organization: Why We Overwork, Cover Up, Pick Up the Pieces, Please the Boss, and Perpetuate Sick Organizations. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
Sutton, R. (2010). The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. New York, NY: Business Plus.