Avoiding Micromanagement

Helping Team Members Excel – On Their Own

Micromanagement constrains creativity.

© iStockphoto/joebelanger

You've assigned an important task to a talented employee, and given him a deadline. Now, do you let him do his work and simply touch base with him at pre-defined points along the way – or do you keep dropping by his desk and sending e-mails to check his progress?

If it's the latter, you might be a micromanager. Or, if you're the harried worker trying to make a deadline with a boss hovering at your shoulder, you might have a micromanager on your hands – someone who just can't let go of tiny details.

Micromanagers take perfectly positive attributes – an attention to detail and a hands-on attitude – to the extreme. Either because they're control-obsessed, or because they feel driven to push everyone around them to success, micromanagers risk disempowering their colleagues. They ruin their colleagues' confidence, hurt their performance, and frustrate them to the point where they quit.

Luckily, though, there are ways to identify these overzealous tendencies in yourself – and get rid of them before they do more damage. And if you work for a micromanager, there are strategies you can use to convince him or her to accept your independence.

First, though, how do you spot the signs of micromanagement? Where is the line between being an involved manager, and an over-involved manager who's driving his team mad?

Signs of Micromanagement

What follows are some signs that you might be a micromanager – or have one on your hands. In general, micromanagers:

  • Resist delegating.
  • Immerse themselves in overseeing the projects of others.
  • Start by correcting tiny details instead of looking at the big picture.
  • Take back delegated work before it is finished if they find a mistake in it.
  • Discourage others from making decisions without consulting them.

What's Wrong With Micromanaging?

If you are getting results by micromanaging and keeping your nose in everyone's business, why not carry on?

Micromanagers often affirm the value of their approach with a simple experiment: They give an employee an assignment, and then disappear until the deadline. Is this employee likely to excel when given free rein?

Possibly – if the worker has exceptional confidence in his abilities. Under micromanagement, however, most workers become timid and tentative – possibly even paralyzed. "No matter what I do," such a worker might think to himself, "It won't be good enough." Then one of two things will happen: Either the worker will ask the manager for guidance before the deadline, or he will forge ahead, but come up with an inadequate result.

In either case, the micromanager will interpret the result of his experiment as proof that, without his constant intervention, his people will flounder or fail.

But do these results verify the value of micromanagement – or condemn it? A truly effective manager sets up those around him to succeed. Micromanagers, on the other hand, prevent employees from making – and taking responsibility for – their own decisions. But it's precisely the process of making decisions, and living with the consequences, that causes people to grow and improve.

Good managers empower their employees to do well by giving opportunities to excel; Bad managers disempower their employees by hoarding those opportunities. And a disempowered employee is an ineffective one – one who requires a lot of time and energy from his supervisor.

It's that time and energy, multiplied across a whole team of timid, cowed workers, that amounts to a serious and self-defeating drain on a manager's time. It's extremely difficult, if not impossible, to keep up with analysis, planning, communication with other teams, and the other "big-picture" tasks of managing, when you are sweating the details of the next sales presentation.

Escaping Micromanagement

So now you've identified micro-managerial tendencies and seen why they're bad. What can you do if you know you're exhibiting such behaviors – or are being subjected to them by a supervisor?

From the micromanager's perspective, the best way to build healthier relationships with employees may be the most direct: Talk to them.

It might take several conversations to convince them that you're serious about change. Getting frank feedback from employees is the hard part. Once you've done that, as executive coach Marshall Goldsmith recommends in his book What Got You Here Won't Get You There, it's time to apologize and change. This means giving your employees the leeway – and encouragement – to succeed. Focus first on the ones with the most potential, and learn to delegate effectively to them. Read our article on delegation   for more about this.

And if you're not sure what you should be doing with all the free time, once you stop micromanaging, read our article on Team Management Skills   for more information.

Tip:

Part of being a good manager, one often lost on those of the micro variety, is listening  . Managers fail to listen when they forget their employees have important insights – and people who don't feel listened to become disengaged.

As for the micromanaged, well, things are a bit more complicated. Likely as not, you're being held back in your professional development – and probably not making the progress in your career that you could be if you enjoyed workplace independence.

But there's a certain amount that you can do to improve the situation:

  • Help your boss to delegate to you more effectively by prompting him to give you all the information you will need up front, and to set interim review points along the way.
  • Volunteer to take on work or projects that you're confident you'll be good at. This will start to increase his confidence in you – and his delegation skills.
  • Make sure that you communicate progress to your boss 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. Remember that he's only human too, and is allowed to make mistakes!
  • Read our article on Working With Powerful People   for further advice on how to manage upwards.

Key Points

Micromanagement restricts the ability of micromanaged people to develop and grow, and it also limits what the micromanager's team can achieve, because everything has to go through him or her.

When a boss is reluctant to delegate, focuses on details ahead of the big picture and discourages his staff from taking the initiative, there's every chance that he's sliding towards micromanagement.

The first step in avoiding the micromanagement trap (or getting out of it once you're there) is to recognize the danger signs by talking to your staff or boss. If you're micromanaged, help your boss see there is a better way of working. And if you are a micromanager, work hard on those delegation skills and learn to trust your staff to develop and deliver.

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