Micromanaging mania

Freedom from this tempting and destructive approach

Fred Mael

What is the managerial practice that all managers claim to detest,harms and drives away the best of employees, hurts productivity and morale, yet remains a favored, almost addictively practiced technique even among those claiming to want to stop? Answer: Micromanaging, defined by Webster as “to manage especially with excessive control or attention to details” and elsewhere as “to manage or control very closely, as by making decisions about even the smallest details, often so as to be regarded as acting inefficiently or counterproductively”.

This practice afflicts managers at all levels. I have worked with first-line managers and senior executives, and virtually everyone is susceptible to micromanaging or being micromanaged. Before you can address how to stop, you need to know why you micromanage, as each reason has a different potential remedy.

Missing the thrill of the details – you were drawn to your previous work because you enjoyed it. Busy now with meetings, politics, and other forms of persuasion, you may miss the high of just being immersed in  single issue or problem that can have an elegant and unambiguous answer.  It’s a pleasurable escape from the murkiness of managing. Unfortunately, your over-involvement can also deprive your staff of the pleasure they hoped to derive from their work – and unlike you, their own work is all they have.
Deep down belief that you are one of a kind – without saying it, you may believe that no one can quite analyze data, write a proposal or ad copy, or make a sales itch quite like you. You aren’t planning to take over their work, and you keep professing that you hate interfering, but if they would just make this change or this revision, everything would be so much better.
Confuse style with substance – you have to step in when your subordinates do or propose actions that are potentially false, dangerous, or injurious to the company. What you may have also done, however, is elevate issues of style – how something is phrased, the look or color of a Power Point slide – to the level of right and wrong. Everyone but you seems to know that the tweaking you are doing doesn’t really matter, it and frustrates junior employees’ efforts to carve out their own style. Even worse, you expect gratitude and acknowledgement that your changes made the product substantially better and were worth the (wasted) extra time and effort.
Fear of bosses – you may micromanage because your own boss has unrealistic expectations of how accountable you can be about your employees’ performance.  Using clichés like “it’s my neck on the line” or “the buck stops here”, you basically try to do all the work to avoid being blamed for your subordinates’ shortcomings.  You reason that “someday” you will go back to mentoring and letting your employees learn to take charge and be responsible, but somehow, someday never comes.
Team oriented and collegial – this one especially afflicts those who rose up from the ranks to become managers over their former peers. You wish you were still part of an (idealized) team in which everyone is highly motivated and pulls their share. Even when your subordinates don’t put out good effort, you really prefer to avoid disciplining them, asserting authority and pointing out their failings. Instead, you (heavily) edit their sloppy work, redo their mistake-laden products, and rationalize that you are just helping – when you are really using micromanaging as a way to avoid confrontations and abdicate demanding accountability.

Is There Any Help?

Micromanaging can be a thorny and persistent problem, though sometimes alleviated by mentoring, concerted effort, or attitude change. Here are some general principles:

Fred Mael, PhD, helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers.

Fred Mael, PhD, helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers. www.maelconsulting.com. (www.smartceo.com). This article appeared originally in the February 2013 issues of Washington SmartCEO magazine and Baltimore SmartCEO magazine.