The Evils of Micromanaging, and How to Overcome Them

For those of you who manage others, let’s begin with a quiz to do a quick check of your micromanagement tendencies. Please read through these questions carefully and answer them honestly, yes or no. What’s true of you most of the time?

  • Do you often find yourself standing over subordinates’ shoulders, directing their work?
  • Do you regularly redo your employees’ work, even as a form of instruction?
  • Do you second-guess employees on a daily basis?
  • Do you require sign-off on every task, no matter how minor?
  • Are you convinced of the truth of the old saying, “If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself”?
  • Do you work 12+ a day, trying to put out brushfires and rechecking everything you’re responsible for?
  • Do you have a hard time focusing on the big picture?

If you answered ‘Yes’ to more than a couple of these questions, then it’s “Danger, Will Robinson!” You’ve got micromanagerial tendencies, and you’ll need to actively fight them. If you answered ‘Yes’ to most or all, then I have bad news: you are a micromanager.

The Evils of Micromanaging, and How to Overcome Them by Laura Stack #productivityNow, the hard truth is that many micromanagers—self-identified or otherwise—just don’t care that they micromanage. They don’t see anything wrong with it, because in their opinion, they’re doing their jobs in the best way possible. I’ve even seen articles in which the writers sang the praises of the micromanager’s attention to detail and high professional standards.

So who cares? What does micromanaging hurt?

In my opinion, just asking that question displays some ignorance of the topic, and a chilling disregard not only for employees, but for their productivity. Simply put, micromanaging drives a stake through the heart of employee productivity. And if you don’t care about productivity, you’re setting yourself up for a fall—because eventually, your bottom line is going to bottom out.

You may disagree with this statement at first blush, but I’ve heard many comments about it over the years from employees, so let me expand on their feedback here.

Most of this article is based on extensive commentaries I’ve received since October 2010, when I ran a brief tip about the evils of micromanaging in my newsletter as an intro to another, longer article. It was immediately clear that I’d struck a nerve, and interestingly enough, one of the points that kept coming up was that micromanaging is as much about fear as it is about control. It’s not that the micromanager is necessarily on a power kick; it’s more likely that they just mistrust everyone, and are afraid that if they don’t ride their team members, everyone will make catastrophic mistakes. So micromanagers hold on to as much of their power as they can, simply because they’re afraid of the consequences of letting go.

But as one reader points out, “Any decision made based on fear will invariably prove to be a bad decision.”

The result is a stifling, unpredictable management style in which the time of both the manager and the employee is wasted. The impact of micromanaging is detrimental right up and down the line, not just to individuals but to the corporate culture. Not only is it exhausting (emotionally and physically) to all involved, it’s ultimately counterproductive, and it ends up driving away the best employees. As another reader pointed out, good workers get “performance managed” right out of the company.

Furthermore, even when done with the best of intentions and the lightest of touches, micromanaging is an interruptive process. If you poke people a half-dozen times a day and ask how far they’ve gotten on an assignment, you can’t expect them to get very far; after all, they have to answer your messages, which wastes their time and drags them out of their focus.

Clearly, micromanaging must be avoided if productivity is to be maximized. But like so many things, that’s easier said than done. So where do attention to detail, intelligent oversight, and high professional standards start to break down, and mire you in the trap of micromanagement?

When those active in the business arena are asked this question, the same word comes up, again and again: trust. When a manager surrounds him- or herself with competent, well-supported people and trusts them to do their jobs, micromanaging is never a problem. When trust goes out the window, micromanaging springs up like a weed, the manager starts lurking and criticizing incessantly, and productivity and morale tank.

So as a manager, how do you develop the level of trust in your employees that’s required to inspire productivity and empowerment? It starts with self-awareness. If your organization is suffering from low productivity, don’t automatically blame the workers; take a look at yourself first. If you don’t trust your people to do their jobs well, why is that? Did you make poor choices when you hired them, or is it that you inherited them from someone else and haven’t bothered to learn how to maximize their skills and abilities?

Either way, you’re the one who’s failed. As the architect of your organization, it’s up to you to choose the right materials for the job, and to put them together in the most structurally-sound way possible. So in ridding yourself of your micromanaging tendencies and bringing your organization up to snuff, your first task (ironically) may be to take an even closer look at your team members and their abilities. Assess how each is contributing, and what can be done to maximize those contributions, and then develop an action plan to do whatever’s necessary to train or coach that individual to increase their productivity and tighten their fit into the general workflow of the organization.

Ultimately, it may be necessary to replace some individuals who aren’t doing well enough, just as you’d put aside a low-quality tool for a better one.

While it may seem callous to compare human beings to objects, at some level you need to do what’s best for the organization overall. By all means, do everything you can to retain them; but if they’ve advanced beyond their competence level, you can’t keep covering for them. That’s what micromanaging is all about, after all: trying to do someone else’s job because you think they can’t. You can’t afford to waste time or energy watching over people who are already supposed to know what they’re doing. The point is to trust that they can; when you achieve that trust, all you need to do is wind them up and let them go.

As long as you delegate responsibilities appropriately, prepare employees their jobs, and provide them with everything they need to do it, you won’t need to ride them. Show them that you have faith in their abilities. If they turn out to be unworthy of your faith, then yes, you’ll have to bring the axe down on them, and no mistake. But even if you fear that someone will fail when faced with the challenges of their job, stand back and trust that he or she has the capacity to solve those challenges on his or her own. That’s the only way they can ever learn and grow. Rely upon your folks, and prove that you can be relied upon to back them to the hilt, and you’ll establish a level of loyalty and productivity that can be truly astonishing.

So establish your mission and vision and make sure that it’s clear to everyone. Set some basic ground rules, determine who reports to who and how, and then turn your attention to your own tasks. Learn to trust—but verify. Now, how much do you need to verify? Well, that depends on an employee’s previous performance, experience, and skill level. Basically, though, if you’ve done all you can to bring competent people on board, then believe in them and let them do their jobs, checking on them only occasionally and bringing them back in line when you need to.

That’s not to say that you won’t have to do a little work to refine their abilities. In fact, one of the manager’s prime tasks is to coach their team members, and to tailor their approach to each member’s individual needs. Some people need or want more direction than others. Take that factor into account, and then carefully probe their capabilities; that way, you’ll be able to determine what they feel confident in and what they can use a little help with. If you don’t eventually develop a sense of what that may be, then ask flat-out. Developing good communication skills is essential to becoming a good manager anyway. Be willing to listen, to empathize, and to ask pertinent questions whenever you need to.

You’ll find that you’re managing each individual more closely on some aspects of their job than on others, and that’s fine; nobody does everything with the same level of skill. But what you don’t want to do is push them too hard on any particular item, unless the deficiency is hurting the group. If so, you need to counsel them on what you expect of them in that department, and provide training or other support until they get better. It’s up to them to improve, but it’s not going to help anyone if you ride them constantly.

If you hire capable, engaged people you can trust to do their jobs, then you’ve got the enviable position of being a hands-off manager. Like the savvy lieutenant, you can just point your soldiers at a task and say, “Get that done.” If they’re smart and know what they’re doing, how does it matter how they get it done, as long as it’s legal and not too costly? If they need help or advice, they’ll ask. If an employee falls flat on his face, let him. He’ll either learn better or wash himself out due to incompetence. You should be there to encourage him, but you can’t do everything—or even most things—for him. That way lies ruin for you both.

It’s not that you’re abdicating your responsibilities when you do this; you’re just using other people’s talents to get things done. This is the heart of delegation, what one of my readers calls “the sweet spot between micromanaging and abdication.” As a manager, you’re not just another layer between consumer and product; your function is to direct and expedite the workflow, and to provide any necessary resources to stimulate performance in any way you can. That is, your job is to find what makes your people tick and to motivate them to perform as independently as possible within the framework of the organization’s requirements. Sometimes you have to push your team members…but not to the point where it hurts their performance and yours. That’s something that a lot of micromanagers forget, I think; that their own performance suffers when they ride someone else, or try to do a subordinate’s job for them.

Give your team objectives and guidance when needed (and only then), and offer them the opportunity to improve their skills to the betterment of the organization. Once trust becomes a permanent part of your methodology, your biggest obstacle will be how to clearly communicate to the individuals on your team precisely what needs to be done. This may require different levels and types of communication for each person; and again, it’s up to you to determine what that might be.

To wrap it up: ultimately, your true talent as a leader lies in your ability to recognize what you need to do to encourage, support, and motivate your employees to achieve the results you’re after—without strangling their initiative or engagement in the process. Find the right people, do what you must to mold them to fit into the organizational structure, trust them to do their work, and check in occasionally to verify. That’s how you achieve true, long-term productivity: not by standing over their shoulders, counting paperclips.