Organizational Realities

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In This Issue:
Micromanagement What It Is and
How to Deal with It

Not many of us are willing to admit to being a micromanager, but we can all point to a time when we reported to one or observed one in action. In this issue we explore micromanagement, its negative effect on the workplace, and how to address it.

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Confessions of a Micromanager
by Paul Gillard, PhD

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At times I have been referred to as a “Benevolent Dictator”, but I do not think of myself as a micromanager. Rather, I pride myself on my ability to prioritize, delegate and to know when and how to provide appropriate guidance and insight to keep projects and tasks on track.

But before I get too far ahead of myself, let’s begin with a basic definition of micromanagement:

“Micromanagement is a style of management that is characterized by an excessive need for
control and extreme attention to even apparently trivial details.”

Most business professionals would accept the above definition as reasonable. At the crux of the issue is what constitutes “excessive” and “extreme.” These words, in and of themselves, bring to mind visions of police brutality, prisoner interrogation or worse. When used to describe a management style, most envision a tyrannical boss who has made it a personal goal to make the lives of his or her direct reports miserable. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that many professionals have a visceral reaction to being micromanaged and tend to cite it as one of the worst management dysfunctions. Some of the most common micromanaging behaviors are:

  • The manager tells direct reports what to do, how to do it and when to do it, giving no latitude to the employee
  • All decisions, no matter how small, must go through the manager
  • Delegation of authority is restricted, fleeting or absent
  • Direct reports spend more time reporting on progress than making progress
  • The manager performs the job of direct reports
  • The granddaddy of them all – the input provided by the manager offers minimal incremental value (e.g., nitpicking comments regarding grammatical or typographical errors on documents).

I understand the problems associated with micromanagement, and have seen first-hand how damaging and counterproductive it can be. So let me go on the record by stating that TRUE micromanagement is bad and should be avoided at all costs if employees are to produce and thrive on the job. In extreme cases, micromanagement is sometimes attributed to an underlying psychological disorder related to a need for control that is deep-seated and inherently resistant to change. However, typical cases of micromanagement involve a learned set of negative behaviors that can be unlearned. It is not an easy change but it can be achieved over time with some professional coaching and a strong commitment to make the necessary cognitive and behavioral changes. That being said, I take issue with the way in which micromanagement has become synonymous with directive management. While micromanagement is almost always wrong, directive management is appropriate in specific situations.

Here’s the Problem – The Term Micromanagement is Widely Misapplied

The problem I have with typical “micromanagement” discussions is that the pendulum has swung too far in the anti-management direction. More and more the label of “micromanager” is being incorrectly applied to anyone who has the audacity to direct the work of another. I find this inappropriate and counterproductive. The great majority of so-called micromanagers are not in fact micromanaging in any objective sense of the word, but simply well-intentioned supervisors who are doing their very best to lead, motivate, direct and yes, even drive their direct reports to excel and perform to the best of their ability. As the comic-strip Dilbert frequently, and sometimes hilariously, captures, it has been out of fashion to be the one in charge for quite some time.

This is especially true when underperforming employees receive the direct, detailed instruction required to be successful. In an effort to regain some sense of control over the situation, the direct reports may lash out or whine that the manager is micromanaging rather than acknowledge and address their underlying performance issue(s) directly. I can relate to this assertion, perhaps too well, as the last thing I want in a job is a manager telling me what to do and how to do it. Yet having said this, I can certainly point to cases where I needed more direction to complete a task or a project efficiently and successfully. In my case, this is especially true for new assignments or those that I find less than interesting or tedious, and therefore tend to avoid or postpone. I need the proverbial “kick in the pants” to get back on track and focused on completing the task efficiently.

Don’t Be Afraid to Manage!

My message to you is that managers should never be afraid to manage. The “micromanager” label is often applied by those who do not have the perspective necessary to appreciate the overall context and business needs. I am not implying that a manager should revel in having power over others, but most organizations are structured in a hierarchy where everyone (except one) is subordinate to at least one other person for a good reason. With heavily matrixed organizations, you may even have to take direction from several different people at different times. People at higher levels giving direction to people at lower levels is the way that work gets done in companies, the government, the military, organized religions, and pretty much any other group that produces anything of significance. I think in the past two decades, we have lost sight of the need for strong directive management, when appropriate, in these settings.

In the many leadership courses we have taught, managers typically have a very difficult time being directive as they have been brainwashed by well intentioned Training and HR professionals into thinking that it is never appropriate to adopt a directive approach to management and therefore avoid ‘rocking the boat’ by defaulting to a more participative management style. This is flat out wrong, as the appropriate management style is situational and should be adjusted based upon time constraints, employee capabilities and the nature of the task at hand. Managers bear the burden of evaluating outputs and adjudicating the difference between flawless and careless, and must be given the latitude to provide the appropriate amount of guidance regardless of their employees’ personal preference for autonomy.

Finding the appropriate balance between directing, delegating and doing, is a primary challenge for new and seasoned managers alike and must be constantly monitored and adjusted. Now I want to make something very clear here. Ultimately, the decision to engage in more or less directive management should be made by the manager after rationally considering what is needed to ensure the short- and long-term success of the company and the employee. The decision is not the subordinate’s!

The challenge is knowing when and how to provide the guidance and direction. If you have been labeled a micromanager and are exhibiting any of the associated directive behaviors take a close, hard look at your rationale for doing so and make sure you are doing them for the right reasons. If you have performance issues on your team, address them directly. If you are micromanaging, stop it. If for no other reason, you are wasting your own valuable time. Perhaps more importantly though, you are wasting the company’s resources, both in terms of employee time spent on non-value added work and the time it will take to recruit, hire and train replacements when you ultimately drive your talent away.

In closing, don’t be afraid to manage (appropriately), regardless labels, such as ‘Benevolent Dictator’, that may be assigned to you. It will be better for your direct reports, the company and you, in the long run.

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Are You Being Micromanaged? (Top)
by Rachel Radwinsky, PhD

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The funny thing about micromanagement is that we recognize it when we see it, and we are extremely aware of it when it happens to us, but we rarely, if ever, recognize or admit when we do it ourselves. Admittedly, I do not deal very well with being micromanaged. I don’t think there is ever a time and place for micromanagement. There is no gray area in my book. Micromanagement can be defined as incorrectly providing MORE management (i.e., control, direction, instruction, etc.) than is needed in a given situation. So, given that definition, if you are micromanaging, you are doing something wrong (i.e., managing incorrectly)!

I understand the need to take control of tasks if team members are either unable or unwilling to adequately perform the tasks themselves. When done appropriately, one might simply call that “management”. The problem manager is one who cannot “pull back” and let employees who ARE capable and willing, work, learn and be productive – stepping in when needed. In this case, they are managing poorly and probably deficient in some key management competencies, particularly Empowering Others, Delegation, Developing Others, and perhaps basic Interpersonal Skills.

The effects?

“The more you use your reins, the less they’ll use their brains” – The Horse Whisperer

By repeatedly controlling every situation, employees become de-motivated (after all, they know their work is going to be scrutinized and reworked by the manager anyway, so why bother trying?) and more importantly, they fail to learn and adapt to new situations, since it is never truly up to them to succeed or fail. This will negatively affect their long-term ability to contribute to the team and ultimately the success of the organization.

This is only one of the many outcomes, but I find it best reflects my personal experience. I admit that I am very sensitive to being micromanaged. To make matters worse, I tend to stew over it instead of discussing it, often waiting until I am at the breaking point before voicing my concerns, sometimes in less-than-productive ways. As it develops, the situation can create a tense and stressful environment that affects the whole team.

Is it because you just don’t like being managed?

Certainly, we all have moments at work when being told what to do by someone else feels oppressive and uncomfortable. If you work for a “normal” manager, these feelings are typically short-lived, and likely are due to the situation, personal issues (yours or your boss’s) or both. However, how can you tell when you are being inappropriately or over-managed? The number one, most important element that makes the difference is the VALUE that the manager is adding to the situation. It is a manager’s job to help push the work of the team along – instructing, motivating, guiding, directing, prompting, reminding, and yes, sometimes even doing the work him/herself. The difference lies in whether all that effort is really adding value to the final output or not. If it does add value, great, call it properly applied management. If not – meaning if after all the time and energy spent there is no meaningful improvement above and beyond what the employee would have accomplished alone – then it was indeed micro-freaking-management. Your typical micromanager will argue about the definition of “meaningful” until the cows come home, but for the rest of us, this definition is pretty clear.

Still not convinced? Take this test

I haven’t validated it for commercial use (yet), but I have developed what I think is a fairly useful measure I refer to as my “micromanage-o-meter”. To use it, assume that no more than a certain percentage of the time it takes to perform any task should consist of non-value-added management. That of course does not include the instruction, assistance, advice and guidance that a good manager provides to help an employee better perform the job. What I am referring to is all the other needling, prodding, critiquing and nitpicking that does not actually help. I personally have adopted 15% as my threshold – I build in that generous leeway with the recognition that no one is perfect, situations are constantly changing, one-off miscommunications and misunderstandings are to be expected, and well, we all have our bad days. So, of the total time that it takes to perform any given task or project, what percent of that time do you find is spent doing any or all of the following? If it exceeds your personal threshold, you are being micromanaged.

  • Asking your manager for permission/approval for things that are clearly within your decision-making authority
  • Sitting with your manager as he/she exhaustively reviews, critiques and revises the infinitesimal details of documents, plans, communications, etc. (I had one manager who, I am not exaggerating, would get out a ruler and measure the margins before reading a single word of the document. The worst part was that over time I began obsessing over those details myself.)
  • Dealing with your manager’s reversal of previously approved and implemented actions
  • Meeting with your manager to defend, rehash, second-guess and revise past decisions
  • Watching over your manager’s shoulder as he does the work for you
  • Etc.

Brains or Reins?

The various surveys and research studies estimate that 70% of workers report they have been micromanaged at some point in their careers. Do you think you are being micromanaged? Have you stopped using your brain, and instead just let the manager “use the reins”, steering and dictating your every move? Do you watch helplessly as your time is spent responding to “non-value-added management” rather than productive work? Or, as a manager, do you find this describes some of your own behaviors? The good news is that even though it may be hard to change direction, you always have a choice. In the our blog post entitled Micromanagement – How to Deal with it we will talk about some of the choices that employees, managers and organizations can make regarding micromanagement. Please take a moment to complete the short poll below, which will ask you if you have ever worked for a micromanager.


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The Takeaway – How to Deal with Micromanagement (Top)
by Paul Gillard, PhD and Rachel Radwinsky, PhD

No matter how it is defined, or WHO is interpreting it, micromanagement has a deleterious effect on a team. Relationships, teamwork, productivity and creativity are stifled. Trust plummets, discretionary effort dissipates and stress levels can sky rocket. This is true whether the behaviors are intentional or not (most likely they aren’t intentional – few micromanagers are even aware they are doing it). It is even true whether or not it is actually occurring objectively – if the employee feels he/she is being micromanaged, the outcomes are the same. The manager then has to decide whether it is worth the effort to address the underlying issues or to replace the employee! Likewise, the employee has to decide whether to continue working for this manager or look for other options.

What Should Managers Do?

Management style must be matched to meet the needs of the situation. Sometimes close supervision and direction is required and other times the direct report should be given more latitude to get the job done with minimal guidance. If an employee is new to a role, has less experience or is not performing tasks at an appropriate level, then the manager needs to adopt a more directive approach. Even seasoned employees must consistently demonstrate that they can perform tasks competently or they too warrant closer management oversight. Typically the most effective – not necessarily the most popular – managers are the ones who hold their employees strictly accountable for delivering positive results. The trick is knowing when to apply the appropriate style. Other things for managers to keep in mind:

  • Learn to tell the difference between adding value and being a perfectionist, nit-picker or simply one who likes to “kick up dust”. If the fully-loaded average employee per-hour cost is around $50, be absolutely sure that when you require an employee to spend an extra day word-smithing, that it was worth the $400 investment.
  • Consciously allow others to have influence, make decisions and contribute to the value created by the team
  • Identify where real performance issues exist and address them through the organization’s formal performance management process
  • Get help – management is a skill that is honed over time through experience and training. Many great development opportunities are out there – some may be available within your current organization
  • If the employee cannot get the job done satisfactorily, find someone who can! Making the decision to do so sooner rather than later will be better for all involved.

What Can Micromanaged Employees Do?

To the management levels above them, micromanagers might appear to do a pretty good job. As long as they are delivering results, no matter the cost, they are likely to be secure in their roles and will be around for years to come. Realistically, the employees are the ones who will have to adjust. Here are a couple of options that micromanaged employees can consider:

  • Take a critical look at your own performance. Is there anything you are doing that is adding to the problem? Self-identified micromanagers often claim that they wouldn’t have to micromanage if their people would just do what they were supposed to do. It may not fix the problem, but delivering your best may give you a little more breathing room.
  • Play by their rules. Admittedly, spending your day requesting permission for every action, justifying every decision or rewriting every sentence is not productive. However, fighting it will be even less so. Figure out the hot buttons, pet peeves and sticking points and try to abide. Sadly this may mean spending more time on the non-value-added appeasing tasks, but if you can streamline them, you may be able to create a workable relationship.
  • Try not to take it to heart. Assuming your work is sound, try not to let the constant nit-picking affect your self-confidence. The problem is the manager’s, not yours.
  • Talk to them about their behavior. You may want to attempt a frank, but respectful discussion with the manager about the issue. Come prepared with recent examples and ideas for how you can work better together. Be aware though, that they may be unable to recognize that their behavior is problematic and their inherent lack of trust may create a contentious discussion.
  • Take it up with a “higher authority” (e.g., boss’s boss or HR). We tend to find this approach may end up doing more harm than good. At the very heart of micromanagement is a lack of trust, and going over the manager’s head, potentially making him/her look bad is a cardinal sin in the eyes of this type of manager. Although it may buy some momentary relief, chances are you will suffer in the long run.
  • Leave the organization. This option may be the only choice in some situations. Assume your manager is not going to leave. If you find that your work, your family and most likely your health and well-being are suffering because of a work situation that has become intolerable, looking for a better job may be the best thing you could do for yourself and your long-term career. Ultimately, you are in control of your own future and can make the decision to leave for greener pastures.

Organizations Should Take Note as Well!

Whether viewed as a valid management style or a dysfunctional behavior, micromanagement should be considered by an organization as they identify and groom their future leaders. Because micromanagement is often eclipsed by the more obvious management issues, it doesn’t get a lot of attention in terms of correction. Assuming the micromanager should be retained, there are some things an organization can do to help both the manager and the team.

  • Help them to develop as managers. Choose a manager training program that focuses on teaching the manager to adjust his or her personal management style to the needs of the employees is required. Self-awareness in the form of a 360 feedback assessment or personality profiling and perhaps some one-on-one coaching would help as well.
  • Remove their power to control by empowering the employees. For example, if the manager is a bottleneck for approval of even the most insignificant of expense reports – allow employees to submit those without approval. Or if the manager is blocking all communications from his team to the next levels in the organization, introduce new channels such as skip level lunches so that employees have a voice.
  • Monitor and evaluate the situation. In some cases micromanagement might be a sign of a more significant issue with the manager. If you hit a critical mass of employee complaints and other indicators of a problem, stay on top of it and take action (e.g., performance improvement plan, warnings, termination) if necessary.

The Takeaway

At the end of the day, we all have to decide what we can change and what we are willing to deal with. In the case of micromanagement, this goes for both the employee and the manager.

Managers: You don’t want to be a micromanager. No matter how convinced you are that this article is NOT about you, be aware of your own behavior.

  1. Are you appropriately adapting your management style/behaviors/inputs to the needs of your employees?
  2. Are you sure that the input/help/guidance/etc. you are giving is adding significant value to the outcome?

If you can’t give a definitive “yes” to both of these questions, do yourself and your employees a favor and get some help. The development, training and coaching resources available are endless.

Employees: No one likes to be micromanaged. If you are in a situation that you find intolerable, change it. Remember, you are in control. Either find a workable solution with your manager or look for another position. Either way, stop stewing. Life is too short.

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Books We Like (Top)

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A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future by Daniel Pink is a book that describes the specific competencies (he refers to them as “senses”) that the author claims that workers in the United States will need in the “Conceptual Age”. In his definition, “Conceptual Age” is the timeframe starting now and will continue for the foreseeable future. These competences, or senses, are in essence the characteristics that businesses will need to ensure are present in their workers, their organizational cultures and their products and services. Pink describes each of these senses in detail, each in a separate chapter of the book:

  • Artistic/design sense – will be needed to move beyond the function of a product in order to fully engage the senses of the consumer
  • Empathy – will be needed to move beyond simple logic and instead draw on intuition and feelings when developing and/or marketing products to consumers
  • Ability to create a narrative or tell a story – will be needed to move beyond making an argument in favor of product or service to creating a story in which the consumer can feel involved
  • Ability to synthesize – will be needed to move beyond the details and fully understand product or services fits within the “big picture”
  • Ability to derive meaning – will be needed to communicate the purpose and meaning of product or service
  • Playfulness – will be needed to bring humor and fun to products and services

In addition to describing the above senses that will be needed in the Conceptual age, Pink reiterates and expands on points made by Thomas Friedman and others concerning technical jobs moving to Asia, automation of work and the increasing abundance of consumer choices. He claims that these changes are the key indicator that the Conceptual Age is beginning now. In this book he was able to explain clearly and support what “thinking differently” may mean for Americans going forward. In addition, he provides a useful list of resources and advice to hone your skills in each of the Conceptual Age “senses.”

We recommend this book because we believe it was well-written and logical, and it challenged us to think about our own opportunities to develop in these areas. We have analytical personalities, which are not known for having excessive amounts of the particular attributes that may be more important in the future – artistic/design sense, empathy, ability to create a narrative/story-telling, synthesis/big picture thinking, ability to derive meaning/purpose and playfulness. We will continue to discuss how we might further develop in these areas. Click here to see more Books We Like.

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Questions for you (Top)

“Organizational Realities” chronicles observations, and presents ideas and advice for thriving in the workplace. While many articles will have a clear psychological slant, we aim to present pragmatic recommendations in a light and somewhat irreverent manner.What would you like to change about yourself? Your colleagues? Your manager? Do you find it challenging to manage relationships in the workplace while navigating the inevitable organizational politics and career derailers? Do you crave strategic direction, autonomy or visibility? You are not alone! We all struggle with finding the right balance between adapting to and shaping our work environment.Click here to view all of our posts on Micromanagement.

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External Articles on Micromanagement:

Help! I’m being micromanaged!
MicroManaging is NEVER Good
Micromanagement – Not So Bad?
Obama and Micromanagement – Does it work?
Micromanagement
Stop Micromanaging
It’s OK to Micromanage…Sometimes
Micro Management
How to deal with clients who micromanage
Plays Well with Others – Dealing with Micromanagement
Micromanagement Is Not Evil (Sometimes)
Micromanagement – WikiPedia Definition
Discussion: Deal With a Boss Who Accuses You of Needing Micro Managing
Who Says Micromanagement is Bad?
If you Micromanage, no one wins”
Dealing with Micromanagement
Micromanagement is Mismanagement: Are You a Micromanager?
Micromanagement