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Confessions of a Micromanager

On May 2, 2011, in Micromanagement, by Paul Gillard, PhD

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.

Click here to read Are You Being Micromanaged?” by Rachel Radwinsky, PhD and here to read our joint blog entitled “The Takeaway: How to Deal with Micromanagement”.

Paul Gillard, PhD

8 Responses to “Confessions of a Micromanager”

  1. Mary says:

    The topic is very relevant as we have all dealt with micromanagers at some point in our life. It is also a great reminder to make sure we don’t fall into that pattern as well. I enjoyed the humor, it is an effective approach to dealing with a tedious topic.

  2. Eric Williams says:

    Excellent article from a contemporary management perspective. Trust is earned through consistent demonstration of the same type of commitment to excellence and shared success that elevates the majority of individuals to positions of authority in the first place. On-the-job coaching, setting realistic expectations of performance, and demanding adherence to deadlines should never be branded as ‘micromanagement’. Well done for distinguishing day-to-day management responsibilities from outright nitpicking and meddling!

  3. Angela McGlynn says:

    An enlightened writing on a hot topic in the business world, this article lays out some of the pitfalls in effective management. A “must read” for anyone intent on improving their effectiveness.

  4. Patricia Farley says:

    I enjoyed the article. I agree that the distinction between micromanaging and giving needed direction is not always made today, especially by those on the receiving end of the direction. Is situational management your term? It is certainly apropos and makes a clear case that various approaches at various times are absolutely necessary and not at all inconsistent.

  5. Lance Wolf says:

    Good point that micromanaging can many times be overcome through proper coaching. All too often I’ve seen micromanagement as the result of the Peter Principle, good people who just can not give up their involvement in the day to day details. And after all, they were promoted to Manager precisely because they excelled at the very tasks their subordinates now perform. Most new managers need coaching on how to delegate.

  6. Erica says:

    I’m happy to know that I’m not the only one who thinks like this. This article was extremely informative so much so I had to reply which I don’t normally do. As a potential manager, it’s good to get insight that will aid in being the best manager I can be and to know what not to do so I don’t become the kind of manager I do not like and currently have.

  7. Wendy says:

    I’m surprised that only 70% of workers surveyed believe they have been micromanaged. I would have thought it was 100%. Generally, when an otherwise trusted employee suddenly feels micromanaged it is because of word from on high regarding a change in standards, policy, or methodology – i.e., software, hardware, or leadership. When those issues are not the case and I sense micromanagement in the conversation, I generally ask my supervisor, “Are you trying to tell me WHAT to do or HOW to do it?” I have never had a problem with a supervisor’s response to that question for clarification. Sometimes they will say, “Both.” In that case, I listen respectfully, learn the process they are requesting and proceed. If it is an inefficient process that I note immediately, I suggest there is a better way and have always gotten their attention and approval to do it the better way. Often, however, it is an entirely new thing and I have to do it their way until I discover a better way. Then I make an appointment with them, remind them of the new process, and suggest there is a better way. I go with statistics on my own performance doing it both ways. I’ve never been turned down. In one instance, I actually got my supervisors request for my thoughts on later issues that came up – he sought me out. Later, I was promoted to his position (he chose to leave the firm). I’ll always be grateful to supervisors like that!

  8. This is great advice. I love the idea of posing the carefully crafted question “Are you trying to tell me WHAT to do or HOW to do it?” and modifying your approach accordingly.
    It really focuses the conversation and sets up a win/win for all involved. I appreciate you sharing.


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