Micromanagement (Part One)

November 1, 2013, Department, by Lauren Yost

Leadership consultant Martin Webster identifies micromanagers by their over-involvement in the work they’ve assigned to others.Micromanagement is the latest dirty word of the workplace and the subject of many management articles. Not a new phenomenon, it was referenced by Theodore Roosevelt when he said, “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it.”

The elevated attention and sensitivity to micromanagement, however, has infused the term with weapon-like power when wielded by an underperforming employee, hurled at a supervisor daring to hold them accountable to quality or timely work.

“I take issue with the way in which micromanagement has become synonymous with directive management,” says Paul Gillard, Ph.D., executive business consultant and founder of Transformation Associates Inc. “While micromanagement is almost always wrong, directive management is appropriate in specific situations.”

What It Is

Leadership consultant Martin Webster identifies micromanagers by their over-involvement in the work they’ve assigned to others, getting involved in that work without consulting them and “monitoring what’s least important and expecting regular reports on miscellany.” Gillard adds that the micromanager “tells direct reports what to do, how to do it and when to do it, giving no latitude to the employee.” Delegation (if used at all) is dysfunctional at best. Only task-level “parts” of an initiative are delegated rather than the whole project, leaving the employee disengaged from the meaning or big picture.

Obviously, the effects of this approach to management can have widespread negative effects. It stunts the employee’s growth, leaving tomorrow’s managers completely unprepared to lead, but it also stunts the manager’s growth. Mired in the process and details of work when they should only be concerning themselves with the results, they are never able to step far enough away to develop their strategy skills and work from the big-picture prospective. 

It also creates unbearable workloads for both the employee and manager. “Direct reports spend more time reporting on progress than making progress,” says Gillard. Meanwhile, the manager still has his or her own full workload, plus the portions of their subordinate’s job they are scrutinizing or redoing. 

Teamwork is impossible to achieve because each individual employee has to invest all available energies into the micromanager’s volume of ineffective tasks, leaving no time to collaborate on more effective solutions. Perfectly captured in Bob Blackney’s article, The Debilitating Effects of Micromanagement, “I have heard work groups say, ‘What’s the use of getting together to plan; we will just have to change it all.’”

The ultimate result is low morale. The constant second-guessing, perceived lack of trust, and essentially dismissing the experience and knowledge of the staff actually assigned the work will eventually cause that staff to stop making decisions or even taking initiative. What it costs the employee and manager is merely a fraction of what it costs the organization in productivity and effectiveness.

What It Isn’t

In contrast, a key component of effective management is... management. Yes, you do need to manage your employees. Going to the opposite extreme to avoid being a micromanager is not effective either. “The pendulum has swung too far in the anti-management direction,” Gillard says. “Managers should never be afraid to manage… I think in the past two decades, we have lost sight of the need for strong directive management.”

Management includes the concepts of directing and controlling. While that may sound a bit like a contradiction, the important distinction is making sure you direct and control the right things at the appropriate level. “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,” says Rachel Radwinsky, Ph.D., vice president of consulting services at Transformation Associates. “The difference lies in whether all that effort is really adding value to the final output or not.”

The truth of the matter is that managers are responsible for the work of their employees — including the details. An effective manager needs to stay focused on the big picture and hold their employees accountable for the results of their work, not the process to achieve those results. But if the results miss the mark, you can’t just tell your boss, “Sorry, I have no idea what data or method my team used to arrive at this conclusion.” You are accountable for what your team produces.

“Asking questions of an operating nature is not in itself micromanaging,” says Blythe McGarvie, author of Shaking the Globe: Courageous Decision-Making in a Changing World. “As long as the questions lead to insights about issues like strategy, performance, [etc.].” If the details being scrutinized or questions being asked serve only to demonstrate superior knowledge that adds no value or offer an alternate opinion that does not change the outcome, then micromanagement is at play.

While micromanagement is never the right approach, it shouldn’t be mistaken for effective, directive management. That’s not to say that directive management is always the right approach either. As discussed in August’s column, Battlefield Leadership, in recognizing that each of your employees is different and that each situation is also different, the most effective manager will develop the skills to adapt his or her management approach as each situation dictates.

So if are being managed by a micromanager, or you just realized you are a micromanager, what can you do to change or improve that situation? Check out December’s Managing Management column for tips on dealing with a micromanager or steps you can take to overcome your own micromanagement tendencies.

Lauren Yost is NRPA’s Vice President of Operations.