Managerial Madness: Micro-Managers

By Robert McGarvey

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Micro-management kills projects. Say that loud, say it proud. Good, conscientious workers hate micro-managers; the folks who insist on eyeballing every last “t” to make sure it is crossed and who wish they could require team members to get bathroom passes before getting up from their desks. Now ask yourself this: Are you a micro-manager?

Do not be too quick to say no.

“In 20 years of doing this work I have never had a manager come to me and say, ‘I need help, I’m a micro-manager,” says Wally Bock, an executive coach. “They feel they are only doing their jobs.”

Nobody in the history of work has ever awoken, clapped his hands and said: “I can’t wait until I’m at work micro-managing the heck out of this project and my team.”

So, if you don’t know you are doing it, how can you possibly stop?

Definition time. What exactly is micro-management? It boils down to insufficient delegation (handing off only the easiest tasks) and/or continually checking in on progress.

“Thus, when a project manager states, ‘I need you to do ‘X’ by Friday at 5 p.m.,” and calls the person to whom the task was assigned several times a day monitoring progress, the person is a classic micro-manager,” says Kimberly Mount, an adjunct professor of organizational psychology at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology and a leadership development consultant.

The classic micro-manager cannot resist meddling at every step in a project. Good project managers parcel out work, then let team members go off and percolate individually and without interference. Not a micro-manager. These lines can be finely drawn, so understand that what makes micro-management particularly treacherous is “it is too much of a good thing,” says Stefanie Smith, head of Stratex, a coaching firm.

Chew on this factoid: according to Harry Chambers, author of My Way or the Highway: The Micromanagement Survival Guide , 71% of us indicate we are victims of micromanagement.

Would your team members say they are in that super-majority?

What causes micro-management? Experts point to three drivers:

  • Extreme detail orientation a.k.a, perfectionism.
  • Self-centeredness. That is, “[T]he belief you are smarter than the others,” says Todd Dewett, an associate professor of management at Wayne State University.
  • Anxiety. When you are worried that a flubbed project could drive your team’s work to Bangalore, India (or from Bangalore to Karachi … or wherever), it is easy to fall into eyeballing every step.
  • “Micro-management is a symptom of thinking things are out of control,” adds consultant Don Maruska, author of How Great Decisions Get Made .

    Say that a project manager who doesn’t fear possible job loss is delusional bordering on Pollyanna and you may be right, meaning that, in many cases, the building blocks for micro-management have a foundation in reality. But that does not make it a good thing, particularly not when it is exhaustively documented that a micro-manager sucks the enthusiasm out a project team (Who wants to give his/her all when the boss redoes everything anyway?).

    Even worse. A classic symptom of the micro-manager is that he cannot get his own work done, says organizational consultant Simma Lieberman. So busy supervising the work of others, the micro-manager frequently finds his own to-do list gets ignored. And that is no way to win job security.

    Taking the Cure

    It isn’t easy to break the cycle of micro-management but it can happen. Step one, says Maruska, is to make a conscious effort to transition from always being the doer into being a manager of others. Focus on getting there and it will gradually come to be.

    Step two, and maybe a still harder step, says Louellen Essex, co-author of Manager's Desktop Consultant: Just-in-Time Solutions to the Top People Problems That Keep You Up at Night , is to dialog with team members. Ask them: do they feel micro-managed? What kind of supervision and leadership do they want? Of course, they won’t immediately open up with honesty so keep prodding.

    Show sincerity: “I cannot properly manage this project without your input about what you want from a leader.” Little by little, team members will spill about how much (or how little) direction they genuinely want from you. A tricky bit is that some team members want a lot of oversight, some want little or none, so for the manager part of the job is knowing who needs how much hand-holding.

    The last step: don’t focus on process, focus on outcomes and results. Inveterate micro-managers stay hung up on process, but the managers who succeed know that, at project’s end, all the high-level bosses in the organization care about is what was accomplished. Period.

    “The outcome is what really matters,” stresses Essex. Just keep that in mind and, poof, micro-management proclivities just may evaporate.