The Cure for Micromanaging

Almost every complaint I’ve heard about a boss references some form of micromanagement in which employees are told exactly what to do and/or how to do it. At best, this turns out to be irritating, and at worst the boss is giving bad instructions that will lead to disaster. The latter is typically worse because it forces the employee to choose between appearing incompetent and being insubordinate — anyone in that position will be looking for a new job one way or another. The question is why people micromanage, and there are several key reasons for it (each of which also contains a solution).

Managers Never Learn to Manage

The first reason for micromanaging is rooted in the Peter Principle, which states that people are promoted to their level of incompetence. Many companies miss the fact that someone who is fantastic at performing a set of tasks is not necessarily capable of managing people and coordinating the efforts of a team who do said tasks (and also that people can be very effective team leaders without being able to do any given team member’s job). In cases like these, managers are micromanaging because they do not know how to manage, and also do not know any other way of doing the tasks besides their own. They miss the fact that each person has a separate combination of strengths, weaknesses, knowledge, skills, and attitudes, and that these can lead people to pursue and achieve goals differently.

The solution to this one is giving managers training both in coordination and in understanding strengths and how they are utilized. Most importantly, however, training for this sort of manager is not just a one-day or one-week class, but also ongoing coaching from an internal or external source who can check in and help the manager apply the results of the workshops (s)he attended. After all, this is the acquisition of a new set of habits, and that requires reinforcement over a period of time.

Pressure from “On High”

Another reason for micromanagement is the pressure that managers face from their higher-ups. Many companies have a culture of fear that runs counter to the culture of competence that companies need to have, and that leads managers to be concerned for their necks if the work their team produces isn’t “just so.” There’s nothing quite like knowing that your head will be on the chopping block if things aren’t perfect, and that panic can trickle down to teams that are just trying to do a good job. In a lot of cases, the Peter Principle is at work here, too, but for a higher-level manager. Their subordinates, the middle managers, don’t really want to micromanage, but they are so concerned with what can happen if anything is off that they run around and dictate like the sky is falling.

In these cases, the solution is usually finding the source of the high pressure and doing either leadership coaching or a cultural overhaul, but neither one of those is a simple process because the fear of the higher-ups is usually rooted in some kind of rational concern that got blown out of proportion. If the company isn’t prepared to get some serious help, it’s going to lose its talent and sink afterwards. If no assistance is on the way, those who are low on the totem pole should get out of there unless middle managers can find a way to run interference that shields their teams from the freak-outs on high. Running interference is risky, however, and usually takes a manager with nerves of steel and a golden tongue that gets higher management to accept the [presumably] good stuff being provided.

Me, Me, Me

Ego is another source of micromanagement, in which team leaders are so hot on taking credit and looking good that they want everything to be done their way so that they can claim responsibility for everything. They treat the team’s product as a reflection of their competence in getting the job done (inappropriate for a manager!) rather than their competence at hiring amazing people and enabling them to do fantastic work.

The trick to solving this one is to look at the incentives being provided to the manager and the team, because this situation tends to reflect an incentive system that rewards the manager for being a star performer and doesn’t even consider the efforts of the team. The fix is to reward the manager for good coordination and resource provision, and making sure that the team that does the work actually gets credit and rewards. There is almost always more than enough credit, praise, and bonus compensation (as relevant) to be shared among the relevant stakeholders, and giving everyone a dollop is easily doable and puts everyone in the same boat.

Reframing the Role of a Manager

In this, one can also see a key reframing in the role of a manager. Rather than being the front-running performer on the team, or the brains behind the endeavor, the manager’s role is to coordinate employee efforts and make sure that everyone is able to add value to the project in an effective way. In order to do this, a manager’s focus should be ensuring that employees can get the work “done, well, by the deadline”. To do this, the manager first needs to outline the goal and scope of the task, followed by clear guidelines on what constitutes a good product and a deadline for delivering it. After confirming that the employee is clear on the parameters of the project, the next question is which resources the employee may need to complete the task and how/when to provide them (if possible). The timeline and resources established, the manager’s next move is to step back and let the employee do what (s)he was hired to do. The manager should be available for questions or resource requests, and should be checking in sparsely (I recommend letting at least 10% of the project time go by before checking in on an employee unbidden), but should otherwise leave the employee to his/her own devices.

When managers feel like they cannot trust their employees to deliver good work by the deadlines, then it’s time to fix the hiring process (a post for another time). In the interim, companies with micromanagement problems (nearly every company with 30+ employees I’ve encountered to date) should be looking at management training, incentive structures, and a clear conception of the coordinating role that managers play. By doing this, businesses will enable employees to actually use their full skillsets to do what they were hired to do, which beats paying employees to be robots.