February 14, 2020
Every company wants high-performing employees. They dream of teams of empowered-decision makers. High engagement and low turnover are HR utopia.
And yet the vast majority of organizations are still riddled with micromanagers who undermine any efforts to arrive at the workforce promised land. It’s curious that companies have still not found a way of weeding out this peculiar species of ‘do-not-go-getters.’ Especially as few elements of the business have proven to be as detrimental to employee and company success as the micromanager.
Four out of five employees claim that they’re currently micromanaged, or have been in the past. Worryingly commonplace, yes, but not wholly catastrophic. Now consider that 85% of those working for a micromanager thought that management style was negatively impacting overall morale, with 69% going as far as to look for a new job.
Imagine all the incredible internal communications, learning and development programs, company culture events, and employee benefits that are being undermined by the poor management style of a few people.
Educated, well-trained employees are shown to work better, harder, and more when given autonomy. You could easily make the argument that, for many teams, having no manager at all would be better than having a micromanager. Plus, think of the cost savings!
What exactly is micromanagement?
Organization psychologists talk about the five step process that great leaders take with employees:
- A new employee is told the goal and shown the way to get there
- An employee is told the goal and employee and manager work together to get there
- The manager sets the goal, and the employee chooses the way
- The employee and manager set the goal together, and the employee decides the way
- The senior employee sets the goal and selects the way
Managers need to understand that the ability to delegate is the most critical tool of a leader. Looking at a goal, accepting that there are multiple ways of getting there, and then actively and consciously passing the responsibility for doing so over to their employees in a way that helps them develop is what defines a great leader. The best question a manager can ever ask is: “What do you need from me?”
If a manager becomes too operational and fails to move from the first step, no matter how senior their employees, this leads to micromanagement.
The cause of micromanagement
It’s easy to vilify the egocentric micromanager. In truth, most managers don’t set out to become a dominating presence despised by their employees. They are often a product of their under-trained, under-supported circumstances.
After all, there’s a fine line between an excellent operational, hands-on manager, and an overbearing micromanager. If you’re a high achiever who lived by the “When you want something done right, do it yourself” idiom while climbing the career ladder, it can be hard to change that mindset once you reach a leadership position.
Let’s also remember that micromanagement can be extremely effective in the short-term. A micromanager provides project management-like oversight of all projects and operations; they get to grips with intricate details, metrics, and reporting; they simplify the decision-making process; they can get everyone pulling in the same direction and even speed up the onboarding of new employees – an onboarding they’re likely to do themselves.
However, these temporary gains tend to make way for excessive reporting, disenfranchised employees who question their value, lower productivity, and slower progress as all decisions hit a bottleneck, a diminished sense of teamwork and morale and, ultimately, increased employee turnover.
There’s evidence to suggest that being micromanaged has a significant impact on employees’ stress levels. It can impact not only their mental health but their physical health also. Little wonder they start looking for a new job.
How to treat micromanagementitis
If you’re fortunate enough to be part of a fledgling company or one that acknowledges the need for a major organizational shake-up, then opting for a flatter, less hierarchical structure could lead to some significant benefits – maybe including the eradication of micromanagers. Although flatter seems to be preferable to completely flat for a lot of companies, so there are still a few cracks for micromanagement weeds to grow. Many companies have moved to new goal-setting methodologies, such as Objectives and Key Results (OKR), in an attempt to tackle tasks and progress in a less manager-centric way.
However, many companies have more traditional organizational and reporting structures that they’re not ready, willing, or equipped to transform. How can such companies attempt to cure the micromanagement virus?
Advice for employees
- The first step is understanding that you’re being micromanaged – sometimes it can take time to realize that.
- If you already have a good relationship with your manager, talk to them about this. Remember: leadership development is often very lonely, and most leaders are leading on guesswork.
- If you don’t feel able to approach your manager directly, a coach can help you understand the dynamics at play within the situation and how to address it.
- For example, rather than telling your boss that they’re a micromanager, it may be a question of framing it as “What can I do to gain more trust from you?” or “How can I give you a good feeling that everything is running smoothly?”
Advice for managers
- If a leader gets the feedback that they’re a micromanager from an employee, they must accept it and acknowledge it. The next step is to see it as an opportunity to grow.
- Most micromanagers know they have a problem with trust or delegation – addressing that is vital but challenging.
- Good coaches have exercises that help to break through many of the psychological barriers. One example is asking a manager to name three of their biggest influencers or mentors. They’re then led on an imagination journey to see what advice they think their mentors would have for them in this situation.
- The opportunity to dissociate from personal feelings and see a situation from different perspectives allows a manager to find answers for themselves.
Advice for HR and senior leaders
- If you have a micromanagement epidemic, you might question why your leaders are micromanaging in the first place?
- Are they aware of their tendency to micromanage?
- What are they hoping to achieve?
- Are they too stressed and being placed under too much pressure to manage well?
- Most of all, have you created a feedback culture based on mutual trust, respect, and the ability to feedback honestly, sensitively, and regularly?
- Finally, do all your employees and managers have the support and tools they require? Coaching, for example, isn’t a silver bullet, but it does help to establish a transparent feedback culture.