Micromanaging Mania

Fred Mael

Baltimore SmartCEO  and Washington SmartCEO Magazines,  February 2013

What is the managerial practice that all managers claim to detest,harms and drives away the best of employees, hurts productivity and morale, yet remains a favored, almost addictively practiced technique even among those claiming to want to stop? Answer: Micromanaging, defined by Webster as “to manage especially with excessive control or attention to details” and elsewhere as “to manage or control very closely, as by making decisions about even the smallest details, often so as to be regarded as acting inefficiently or counterproductively”.

This practice afflicts managers at all levels. I have worked with first-line managers and senior executives, and virtually everyone is susceptible to micromanaging or being micromanaged. Before you can address how to stop, you need to know why you micromanage, as each reason has a different potential remedy.

Why people micromanage

Fear of real or perceived skill erosion – this is especially a problem if you are a technical or scientific professional moving into leadership. You may be hedging your bets in case you may want or have to return to technical work, or you want to make sure that your subordinates  don’t suspect that you’ve lost your touch. What better way than to get involved in the details and convince yourself and others that you are still on top of your game?

Missing the thrill of the details – you were drawn to your previous work because you enjoyed it. Busy now with meetings, politics, and other forms of persuasion, you may miss the high of just being immersed in  single issue or problem that can have an elegant and unambiguous answer.  It’s a pleasurable escape from the murkiness of managing. Unfortunately, your over-involvement can also deprive your staff of the pleasure they hoped to derive from their work – and unlike you, their own work is all they have.

Deep down belief that you are one of a kind – without saying it, you may believe that no one can quite analyze data, write a proposal or ad copy, or make a sales itch quite like you. You aren’t planning to take over their work, and you keep professing that you hate interfering, but if they would just make this change or this revision, everything would be so much better.

Confuse style with substance – you have to step in when your subordinates do or propose actions that are potentially false, dangerous, or injurious to the company. What you may have also done, however, is elevate issues of style – how something is phrased, the look or color of a Power Point slide – to the level of right and wrong. Everyone but you seems to know that the tweaking you are doing doesn’t really matter, it and frustrates junior employees’ efforts to carve out their own style. Even worse, you expect gratitude and acknowledgement that your changes made the product substantially better and were worth the (wasted) extra time and effort.

Fear of bosses – you may micromanage because your own boss has unrealistic expectations of how accountable you can be about your employees’ performance.  Using clichés like “it’s my neck on the line” or “the buck stops here”, you basically try to do all the work to avoid being blamed for your subordinates’ shortcomings.  You reason that “someday” you will go back to mentoring and letting your employees learn to take charge and be responsible, but somehow, someday never comes.

Team oriented and collegial – this one especially afflicts those who rose up from the ranks to become managers over their former peers. You wish you were still part of an (idealized) team in which everyone is highly motivated and pulls their share. Even when your subordinates don’t put out good effort, you really prefer to avoid disciplining them, asserting authority and pointing out their failings. Instead, you (heavily) edit their sloppy work, redo their mistake-laden products, and rationalize that you are just helping – when you are really using micromanaging as a way to avoid confrontations and abdicate demanding accountability.

Is There Any Help?

Micromanaging can be a thorny and persistent problem, though sometimes alleviated by mentoring, concerted effort, or attitude change. Here are some general principles:

Clarify your role  

Scott Eblin, in his book The Next Level, says that executives need to ask themselves the following question: “What is it that – given the perspective and resources I have as an executive – only I can do?’ Everything else should be handled by one’s team or others. Obviously in a small organization, that may be a luxury, so the question may have to be reversed: “What, given my responsibilities, should be taken from me and reassigned so that I do my role properly and don’t do others’ jobs for them?”.

Stop trying to be “first among equals”

Accept your role as manager and stop trying to prove that you are still the best technician. As Sid Fuchs, CEO of MacAulay-Brown, Inc. says “As you reach the executive level you need to realize that you can’t compete with your team. The way you get your satisfaction and your merit is based on how well you do in helping the team succeed”.

Deal with the anxiety

Trying to stop micromanaging can be very stressful. It may be take great self-control to allow output that you think demonstrates imperfect taste, phrasing, or judgment by your subordinates to be the final version that goes to a client. It may take fortitude  to stand firm when you own boss beats on you to micromanage. You may need to deny yourself the pleasure of being back in the trenches doing technical work. To accomplish this, you may wish to get help in the form of a supportive peer group, mentor, or executive coach.  Whatever you choose, do it now, because micromanaging at any level can seriously derail your career.

Fred Mael, PhD, helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers. www.maelconsulting.com. (www.smartceo.com).

Fred Mael, PhD, helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers. www.maelconsulting.com. (www.smartceo.com). This article appeared originally in the February 2013 issues  of Washington SmartCEO magazine and Baltimore SmartCEO magazine  (www.smartceo.com).