Modern management is a bit like the tale of Goldilocks and The Three Bears.
When a manager’s not involved enough, they’re quickly seen as an absentee manager who ignores their employees until a problem arises (and then often calls them out for said problem).
When a manager’s overly involved, they’re viewed as a micromanager – breathing down the necks of employees for endless updates, ready to chime in with their two cents.
Of these two management styles, neither does the employees any favors. But micromanagement can be especially detrimental to employee morale, engagement, and physical and mental health. It causes unnecessary stress for everyone involved and has been linked to increased staff turnover rates, not to mention shorter life spans for employees (yikes).
Micromanagement is also an incredibly vicious cycle. When a leader micromanages their team, folks don’t feel like they have any autonomy or power over their work. Motivation and output can take a hit since nobody wants to go the extra mile when you’re being hounded for frequent updates 24/7. In this scenario, folks might even become dependent employees — who no longer feel empowered to take action on their own and are constantly awaiting manager approval to move work forward. So the manager feels the need to step in constantly to help things along.
Most managers don’t intentionally set out to micromanage their teams, so how does all this happen in the first place?
In this article, we’ll explore the psychological, behavioral, and other factors behind micromanagement, and discuss ways you can recognize it on your own team. Whether you’re a manager or an IC, keep on reading — we’ve got strategies to help everyone stop micromanagement in its tracks.
The need for a leader to micromanage can come from a number of places — anxiety, low self-esteem, and the desire to simply do it all can most certainly contribute to the tendency to want to be overly involved. Here are five more common reasons micromanagement tends to slip in.
As managers get promoted and move up to higher levels of management, it can be difficult for many to let go of their old job or their old ways of doing things. (Especially if these were the things that landed them the promotion in the first place.) However, at higher levels, leaders usually need to focus more of their time on strategic work and less on the operational side of things. For many, this is a completely new way of spending the work day, and it can be challenging to remove yourself from day-to-day operations if it’s something you’re comfortable with and confident in.
Most everyone likes to be in control to some degree, especially when it comes to our jobs. When we’re in control, it signals stability and can make us feel a sense of calm. For managers though, part of the job description is nurturing and growing reports in their careers – which innately means giving up some of that control to empower them. Plus, excessive control in the workplace undermines teamwork and trust, and tends to get in the way — especially if you work at a fast-growing company where things are constantly changing. Being a control freak doesn't work in a highly adaptive environment.
Only 49% of people say they trust the people working alongside them. If you don’t have a strong foundation of trust on your team and a culture that supports it, it can lead to micromanagement. Especially if trust is not something already being displayed by folks at the leadership and management level.
When you don’t have strong, open communication between managers and the recruiters from day one of the hiring process, things can get messy. This happens all too often on busy, fast-growing teams. When a recruiter doesn’t have full clarity on the specs for the role and a manager doesn’t have time to get deeply involved, folks might move through the hiring process that wouldn’t be a strong fit otherwise. If you bring in someone without the right skills and the manager immediately realizes it, micromanagement is usually the next step.
This is a common refrain from micromanagers about why they do what they do. This is largely the result of people wanting to feel relevant at work, which is only natural as we spend so many hours a day there.
Now that we’ve got a sense of what causes micromanagement, let’s take a look at some of the common micromanager tendencies – how can you tell if you or your boss is doing it?
When a micromanager delegates something, they have a tendency to instantly become involved in the work too – even the minor details. (Which isn’t really delegation at all.) This is unfortunate not just for the direct report, who might feel frustrated or undervalued, but actually for the manager too...in some unexpected ways. Turns out: more effective delegation actually leads to a higher lifetime salary for managers. Feels like a missed opportunity to us!
Effective teamwork should obviously be rooted in solid communication – but there’s a big difference between status updates for alignment and those for the sake of satisfying a micromanager. If you’re working with a micromanager, they’ll want to know every little detail of every little thing, and they’ll usually ask for constant updates. (We once worked with a manager who’d ask for an update deck multiple times per day.) You’ll often see micromanagers lurking in your docs at all hours of the day or commenting and offering feedback before you’re ready for it.
Micromanagers thrive off of being involved early and often. Picture this: A new project is assigned to you, detailed, and downloaded. As you walk back to your desk to digest the new information and figure out what your next steps are — there’s your manager. Swooping in with advice or an immediate need to check in. If someone’s on you before you’ve even started work on a project, it usually means they’re micromanaging.
Process is great for organizations, and is one of the most important steps to scaling a business. At the same time, process can be a weapon when used incorrectly, as many managers unfortunately do. Micromanagers love process. And worse yet, they typically love process for the sake of process, which refers to processes that don't actually improve the efficiency of work getting done. They exist because they've always existed and no one has stopped to question it.
Many micromanagers will over-focus on relative minutiae — a grammar error or a tiny mistake within a document — instead of trying to resolve the big picture around what needs to be done.
Remember: typos aren't ideal, yes, but ultimately a lot of the stuff that companies care about internally is not stuff that customers will ultimately care about. Look at the big picture and the end game. Micromanagers usually look at the details they can immediately control.
Broadly and above all, realize that good leadership is about letting go. Research shows that people who believe they're constantly being micromanaged perform poorly overall in their job. So while you might think you're doing your team members a great service and teaching them “the right way,” in reality you're likely tanking the productivity of your entire team.
Admittedly it requires some self-awareness to see the difference, and admittedly not every person who becomes a manager has that ability. So take a step back and look at your team. Do they seem fearful of you or connected to you? Fear can be a powerful motivator, yes, but it doesn't work nearly as well in the professional realm.
Becoming a better manager is very hard, and it's a long road to get there. One way to avoid both being a micromanaging boss and being an absentee manager is to find more ways to build trust across your team, which is a mix of small gestures and conversations and bigger elements, like gradually increasing the responsibilities of different team members.
📕 Read our guide on how to build a culture of trust on your team in just a few minutes a day
The Coddling Of The American Mind authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt often reference this phrase:
“Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.”
They're talking about parenting, but it can apply to management too. Give your team the basic skills they need and knowledge they seek, and then sit back and see what happens. If they fail, it's fine. Come in, course correct, and then let them try again on their own. This is all part of professional development.
The road will always be littered with challenges, difficult clients, partnerships gone awry, and so much more. As a manager, you can't control for all of that reality. However, if you let your team try to succeed or fail without your constant intervention, you'll build trust and ultimately be seen as an effective manager, rather than a micromanaging boss.
This is a little bit tougher, but here are some strategies and ideas to help you work better together with your manager.
Ask your boss for a bit more autonomy. Remind them of projects you've successfully completed on your own. And, to ease them into this, try “How about I work on this project for a week? After that I'll offer a full debrief of where everything stands in the format you prefer on Thursday at 3PM.”
Veteran coworkers or teammates who’ve worked with or under your manager longer might know what words, ideas, and proposals resonate the most with your micromanaging boss.
“How best can I work with them? I know they want the best for our team and that they're a stickler for details, but I think this micromanaging is preventing me from being truly productive.”
This is a second-to-last resort because going above a manager can cause lots of issues with trust. But if the micromanagement never seems to stop, go talk to their boss and lay out exactly what is happening. Be honest: Have you messed up on projects? Do you need more guidance? What would an ideal week look like in terms of project check-ins for you?
This is the last resort, and we don't necessarily endorse it. However, there are some micromanaging bosses who are unlikely to change. That's the sad reality of the situation.
If you find yourself reporting to one of those bosses, nothing else seems to be working, and your stress levels are up while productivity is down, it might be time to begin a new job search and look elsewhere for a manager and team that will make you happy.
With work and teams, the ultimate goal is for everyone to be connected and productive, managers and employees alike. Everyone ought to be in sync (knowing what other people are doing) and the whole team should be in alignment (people understand where the true priorities lie, and there's a line of sight around multiple projects).
When a manager can look at a tool like Range and know where things stand instantly, there's less of a psychological pull to be a micromanager, and the behavioral tendencies of micromanaging bosses can most certainly be improved. When priorities and line of sight are clearer, and when the status of work is visible for all to see, making improvements to your team and management skills (or your working relationship with your manager) can more easily become a reality.