Do you feel like you are micromanaged at work? Or, are you as a manager concerned that you might be crowding out the personal ingenuity of your team by giving directions that are too precise?
In this post, we set out suggestions on the topic of micromanagement, such as Lacy Schoen’s tips for handling a micromanager and advice for micromanagers themselves, as well as share an amusing TED talk by Chieh Huang called “Confessions of a Recovering Micromanager” where he describes his personal progression up the levels of management from start-up founder to managing others, to managing managers, and managing a business.
I would like to respond to your feedback, and specifically your concerns that I have been micromanaging you. Take a seat. No, not that one, the other one.”
Micromanagement is a topic that gets significant attention, with many saying they’ve worked for at least one micromanager in their careers. Superficial advice is often the knee-jerk reaction of quitting to get away from the misery of being constantly monitored and judged. One positive way though to view the experience is as a growth opportunity to learn what not to do when you gain a position of responsibility yourself. It can also teach you how to work with different types of people, a skill which will serve you well throughout your career. Read more to explore some of the nuances of micromanagement, including potential causes and how the employee might actually need close attention in the short-term.
What micromanagement is
Lacy Schoen, Founder and CEO of Real Women Real Success, defines a micromanager as “someone who over-scrutinises or has excessive oversight over your work product” i.e. they are focused on both what to do and how to do it.
What is micromanagement? How do we really define it? Well, I posit that it's actually taking great, wonderful, imaginative people – like all of you – bringing them in into an organisation and then crushing their souls by telling them what font size to use.”
Much of this article is built upon Lacy’s suggestions, which she sets out on her YouTube channel, with our insights as well as thoughts from LinkedIn users added. While Lacy’s business focuses on women and her mission is to “support women in developing their leadership acumen and ability to seek what makes them happy and fulfilled”, Lacy’s advice on micromanagement is applicable to all of us at work, whether employees or managers.
Often advice for tackling micromanagement is one-sided, assuming that the manager is the menace. It is important to consider the balanced view: sometimes employees need close supervision and guidance for specific tasks i.e. they need to be told what must be done… Thus, seek to understand why your manager might micromanage you:
1) They may be fearful: of being out of control, of getting into trouble from their seniors, of looking like they’re uncertain or ineffective, of not being needed by their team
2) You might need close attention: if you’re new to a team or task, if you frequently make mistakes, if you repeatedly miss deadlines
The second category above brings to mind the Situational Leadership Model, which sets out that individuals with different levels of skill and motivation for a given task need to be led differently i.e. the leadership style depends on the situation. We described this model in more detail in our post “Riding the Learning Curve & Disrupting Yourself”. When skill is low (i.e. someone is new to a task, still learning, or struggling), a more directive managerial approach is suggested – this telling style could be seen as micromanaging, especially if you feel you are more skilled than your manager thinks you are.
It is also instructive to consider the opposite of a directive / telling style: a laissez faire approach (such as delegating to the extreme) which works best with highly motivated and highly skilled staff. However, in many cases, a laissez faire approach may lead to employees floundering, unsure of how to proceed, and demotivated as a result.
Micromanagement sometimes occurs when a manager doesn’t understand what an individual does, and either gets very involved to try to learn or tries to control the work because of their uncertainty. This brings to mind the examples of bureaucratic managers discussed in “Why Technical Experts Make Great Leaders”, including a generalist newspaper editor who struggles with a journalist never being at her desk.
Potential causes of micromanagement
When management is too tight for what an individual or situation actually needs (i.e. the first category above), Lacy sets out a number of possible causes, some of which can be deep-seated:
In his TED talk, Chieh illustrates how a new manager can sometimes end up in the role without formal preparation: “You start at the very bottom. Doing what? Doing work. You actually do the work, right? And if you're really good at doing the work, what do you get rewarded with? More work, right?… You do more work, and then pretty soon, if you're really good at it, you do a little bit of work still, but actually, you start to manage people doing the work. And if you're really good at that, what happens after that? You start managing the people who manage the people doing the work, and it's at that point in time, you start to lose control over the output of your job.” This indicates both the need for management skill development as you make these career transitions, and also the loss of control over technical matters as you rise in seniority (which can be daunting).
Some commentators argue that it is about a lack of trust as the micromanager doesn’t believe anyone can do something as well as he or she can. This is likely to be a consequence of fear or need for control mentioned above i.e. they direct in an attempt to deliver it according to their standards.
Sometimes micromanagement can be exacerbated by the company’s own quality standards or operating procedures, and the manager can find themselves squeezed in the middle between a demanding boss or company and their own team.
Another contributing factor can be personality differences between the manager and the employee i.e. different ways of looking at the world. For example, an inspiration-driven employee who prefers spontaneity working for an analytical and highly structured boss. Or, a team-oriented individual who values relationships reporting to a hard-driving, task-focused manager who wants to get things done no matter what it takes.
One positive interpretation of a manager’s close attention is that they care a lot about the outcome, perhaps because it is critical to them e.g. a significant initiative for the business, or an opportunity for them to be promoted. This would translate into them being really interested in your work, giving you lots of attention because they care deeply about the results.
Some of the above causes can be worked on together with your manager, while others require more serious intervention – appropriate responses depend on the circumstances as your ability to address the challenge positively can be very limited in the latter circumstances.
Tips for handling a micromanager
Our first suggestion for someone who is feeling micromanaged is to manage your own emotions and reactions, which is admittedly difficult to do in practice. Perhaps try reframing in your mind that your boss really cares deeply about your work e.g. your output will make a significant difference to the organisation. Also see if you can consider the situation as an observer i.e. external view. These techniques may help you to understand why your boss is so interested. For example, while learning the specific expectations of a task, it's normal for your boss to be very closely watching and instructing so that you are able to meet the company's needs. Lacy suggests thinking about the pressures your boss might be facing to help you feel empathy and compassion.
Specific practical things you can do for a given task that may help to demonstrate your skill to your boss:
There are also techniques you can try which may help improve the longer-term relationship and ongoing work you do together. Lacy cautions that fighting back directly won’t work. Your boss may interpret your aggression as you having something to hide, which will worsen the situation (as you seem less trustworthy). Instead, engage your boss in conversations in a neutral environment, respectfully acknowledging their interest and that they care. Try to orientate these discussions towards their success, explore together how you can help them, and ask what you can do to give them more comfort.
In preparation for these sessions, observe your boss: when are they on edge, what are the expectations and pressures on them, what do they need? For example, could you serve them and your company better by offering more encouragement, more information, or more frequent updates? Also ask their advice, rather than implying you have all the answers, and discuss any concerns they may have with your past approach or output. And, voice your needs respectfully too, including how you best respond to feedback positively.
For new projects, make upfront agreements with your boss by talking beforehand, and setting out parameters about how you will work together to meet their needs. This includes clarifying their expectations of you, and what communication they need from you (format and regularity). Try to come to mutual agreement about how best to move forward, offering suggestions or choices of possible approaches, so that the manager still controls the decision. And, if possible, after a project, as part of regular discussions with your boss, ask about how the work was received by others, and what future improvements could be made to better deliver what they want.
Remember that handling challenging situations with professionalism is an important area for all of us, and will improve our experiences at work. Managing up is a skill too – as Lacy says "when you deal with difficult people and manage up, you are highly promotable".
Signs you might be micromanaging your team
Having explored suggestions for employees who feel they are being micromanaged above, we now turn to consider things from the manager’s perspective by indicating potential signs that a manager might be applying excessive oversight. These signs include:
Tips for managers worried you may be micromanaging
If some of the signs above remind you of your management style (or feedback you’ve received from your team members previously), here are some suggestions which may help you to feel more comfortable letting go – a worthwhile skill to practise as it frees you to work on other things and aids succession planning too.
1) Before hiring a new team member, have a great idea of the skills, abilities and type of personality you want in the position you’re hiring for – “hire slow and fire fast” (if it’s not working out)
2) During the interview process, let candidates know about the environment they’d be coming into, including your management style, and ask them for examples of how they’ve handled similar situations in the past
3) Give new hires good training and orientation so that they have the skills you need, and know the standards expected by your organisation
4) Assess the skills of each person in your team, so that you know who you can trust with what, and expect that your employees will succeed if they have the right tools
5) Tell your staff what you need done and the timelines they must meet (i.e. set expectations), but not how to achieve it (i.e. don’t smother them with too much information, for example)
6) Relax, be patient, and give your team space – these will help you to lead through others
7) Check-in (perhaps in an informal way) to monitor high-level progress, ask questions, actively listen and offer support, depending on what each employee needs – this also helps your staff to learn and grow i.e. approach the conversations from a developmental perspective
8) Give all your team regular feedback in a constructive way, celebrate the good things and help your employees to feel like you are on their side
9) Establish professional relationships with your team to build trust, depending on how they prefer to engage
10) Review what’s worked well (both for you and each team member), and what hasn’t, with a view to improving next time
Successful managers find the right balance between empowering their people and staying aware of what everyone is doing. This balance is specific to each individual, as well as specific to the situation, so adjusting your approach as a manager is crucial.
Confessions of a Recovering Micromanager
And, to conclude, here is the TED talk – it’s an amusing take on micromanagement from Chieh Huang (CEO of boxed.com), including his entrepreneurial journey, and his personal progression up the levels of management at the company he co-founded.
I don't have the CEO thing down 100% pat, but I've actually learned the most fundamentally challenging lesson I've ever had to learn, and that's this: There is only one solution to micromanagement … and that's to trust.“