Micromanagement: Why it’s so easy to slip into.
Updated: Mar 6
I cannot stand being micromanaged. It riles me. I have had to take many a long walk outside in the fresh air to regain composure and the use of my prefrontal cortex following the impacts of micromanagement behaviour. Even now, writing this article I can feel the associated emotions as I remember different experiences. But I’ve done it to others, too.
Micromanagement is generally regarded as a management style that has a negative impact on team and individuals. It exists beyond the realm of training where one person tells, demonstrates and supervises the conduct of a new activity or skill. Micromanagement is the excessive involvement, observation and control over the conduct of activities. And it pisses people off.
The impacts to people exposed to micromanagement behaviours can be severe. Some examples include: feeling untrusted or undervalued; frustrated that their competence is not being recognised; or anger at the absence of autonomy to conduct work and make decisions for themselves.
Why does it happen?
Managers may slip into micromanaging their teams or individuals simply because they don’t trust them. They might have no confidence that their people will complete tasks in accordance with their expectations (often it is 'their expectations' that are the issue). Sometimes managers may just not care what skills their team members have. They only see themselves as the all-knowing experts. They seem to think that if they aren’t involved the world will end. But then sometimes, managers might just be trying to help and are oblivious to the negative impact they are having.
One of my managers fell into this last category. I had joined a well-established team of people who had relatively consistent backgrounds, education and experiences. I was coming in from a different background and range of experiences. My new manager was pro-active in ensuring that my transition was as comfortable as possible… to the extent that my autonomy was taken away.
We met regularly to discuss activities. All processes and names of stakeholders were shared in detail. Lots of suggestions and input were given. Then emails were answered on my behalf and innocuous decisions made. As workloads increased more meetings were scheduled to maintain support, and help was given regardless if it was needed or not. My role was a well paid senior role with what was becoming apprentice level responsibilities. I began to wonder what time was left for the manager’s own responsibilities.
It is so easy to slip into.
I realised that I too had been guilty of these behaviours before. In our quest to help others and be supportive, we can become excessively involved in the activities of our team members. Additionally, with our positions of authoritative power as managers, team members may not be willing or confident to speak up and give us some much needed feedback on the situation. Our involvement leads us to taking over control.
Other causes for us to fall into micromanagement behaviours may also stem from guilt, boredom or lack of competence. We may feel guilty that we’re not contributing to the ‘hands-on’ work anymore and our involvement removes this cognitive dissonance. Boredom or lack of stimulation in our managerial roles may also lead us to excessive involvement or observation of activities. Or sometimes, we are just not competent at leading people.
Trying to manage a team without developed leadership behaviours can make micromanagers of us all. Not knowing how to engage teams and what practices to apply in different situations can be scary for managers. It is a threat - and so we react to solve it with the most immediate option: get involved and take control of tangible things (and piss people off along the way).
So how can we avoid slipping into micromanaging behaviours?
While there are various factors that can easily lead to micromanagement behaviours, it is still not excusable for leaders. Micromanagement can make people feel untrusted, undervalued, unrecognised, frustrated and angry. How can any individual or team perform in such an environment? If we want to identify and avoid this type of behaviour, there are a couple of small actions we can take: pay attention to and monitor it, and ask for feedback.
Cultivating awareness of the potential for micromanagement is the first step. With this in mind, we can form an intention to monitor our own behaviours. When we do this, we will start asking ourselves questions, such as: Am I getting too involved? Have I taken control away from someone? Do I not trust the team? Once we identify an unwanted behaviour we can do something about it.
Secondly, when we’re feeling brave, we can ask people for specific feedback. Depending on the level of trust and relationship with them, you might ask directly, “Do you feel micromanaged by me?” Different approaches may be, “Are you comfortable with the level of autonomy or would you prefer more?” or, “What level of involvement from me would suit you best?”
Micromanagement doesn’t help anyone. It takes time away from you when you could be leading instead. And it takes trust, control and autonomy away from people who could be thriving and taking the organisation further. We can do everyone a favour and make sure we’re not blind to our own micromanagement behaviours.