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Micromanagement

Micromanagement is the act of giving excessive instructions to employees. It tends to reduce the effectiveness of an organization for a variety of reasons.

  1. If a manager is micromanaging an employee, he is not doing his own work, limiting his effectiveness.
  2. If a manager micromanages, her employees will be reluctant to take on challenges. They will fear reprimands if they do not do things exactly the way the boss would do it.
  3. Employees tend to have lower job satisfaction when they are not in control of their work. And this lack of control can lead to health issues, as determined by a University of Texas study (Men’s Health, April 2008).
  4. Lead times to make decisions get longer, as employees need their manager’s approval before taking action.

Micromanagement has, deservedly, a bad reputation. It saps productivity and goodwill from an organization, and shows in a variety of ways to customers.

Dissatisfied employees have a hard time hiding their feelings from customers. Processes take much longer when managers have to be involved in every decision. Improvements gets slower because the collective wisdom of all the employees is not properly tapped.

So why do managers micromanage? The biggest reason is poor processes. There is no consistent way to accomplish work, so managers inject themselves into the (poorly defined) process to make sure the results are what they want.

Another big reason is poor training, specifically on problem solving. Because managers never give their team members an opportunity to learn, employees are not highly skilled at implementing permanent solutions to problems.

And of course there are simply managers who have personalities that make it hard for them to give up the reins of their organization.

In the first two cases, the solutions are fairly obvious. Improve the process so managers do not have to be involved in day-to-day operations, and train employees so that they can make good decisions on their own.

The third situation is more challenging. Most managers are not able to make personality changes without a little push. That nudge normally comes from a more senior manager who continues to raise the bar higher and higher until the junior manager has no choice but to learn to delegate.

Micromanagement is a topic that is particularly relevant in a continuous improvement oriented company. Making fast gains requires the efforts of the entire organization. If a manager is micromanaging, he or she becomes a bottleneck to progress. Employees become afraid to make the small, incremental changes that are the lifeblood of continuous improvement. They have to wait for their manager’s involvement, and that manager’s availability is likely limited. Gains slow to a trickle. 

There’s one very important point to make about micromanagement: It is in the eyes of the beholder.

There is often a very gray area between proactive, hands-on management styles and micromanagement. When there is a poor working environment and strained relationships between employees and leaders, a great many more interactions will be perceived as micromanagement.

Be careful about labeling something either way if you are one of the people involved in either side of the management. You will likely be biased. Outside observers are generally more fair in their evaluation of whether the leadership style is appropriate or not.

Another thing to watch out for is managers who feel they need to treat everyone the same. Leaders should match the level of oversight they give to the particular skills and character of their employees. They should not scrutinize the work of top performers just to appear that they are treating everyone equally. The equality comes in providing the opportunity for employees to earn a lot of leeway, not in having a blanket approach to granting it.

A good strategy for minimizing the amount of micromanagement you experience is to make ample use of a tool called the brief back. Basically, that just means instead of saying “got it” when your boss gives you an instruction, you repeat back the essence of what you understood the task to be. “So, you are asking me to…”

Also ask for the definition of success. If you know exactly how your boss is going to be evaluating your task, you will be much more likely to be able to deliver to the expected standard. You also have the opportunity to negotiate that standard when you actually know what it is.

These actions will give your manager more confidence that the job is going to meet his or her expectations. She will likely be less demanding in getting status updates or in making you do things her way.

You face a tough challenge. In a continuous improvement environment, you retain all of the responsibility for making improvements, but you simply do not have the time to do them all on your own.

You have to rely on your team. And that means granting them authority. Being responsible for people’s actions can be daunting for some people. They have trouble trusting those individuals to do things correctly.

But the job of the manager is not to do things correctly. It is to get other people to do things correctly. And that means you have to define what “correctly” actually is, create (or delegate the creation of) a process that is capable of doing things correctly, and then train individuals to follow the process. It takes a lot of effort to do all those things, and while you are working in those, daily tasks are not being done.

One way to reduce the amount of work it takes is to develop a continuous improvement management system. The more you can structure your leadership job, the easier it will be to get great results.

  • Micromanagement is harmful to an organization and to the health of an individual.
  • Micromanagement is on a sliding scale, and butts up against “proactive, hands-on leadership.”
  • Micromanagement is in the eyes of the beholder.

 

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2 Comments

  • Jeff,

    Great post! This reminds me of one of the lessons I learned back in college while training to become a US Naval Officer. There was a picture in my reading assignment which showed a shipboard Officer physically doing a task that one of his men should have been doing. The caption read “Who is doing his job?” That stuck with me for 30 years now.

    I have been most effective when working for a manager who knew when to give some guidance without going too far. I have been least effective v. my potential while being micro-managed.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Chris

    • Jeff Hajek says:

      Christian,

      I didn’t realize you were Navy. I’ll try not to hold that against you….

      Micromanagement really is a balancing act. Both too much guidance and too little result in lower morale and poor results.

      Thanks for the comments.
      Jeff

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