Personal Consulting and Coaching

The “Micro-Managing” Accusation

“When am I guilty of micro-managing? What’s a reasonable way to sort that out?” I’ve been asked that one many times by managers who aren’t sure whether they’re coming on too strong, or not coming on strongly enough. Often what’s going on at the time that question is being posed is that a manager has had some sort of run-in with an employee, the term “micro-managing” has been tossed into the discussion, and the manager isn’t quite sure how to react.

All the textbooks say micro-managing isn’t good – that it impedes employee initiative, generates resentment, and indicates a “controlling” temperament. And, as far as it goes, that’s right. In a healthy environment, with an even distribution of reasonable people, micro-managing is both unnecessary and disrespectful. It can actually reduce employee productivity.

The problem is that in the real world it tends to overlook, or at least sidestep, the issue of accountability. In many workplaces, the key quality that makes someone a manager is his or her willingness to step up and take responsibility for the satisfactory completion of the work product. Since these managers know that their own job performance is being closely monitored, the motivation is huge to be right on top of real and imagined problems – in fact, failure to anticipate and act on “preventable” situations is one of the main reasons managers lose their jobs.

Which is why many have learned from bitter experience to be vigilant, and lock onto potential problems early and often. And that takes us back to the beginning. What’s a reasonable level of checking in and monitoring, when does it morph into micro-managing – and who decides?

If, where you’re working, the workplace culture isn’t essentially healthy, the sad truth is you’re on your own – sorry – which then means it boils down to trial and error, and the hope that a huge “error” doesn’t occur before enough “trials” allow the manager to scope out and adapt to what’s really true – how surreal it gets – when the buck stops in that workplace.

But I should also add that sincerely not wanting to be a micromanager really does help it not happen. Reasonable vigilance, making sure to be aware of reactions employees have when being corrected or re-directed, usually results in minimizing that problem you’d rather not have.

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3 Responses

  1. Sometimes I think micromanaging, in the sense of close, directive supervision, is appropriate. It’s the right thing to do if you have a worker who is unable to do the work. That’s the case for most new hires. And sometimes “micromanaging” is actually a form of discipline where the supervisor follows up closely because a competent team member has shown that he or she is unwilling to do the work correctly.

  2. Hi Shaun,

    I wanted to get to this a little more quickly than today, but getting our last off to school (the key word is “launch”) proved more difficult than anticipated. McGoldrick & Carter notwithstanding, neither Joanna nor I are experiencing “empty nest syndrome.” Did you ever see “Failure to Launch?”

    Regarding manangement and micromanagement, managers are needed and so, darn it all, is a little micromanagement sometimes. The problem, of course, comes in when we confuse management, and even micromanatement, with leadership. The world is, I think, overrun with anxious micromanagers and, sadly, leadership deficient.

    You’re right, however. The unwillingness to be competent demands micromanagement, and, sadly, vice versa.

    By the way, I like your blog. Is a newsletter in somewhere in our future?

  3. I never did see “Failure to Launch.” I take it you give it a thumbs up.

    Parenting, of course, can SOMETIMES be like “managing” – but it’s also a world unto itself.

    Micromanaging used to be an epithet, and I’m being slightly skeptical about how easily the phrase gets tossed around.

    The point about micromanaging that is true, of course, is that there ARE control freaks, and people who assert dominance over others through their managerial status.

    When added to the idea that good managers delegate to competent people, and that even micromanagers by “temperament” learn they have bigger fish to fry, it adds up to a workplace ethos generally opposed to micromanaging.

    But you’re right, many employees need close supervision and attention to detail – until they get it right. That’s not a power trip, it’s not opression – it’s honesty about what reality requires.

    Thanks for posting, Rick.


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