There is a time and place for micromanaging. During significant change, like when a new leader or manager steps in, a direct report is new to a job, or when a big new initiative is being implemented, some level of micromanagement is often necessary. Managers and leaders are responsible for things like level-setting, compliance, efficiency, and just a basic understanding of what everyone does and how they’re doing it. When things are shifting or leaders are trying to get up to speed, a certain degree of micromanaging is warranted. Yes, this is often pretty annoying, but it does not have to be a horrible experience.
Communication is key here. Leaders must be absolutely clear with their direct reports about why they are scrutinizing their work so meticulously, and further that this will not be the longterm practice. Keep the dialogue open and be sympathetic to their frustrations. People will frequently make more mistakes when they feel like someone is always looking over their shoulder. (Have you ever tried typing while someone is looking at your monitor?)
Having said that, micromanaging can go awry. Chronic micromanagers have a hard time letting go. It makes them feel too vulnerable. They might feel like it is their responsibility to have complete control over a broad and expanding scope or work, and ensure that no mistakes are made. Ever!
If you don’t trust anyone and everyone around you seems to be inept, the common denominator just might be you. Maybe you’re the problem.
A couple things to keep in mind here if you think you might be a chronic micromanager. First, check your ego. You ain’t that special. You don’t get to own everyone’s job even if you are their supervisor. If you don’t trust anyone and everyone around you seems to be inept, the common denominator just might be you. Maybe you’re the problem.
Second, be more tolerant of risk. Allowing people to fail when the stakes are not critical is vitally important to running a healthy organization. It’s how people learn, grow, and innovate. It’s up to effective leaders to create that environment, and letting go is the first step. Empower other people by giving them ownership of what they do.
There is a more nefarious side to micromanagement as well. There are some people who micromanage because they are empowered by watching their direct reports grow increasingly confused and debilitated over time. The more incompetence they can expose in other people, the more exalted they feel. To the less astute those micromanagers (let’s call them abusive micromanagers) can even appear to be quite impressive. Their supervisors and peers may listen to the abusive micromanager’s litany of frustrations and make the assumption that this person must be highly valuable to be able to carry the weight of so much incompetence on her shoulders. Abusive micromanagers will feed off this attention. It makes them feel like they have more power. And in fact they do. They rob otherwise capable people of their power by picking apart everything they do. The modus operandi here is to obsessively point out when someone else does something wrong, but give no direction on how to do it right or direction that is bewildering or absurd.
It is not too much to say that for some, being micromanaged, justified or not, can be traumatizing.
Being micromanaged can feel like your autonomy is being taken away and your competence questioned. People will feel patronized, belittled, and disrespected. They report feeling acute anxiety and high levels of stress, sometimes to a debilitating degree. This can be particularly true for people who have worked very hard over a number of years to establish themselves as respected experts and professionals in their field. Because these people are good at what they do, but they’re getting feedback that contradicts what they know about themselves to be true, it creates a cognitive dissonance that is crippling. This understandably starts to affect the quality of their work, which in turn supplies the abusive micromanager with real evidence of poor performance. From there it’s just a rapid downward spiral.
It is not too much to say that for some, being micromanaged, justified or not, can be traumatizing. For this reason, when the issue arises within any organization, it should be taken very seriously. Have an open and frank discussion. Consider hiring a trained mediator. Get the chronic micromanager a coach immediately. You can try to develop abusive micromanagers out of the practice, but chances are that person is a narcissist, in which case your best move is to off-board him ASAP.
If you are on the receiving end of that abusive relationship, you already know what you have to do. Hopefully you have resources and a mechanism for reporting abusive behavior and receiving counseling, but first and foremost, you need to start taking steps to get the hell out. Abusive micromanagement is insidious. It’s not like a physical attack that organizations recognize as clear grounds for dismissal. If someone does actually take action to help you, it could mean a prolonged investigation or review of misconduct, which means you may have to suffer through even more abuse as everyone else tries to figure this thing out. Of course a lot of people are in situations where finding another job is a lot easier said than done, but do what you can to take control of the situation. Don’t forget that you do indeed have power. Move on. Do good where they recognize your value and appreciate your contributions.