Last year I wrote about why people micromanage. That post triggered over 100 comments, stories, and suggestions – many of them relating experiences on the receiving end of micromanagement. What was striking was that only two readers actually admitted to being micromanagers themselves. One said:
“I have been micromanaged and guess what? When I rose through the ranks I did the same. It’s difficult to admit to yourself. I believe it’s a part of the learning process.”
The other reader noted:
“I am one of those control freaks you are talking about. I know I am doing it, but sometimes being like that has made me aware of some nasty situations before they turned into disasters. I can imagine that I am a complete nightmare to work for.”
This disparity reinforces the curious paradox that I mentioned in the earlier post: While many people complain about being micromanaged, very few think of themselves as micromanagers. But if nobody is a micromanager, then who is doing all the micromanaging?
The answer is that it’s all of us (or at least many of us). Let me share a personal confession: When I first started to manage other consultants, I always worried that they would not perform to my standards. To ease my anxiety, I insisted that they get my approval for any communication that went to the client, whether it was an email, meeting notes, or a presentation. I also asked them to rehearse meetings in advance and check in with me after any contact with the client. In my own mind, these demands ensured quality control and educated less-experienced consultants. And while this was partly true, in retrospect much of what I did was unnecessary and probably perceived as micromanaging.
It would be comforting to say that I’ve matured – and indeed I’ve become much better at giving associates more headroom. But the reality is that these early patterns never go away completely. Just recently one of our newer consultants took on an assignment with a long-standing client – and despite knowing that he’s experienced and capable, I found myself constantly asking him to report on his progress. While my anxiety was reduced, I actually added little value in the end.
The point is that all managers fall into these patterns at some point – often driven by anxiety and insecurity, either from lack of subject matter knowledge, inadequate training, or insufficient experience. In addition, the people they manage all have different skills, abilities, and experiences – and need varying degrees and types of attention. These people also have different expectations about what they want from a manager, so helpful support to one person could easily be perceived as controlling micromanagement to another.
Unfortunately, most of these patterns are invisible to us. Even when we are aware of them, certain situations (like the new consultant in my case) can trigger them anyway. At the same time, none of us like to think of ourselves as micromanagers. So we rationalize the behavior (as I did) and continue to do what is most comfortable. It’s a vicious cycle: Our anxiety drives us to behave unproductively, and the preservation of our self-image gives us justification to do it again. So that’s why many people believe that they work for micromanagers, but few people think that they are micromanagers themselves.
It is possible to tone down this vicious cycle and make it less dysfunctional. The starting point is to admit to yourself that there is a possibility – even a slim one – that some of your subordinates view you as a micromanager. If you accept that notion, then ask your people to give you some feedback: Are there controls that you could loosen? Are there “checking” activities that you could stop doing? Are there different ways that you could stay on top of things without getting into unnecessary details? You might be surprised by the answers. And if you follow through on your team’s suggestions, not only will it help you to grow as a manager, but you will also give them the confidence to speak up about additional patterns.
Let’s face it: Most of us micromanage in some way, at least in the eyes of our people. So stand in front of a mirror, raise your hand and say: “My name is ___, and I’m a micromanager.” Then let me know what happens.
Ron Ashkenas' blog post on Forbes. Join the discussion.