The Cure for Micromanaging

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Almost every complaint I’ve heard about a boss references some form of micromanagement in which employees are told exactly what to do and/or how to do it. At best, this turns out to be irritating, and at worst the boss is giving bad instructions that will lead to disaster. The latter is typically worse because it forces the employee to choose between appearing incompetent and being insubordinate — anyone in that position will be looking for a new job one way or another. The question is why people micromanage, and there are several key reasons for it (each of which also contains a solution).

Managers Never Learn to Manage

The solution to this one is giving managers training both in coordination and in understanding strengths and how they are utilized. Most importantly, however, training for this sort of manager is not just a one-day or one-week class, but also ongoing coaching from an internal or external source who can check in and help the manager apply the results of the workshops (s)he attended. After all, this is the acquisition of a new set of habits, and that requires reinforcement over a period of time.

Pressure from “On High”

In these cases, the solution is usually finding the source of the high pressure and doing either leadership coaching or a cultural overhaul, but neither one of those is a simple process because the fear of the higher-ups is usually rooted in some kind of rational concern that got blown out of proportion. If the company isn’t prepared to get some serious help, it’s going to lose its talent and sink afterwards. If no assistance is on the way, those who are low on the totem pole should get out of there unless middle managers can find a way to run interference that shields their teams from the freak-outs on high. Running interference is risky, however, and usually takes a manager with nerves of steel and a golden tongue that gets higher management to accept the [presumably] good stuff being provided.

Me, Me, Me

The trick to solving this one is to look at the incentives being provided to the manager and the team, because this situation tends to reflect an incentive system that rewards the manager for being a star performer and doesn’t even consider the efforts of the team. The fix is to reward the manager for good coordination and resource provision, and making sure that the team that does the work actually gets credit and rewards. There is almost always more than enough credit, praise, and bonus compensation (as relevant) to be shared among the relevant stakeholders, and giving everyone a dollop is easily doable and puts everyone in the same boat.

Reframing the Role of a Manager

When managers feel like they cannot trust their employees to deliver good work by the deadlines, then it’s time to fix the hiring process (a post for another time). In the interim, companies with micromanagement problems (nearly every company with 30+ employees I’ve encountered to date) should be looking at management training, incentive structures, and a clear conception of the coordinating role that managers play. By doing this, businesses will enable employees to actually use their full skillsets to do what they were hired to do, which beats paying employees to be robots.

Self-actualization engineer who makes workplaces great places to work. PI at Quality of Life Lab (www.qllab.org). Consultant. Professor. Startup Advisor.

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