Do you want to get all the value your people can generate while still having time for your own responsibilities? Or would you rather micromanage your people by day and work late nights to get your own work done? Sadly, the latter scenario is where many managers find themselves. It doesn’t have to be like that, though. Why do we tend to micromanage, what’s wrong with it, and what might work better?
The popular “gunslinger” image is a pitfall for managers. North American business culture often falls prey to American cultural myths. One significant myth is the notion that “the gunslinger won the wild West.”. This notion helps sustain the mistaken idea that the manager is a “lone ranger” who was promoted because she or he knows more than anyone else in the organization, but this idea is simply wrong. In reality the West was won by communities of farmers (teams) who worked together to create the infrastructure they needed, and who respected the knowledge and contributions of their peers. Gunslingers, while great fodder for Hollywood movies and TV shows, were quite rare and usually met violent ends at a young age without contributing much of value to society. Accordingly, like the farmers and merchants who settled the American West, the most successful managers build teams of loyal, motivated, expert employees who feel valued and enjoy their work and collaboration with their colleagues. The smart manager doesn’t try to be “the expert” – that’s what their employees are for – and doesn’t try to be the “gunslinger”, but rather the visionary leader and enabler of the community of employees around them and on their team. Group decisions, with everyone contributing their best without fear of criticism, are far better than those of a manager, feeling pressured to be “in charge”, going it alone.
Micromanaging behaviors arise from natural human tendencies. It is natural, as a manager, to want to understand all the details involved in the work you’re responsible for, and to want to contribute positively. If you tend to be a bit insecure it will be harder to be a good manager as you will need to monitor yourself and make sure your insecurities don’t cause you to do and say things that will weaken your team. For example, Insecurity may make you want to take over decisions your subordinates should be making, which will undermine their sense of value to the team and cause you many other problems that may not be obvious at first. Insecurity may make you want to know and control everything in detail, even though this may not be achievable and will likely lead to frustration and burnout.
Why don’t more managers have good “people skills”? Many managers have been promoted from the ranks of engineers based on doing exceptional technical work, but this does not indicate management skill or potential, nor does it prepare them to constantly interact with people and organizations. Many engineers pursued that career because it required them to deal less with people and more with technical details, which are much more straight-forward and easy to cope with. The difficulty of handling the less familiar and much-tougher people-related issues as a manager may drive them into feelings of insecurity that will foster micromanaging behaviors.
A company culture can perpetuate bad choices by management. Of course, superiors who don’t understand these issues will promote the successful engineer into management, the only feasible path of advancement in most companies, with the result that the new manager will be uncomfortable and will make mistakes. As job stresses build they may intensify their efforts to maintain control and make themselves feel more secure, diving deeper and deeper into the details, soaking up more and more of their time in what is essentially trivia inappropriate for their position, leaving themselves open to making more mistakes and greatly reducing the productivity of their subordinates in the process. Unable to move back into a “technical track” job where he or she would be happier, a manager may feel trapped, poorly prepared for their supervisory role, and unsupported by their superiors and the organization in general. None of this makes them a better manager.
Misunderstanding the manager’s role causes problems. The natural response of the new manager is to believe that they are the “hired gunslinger” or “general” who will direct the actions of the team and “lead them to victory”. Any feeling of insecurity, which is natural especially at the start of a new job, can lead them to dive too deeply into detail and begin micromanaging their business, with negative consequences.
So what is the alternative? Contrast these “knee jerk” behaviors with the more positive concept of the manager as an enabler and “log jam breaker”, who provides big picture input, leadership, organizational guidance, management support, and key decision-making and tie breaking roles that free subordinates to contribute more fully and evolve strong relationships.
What goes wrong when a manager micromanages their staff? If you get too involved in the day-to-day details, and especially if you start making decisions that would otherwise belong to subordinates, a number of bad things will happen. (This list is not exhaustive, but cites some important points.)
- (1) You will lose the support of team members because when you make their decisions for them they will perceive you don’t value them. In time they will be more and more ready to jump ship to a competitor organization, and you will have higher turnover, training costs, increased mistakes, and more difficulty maintaining a smoothly functioning team.
- (2) Worse yet, if you feel you can’t trust some - or even one - of your subordinates, and get in the habit of directing their actions in minute detail, you will lose not just their support, but the support of others on the team. You will be perceived as an ineffective manager and your other subordinates will learn to avoid you lest you start to take over their work, too, thus cutting off essential communication you need to be effective. As an alternative, try helping those employees who are struggling identify what training or guidance they need to do better, or help them find a different position in the company for which they are better suited and where they will be happier and more productive. Helping, but at a management level, is an essential part of a smart manager’s job.
- (3) You will spend far too much of your time on minutia and may lose sight of more important strategic issues. This can lead you to make mistakes more likely to be visible to your superiors. It is better to understand the level of detail you need to manage, let the experts who work for you deal with the details for which they were hired, and let them help you better understand the details at your level of responsibility so you can make better decisions. In a collaborative situation you will all do better and appear smarter to superiors.
- (4) As subordinates avoid you, or don’t speak up because you are dominating decision-making at their level, you lose their input and fail to learn important facts that might enable better decisions, making you more prone to serious mistakes. Just saying you have an “open door” does little unless you respect the expertise of your people and give them real help to do better when they come to you.
- (5) By making decisions for your subordinates, you will make them dependent on you for decisions that rightfully belong to them, greatly increasing the amount of communications and meetings you will have to handle, and expanding the time required to do your job. Many a manager has found themselves working 50 to 100% overtime to cope with the flood of emails and meetings in which they will essentially do their subordinates work for them. Being overwhelmed is a clear sign that the job is out of balance and needs a reassessment of what actually needs to be done by you versus what can be delegated to capable subordinates. Effective delegation improves organizational efficiency as well as the empowerment of subordinates to do their best work.
- (6) You will need to spend far more time at work as you do both the work of subordinates and your own work. This will give you less personal time, you will miss restorative aspects of a home life, and your family may become unhappy with you and more distant. Consistently long work hours and too much absence from the home have precipitated many a divorce.
- (7) If you have children they may resent your absence from their lives, and may become difficult to deal with. They will also get the wrong impression of what a manager’s job is, leading them to quite possibly repeat your mistakes in their adult lives. Your absence can precipitate behavioral problems and poor school performance, besides setting a bad example of how adults live. Don’t lose your perspective. Your family will still be there long after this job is just a memory, and your priorities should reflect that.
Understand the meaning of failure. Failure is not a bad thing if it is regarded and managed appropriately. Humans learn a lot more from failure than success, but when failure creates a negative stigma people will avoid the pain by forgetting what they learned, making the same failure possible again. When failure is understood as the ideal learning opportunity and the details are saved, analyzed, and used to generate improvements, the organization can move ahead much more quickly than consistently successful competitors. It has been said that it is better to actually try to fail, often and fast, rather than succeed, as long as you maximize the opportunities for learning, and that this will eventually lead to a greater success than might have been achieved otherwise, both through smarter employees and through lasting improvements in the organization and the way it functions. Thus, the avoidance of micromanaging, the adoption of constructive attitudes about failure, and the focus on improvement of people, processes, and products can yield great and lasting benefits to the organization.
Micromanaging can hurt you, your subordinates, your family, and your employer. If you micromanage employees you will fail to delegate effectively and suffer the consequences in lost productivity from yourself and your teams, needless stress, and possibly the perception by your superiors that you are an ineffective manager. Avoid micromanagement by accepting (and repeating to yourself periodically) that your responsibility as a manager is to (1) enable your subordinates to grow and do their best work, (2) break log jams that block their progress, and (3) provide information from upper management, competitors, and other sources outside the team that can help them optimize their results. Your trust of your subordinates and the positive handling of your responsibilities will establish you as a savvy manager, and the results of your organization will be consistently more positive than those of managers who micromanage. You will have a better work and home life as well, and so will your subordinates, while the results of your team’s work will be optimized. In short, you will achieve success that would be impossible in a micromanagement scenario.
As always, I welcome your comments. I freely admit to having much to learn. Thanks for reading. — Tim