Micromanagement: Understanding and Reforming

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A manager looking sternly into camera while at the office standing up

First rule of management: everything is your fault.

It’s a specific type of leadership, involving keeping track of your team members’ work, monitoring their progress, and taking responsibility for their successes and weaknesses. 

When done well, management can be an incredibly rewarding job resulting in a lot of successful projects and a feeling of support among your colleagues. Whether you’re involved in handling business processes, or focused on one specialist area, there are lots of different ways to be a good manager. 

However, poor management can cause problems of its own. One of the most common types of poor management is micromanagement. Let’s take a deep dive into the concept of micromanagement, the potential benefits and pitfalls, and the signs of micromanagement. 

What is micromanagement?

Micromanagement is a management style in which managers very closely monitor and control their team’s work. Some common examples of how this is done include:

  • Persistent and unsolicited reminders about small tasks
  • Ignoring teammates’ ideas in favor of their own
  • Being unwilling to allow creative control on employees’ projects
  • Refusing to delegate tasks – or, when they have delegated, demanding overly-detailed updates
  • Insisting on knowing what their team are doing at all times

Micromanagement is a word with many negative connotations in work environments, largely because it can imply a lack of trust in employees’ work and may interrupt their workflow, ultimately damaging productivity. Conversely, leadership is one of the in-demand important skills in the workplace, so knowing how to properly manage your colleagues and build trust is vital to your team’s success. 

 

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However, despite its reputation, micromanagement can be an effective management style – you just need to make sure to do it right.

Why do people micromanage?

Managers may micromanage their team for a number of reasons. These reasons can seem frustrating to some team members. After all, having a micromanaging boss can, from an employee’s perspective, can result in insecurities about their working capabilities. 

However, there are perfectly good reasons why people might micromanage. These reasons include:

  • Past experience: if a past project has gone badly due to another team member or failure on your manager’s part, they may micromanage to avoid repeating this. 
  • Pressure: your manager may respond to pressure from their managers by micromanaging you and ensuring that your projects get completed to the required standards. 
  • Encouragement: managers may see close management as showing encouragement to their team, particularly if their team members are young or new. 
  • Nerves: new managers may worry that they aren’t supporting their team enough, and so may manage too heavily to make up for this. 
  • Response to criticism: if your manager has received criticism in the past, perhaps that they’re too aloof as a manager, they may respond by going to the other extreme and micromanaging. 
  • Being hands-on: micromanagement may be a way for your manager to demonstrate that they care about the team and how the work gets done. 

Micromanaging can cause friction within a team. Micromanagers may be seen as untrusting or control freaks. To overcome this friction, it’s important for team members to understand why people micromanage, as well as the potential benefits. 

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9 typical signs of micromanagement

1. Asking to be included in all emails

Emails contain a lot of vital workplace information and are a quick way of receiving it. Managers may ask to be included on all communications, despite it not being relevant to their work or project. 

While this doesn’t tend to take up much time, it can cause employees to feel that they aren’t trusted, as well as clogging up the manager’s inbox.

2. Giving complex instructions

Micromanagers may give unnecessarily complex instructions for a simple task. They may also add in their own instructions that aren’t vital to completing the task. 

For example, a sales manager might have found their techniques to have worked best in the past for bringing in leads, but a new team member might not feel the same. In fact, trying to follow their managers’ techniques might cause them to do a lot worse than using their own tactics. 

While there are some areas where a set process is key, for many tasks (such as bringing in leads!) it’s far better to allow your team to work in the ways they’re most adept at. In order to share that knowledge, it’s worth keeping a template library – it ensures techniques that are required due to compliance issues are followed, while providing general guidance for those where it’s less important.

3. Asking for updates constantly

Asking for frequent updates is not always micromanaging, but it’s definitely one of the signs. 

For example, a crucial project with small but complex steps may warrant frequent updates, particularly if the employee or process is new. 

But, on smaller projects or with very experienced colleagues, constant updates can take away valuable working time and lead to a feeling of distrust in the workplace. Plus, it can lead to email overload – a huge cause of stress! Not to mention, important communication is likely to be lost amid the noise.

4. Working on task that is not assigned to you

Managers have work assigned to them, as they do for everyone in their team. If they’re working on tasks that haven’t been assigned to them, they may feel that they could do it best or that it won’t get done if they don’t do it. 

This can be damaging to trust in the workplace as team members might feel that their manager or colleague think that they will not complete the work to a high enough standard. 

5. Not allowing team members to take initiative

Initiative, particularly in certain industries, is crucial to making new developments. It can be a real decider for staff retention rates, whether they’re allowed to take initiative or not. 

When a manager doesn’t allow staff to take initiative, they may be preventing a working process from being optimized. 

6. Fixating on unnecessary details

Fixating on minor details can be a sign of micromanagement. This may include something as small as the font size or type in a document. 

Fixating is a sign that they may be anxious about the project and wanting it to be perfect. While this is clearly a positive aim, this can cause time wasting, unnecessary stress for the team and also set an unattainable precedent for the next project. 

7. Every task needs confirmation

Psychological safety is vital in the workplace. This means that coworkers feel mentally and emotionally safe to do their work.  Places where this often falls down is managers demonstrating a lack of trust in their colleagues’ understanding of working processes.

This can be demonstrated through constant asking for confirmation, even for tasks that are inconsequential or a regular part of a person’s job. 

For example, if you’re in a marketing team, this might entail your manager asking for the go-ahead before you execute any part of your strategy. If you’ve designed an email marketing campaign, your manager might need to approve every small detail and the whole campaign before anything is sent out, even if you’re experienced and have done similar successful campaigns before.  

8. Not delegating tasks

Managers may avoid delegating tasks that can affect the outcome of a project in any way, as a way of feeling in control of the work.

Pros and cons of micromanagement

The effects of micromanagement largely depend on the extent to which a manager uses this style and how their team members respond to it. Like every leadership style, micromanagement has both pros and cons which can affect the working environment and team performance. 

Advantages

There are a number of advantages to a micromanagement style of leadership. If done correctly, it can show encouragement and commitment to a team’s work. 

Empathize with team members

Micromanagement can show that your manager has an in-depth understanding of your role and its requirements and is there to support you. This is particularly true for complex projects where a team may be feeling stressed or overwhelmed by their workload. 

Hands-on involvement

Similarly, micromanagement can show dedication to being involved with the project. There is a fine line between micromanagement and supportive management, but also between supportive and disinterested management. 

A micromanager may want to avoid seeming disinterested in their team’s projects. 

Bring out the best in your team

Friendly micromanagement often comes from a place of encouragement. A manager who closely monitors their team’s work may have noticed that their colleagues are capable of more than they are currently doing. 

If you do go for this style of management, be sure to approach this with caution and discuss your strategy with your colleagues. Be sure to vocalize their successes. Empower your colleagues to make their own decisions. 

Monitor crucial projects

Although mistakes happen, sometimes a project is just too crucial for a major mistake to occur. Managers often feel pressure at this time, as do teams, so micromanagement can be a good way of tracking these projects and identifying mistakes earlier in order to correct them.

Monitoring deliverables tightly  is a way of feeling in control of an important project, particularly if they are new at management roles. 

Optimize other departments

Micromanagement can contribute to increased efficiency. Sometimes, managers from other departments may come into your department to share new processes and ideas. 

They may monitor your work closely and leave little room for independence at this stage to make sure new processes are being taught correctly. 

Disadvantages

The disadvantages of micromanagement may seem obvious but it’s vital to understand why it might not work if you’re looking to stop micromanaging. 

Deteriorates motivation

Motivation is everything when working with a team on a project. Close monitoring doesn’t always decrease motivation, for example, when a manager notices small victories and offers praise to their team. 

However, constant monitoring can soon turn into constant criticism. This is clearly detrimental to motivation, if a team feels that they cannot do anything right. 

Always be positive if you’re going to micromanage a project, even when giving areas for improvements. 

Decreases productivity

Decreased motivation and time spent on giving feedback to managers often equals decreased productivity. 

This is simply because there is only so much time in the working day and taking away from this for anything other than new training will take away from productivity. 

Employees may also have to spend a lot of time changing things to suit their managers’ ideas, which also eats into their working time. 

Time-inefficient

Micromanagement can be very time-consuming. This is particularly true when you’re working in an experienced team that hasn’t given you reason to micromanage.

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For example, a graphic design team working on a new company logo has a new manager. The team has been in place for years and understands the brief well. A new manager comes in and spends half of their day watching their team, hovering over their shoulders, and checking with their supervisors about what the team is doing. 

As a result, they’re likely to fall behind on their own work as well as cause the team to slow down!

High expectations

Constant check-ins can create high expectations. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, team members may feel undue pressure from managers if they’re constantly being observed. 

This can lead to stress and anxiety in colleagues, which can then lead to poor working relationships, a fraught working environment and frequent absences. 

Improving your management style

Generally, micromanagement is not the best way to manage a team and get the best results, particularly in a team of seasoned professionals. These are some of the most effective ways of avoiding the downsides of micromanagement while still staying true to yourself and improving your management style

Accept failures

We all hate failures, but they’re a fact of life. We can’t be perfect at everything, but micromanagement often comes from a place of fear – fear of letting down colleagues, fear of failing or fear of not doing your best. 

impact of stress on the workforce data
These are all perfectly normal fears and can even be motivational. However, you need to learn to accept the occasional failure if you micromanage, which may allow you to take a step back and give your team the room they need to work. 

Concentrate on your role

While looking at the big picture is great – and often required of project managers – you need to try and focus on your own role. 

Not only is there a chance that your employees know their own position and responsibilities better than you, but you don’t want to end up neglecting your own work while monitoring others. 

Try to set a dedicated time each day or week to check in with your team if the project is really important or new so that you can build it into your working week. 

Only follow the set metrics

Projects have specific goals for a reason. If you’re following one set of metrics to track your results, stick to those metrics. 

Deviating from this and tracking new data as well as the old ones can cause work overload. It can also damage the quality of your work, as your goals will be too widely split between essentially two goals. 

Avoid being a perfectionist

This is easier said than done, but avoiding perfectionism where possible will help you to increase your own productivity and that of your team. Focus on the fundamentals and getting these right and then build from there. 

Mistakes are okay as long as you learn from them and strive to correct them. Perfectionists often can’t accept this, but worrying too much about small mistakes often comes at the cost of the overall project and its timeline. 

Emphasizing overviews instead in-depth process

This doesn’t mean completely forgetting about the technical side of work. What it means is that you should trust your team with their roles, particularly for short-term goals. 

They’re likely to have an understanding of their working processes that you might not, so try to focus on how the project looks overall, instead of what is being done day-to-day. 

Follow deadlines of projects

Team task management is all about seeing a project come together successfully. A key part of this is meeting the deadline. 

If you’re working on multiple projects at once, then these deadlines can become overwhelming. The temptation might be to micromanage a particularly difficult project closely, at the expense of smaller projects with closer deadlines. 

Try to complete work chronologically. Of course, there will be projects which are very large and involve a lot of steps, so you should try to keep these running in the background until other work has been completed. 

Delegate accordingly

One of the major problems with micromanagement is that it can lead to feelings of loss of control for colleagues and that they aren’t being trusted with decision making. 

Where you can, delegate a task in a project to someone in your team. This gives them the opportunity to learn new skills and it shows that you trust them. It’s also a great opportunity to teach yourself how to trust others. Start off with something small and build from there, maintaining constant and positive communication

Ask for feedback

Effective management comes from learning on the job, the same as for any technical process. Ask your team for feedback on your management style, both positive and negative thoughts. 

You can then use this feedback to improve. 

For example, if someone you supervise tells you that you micromanage, ask them to be specific. What is it that they feel constitutes micromanaging? How exactly is it affecting their work?

You can only avoid micromanaging if you understand exactly which behaviors are causing the issue. 

Consider your timing before helping

Are you interrupting a colleague at a crucial point in their project to offer assistance?

Even the most well-meaning of help can be badly received if it comes at an inconvenient or stressful time. While your colleagues should always try to refuse help politely, be aware of your timing. Sending over a quick, non-urgent email offering assistance if needed is likely to feel far less like micromanagement than standing near their desk as they try to complete an important task, for instance.

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Need to systemize your business and make growth easy?

How to handle micromanagement

Unless addressed, micromanagement can become a vicious cycle of overbearing business leaders and burnout or resentment among the rest of the team. 

Thankfully, handling micromanagement is often quite simple. These are a few ways in which you can manage micromanagement as a team member. 

Understanding the main reason

Micromanaging often comes from a place of good intentions. It’s a leadership style designed to get projects completed on time and to a high standard.

You now understand some of the major reasons for micromanagement, including external pressure, nerves and a desire to be hands on. Whatever your circumstances, manager or team member, it’s likely that you can relate to these feelings and the desire to alleviate them. 

Conversely, as a manager, you need to see why micromanagement can cause frustration. 

Build and strengthen trust

Damaged trust is one of the major reasons why micromanagement causes friction in a team. Constantly check-ins with your employees’ work can make them feel like you doubt their abilities, and have no faith in them. 

Managers need to show that they have trust in their team members by giving them small responsibilities and increasing from there. They should also try to vocalize it where possible. 

If you don’t trust your team members, then you need to identify why and address this problem immediately. For example, if you feel you cannot trust a colleague due to a past mistake, make sure to express this calmly and go over the mistake to avoid it happening again. 

Doing this can help to improve wellness and mental health among your colleagues

Have an open and honest communication

In short, if you have a problem with a task or a colleague, talk about it. 

Things to remember when it comes to open communication:

  • Pick the right time
  • Always include positive comments
  • Be firm but not rude
  • If it’s a complex point, write down or rehearse your key points

You can’t know there is a problem if nobody talks about it. Try to talk about something as soon as it becomes a noticeable problem to avoid the potential for escalation. 

Give evaluation and accept one

The only way to grow professionally is to give and receive feedback on your work. It can be difficult, as a micromanaged individual or a micromanager, to accept big-picture feedback, particularly if it’s negative. 

Try to arrange regular evaluations for performance to avoid any trust issues that management may have regarding your skills. 

Equally, if you’re concerned about an employee’s skills or about your own as a manager, regular feedback sessions are a valuable tool for improvement without close monitoring getting in the way of workflow. 

Need a better way to manage team tasks and workflow?
Need a better way to track team tasks and workflow?

Micromanagement: creating a transparent work environment

Micromanagement as a leadership style has a bad reputation. It can cause problems in the workplace, including resentment in a team and poor working relationships between colleagues. 

However, micromanagement has its place in successful project delivery, particularly when working with new or complex processes. 

The key to making micromanagement work and avoiding conflict is open communication about trust and expectation. Understanding things from all perspectives is a great way of maintaining workflow and positive working relationships. 

Author , Author of The Dirty Word & CEO of beSlick

Alister Esam is a successful entrepreneur and investor, having bootstrapped his fintech software business eShare to international status operating in over 40 countries and servicing 20,000 board directors, before successfully exiting in 2018.

He now invests in a variety of startups and on a global mission to make work, work.

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