Are You a Micromanager?

By Stefanie Smith

Micromanager. We hear the word intoned with the same special feeling typically reserved for scaly, slithery creatures. But even if you suspect the label might fit, take heart. Micromanagement isn't an incurable disease or permanent condition. It’s often a symptom of having lost control and suffered the consequences. Micromanaging doesn’t always derive from a character flaw. In fact, it is often the opposite—a reflection of diligence and commitment to delivering on quality standards.

So, let’s take a fresh look at a practice that gets a really bad rap.

First: Are You a Micromanager? Ask yourself:

  • Am I doing all the talking?
    Imagine that like a football coach, you are “watching the tapes” of your latest team or one-on-one meetings. How would the number of minutes you talked, explained, and instructed compare with the number of minutes you asked, listened, and responded? Are people passively listening or pumped up by the prospect of surpassing a new challenge?

    You can spend 30 minutes explaining goals and standards, or you can spend those same 30 minutes asking and responding to questions. For example, “What would you need to do to develop a comprehensive plan for the upcoming product launch?” From there, “OK, sounds good, but what about involving the PR firm earlier on?” And then, “When would you like to review your initial draft of the plan with me, so I can answer any questions, approve the budget, and you can move ahead quickly?”

    Focus on receiving not giving information to learn more than expected about the tasks at hand. Lou Holtz, one of the winningest football coaches in NCAA history, said, “I never learn anything talking. I only learn things when I ask questions.”

  • Do I tell people what to do or teach them how to do it in the future?
    It may seem like a good investment to spend an hour explaining how to draft a sensitive memo, approach a client call, or develop a presentation. But are you telling or teaching? While I was doing an organizational review, a public relations manager complained his boss had corrected 12 drafts of a press memo. Twelve! You can imagine the frustration that had built up on both sides.

    If you find yourself explaining the same thing over and over, switch gears. Perhaps you weren’t getting your message across, or perhaps the person was resisting the message. At some point, it just doesn’t matter and it’s more valuable and less time consuming to sit down and do it together. As an added bonus, you kickstart the initiative rather than remaining at the discussion stage. Actions speak louder than words—and are more profitable.

    Model good practices to your team rather than explaining them. Think of ways to demonstrate proper techniques in a collaborative manner rather than lecturing. Sit down side by side to prepare for a conference call or meeting. Or, draft a document and have your subordinate edit it so he or she takes responsibility for the final product and gains insight into your role.

  • Is my team meeting benchmarks or blowing past them?
    Employees who are managed and measured according their ability to comply with targets will usually meet them. Employees driven by creativity and job satisfaction will exceed your performance expectations.

    Manage for outcomes, not processes. Reward employees for asking questions and raising issues to streamline success and troubleshoot setbacks. Set short-term goals and meet frequently if necessary but maintain a sense of continual achievement.

Solicit suggestions about increasing our own impact. Meet with your team and ask a simple question, “How could I free up 20% of my time by delegating more responsibility?” The answers may surprise you, or not. They may be valuable, or not. But chances are you will be presented with ideas for channeling your time toward exceeding objectives, rather than worrying about them.

  • Is my need to micromanage really a need to clarify communication?
    The only cure for micromanagement is airtight communication. If instructions or priorities are not clear, you won’t feel comfortable giving up control. If something goes awry, you'll waste precious time and energy debating who meant what...and cleaning up the mess.

To improve communication:

  • Say it loudly and clearly. Verbally acknowledge your new approach of training your team for greater future independence. Even if you’ve never done it before, you can now. Be receptive to input and ready to weather some pent-up complaints.
     Don’t apologize too much. Simply explain why and how you plan to change your communication and management styles.

  • Get it in writing. Having written deliverables and deadlines is your best tool to counter the micromanagement impulse. Review a game plan with your direct reports biweekly. Your employees should arrive at each meeting with their written updated status against defined goals. Your role is to provide answers, advice, and guidance; then leave them the space to succeed.

  • Tailor your management style according to individual needs. Micromanaging is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. A management style that one employee considers as interfering may be welcomed by another. Look in the mirror and look at your team. Who or what is truly driving your tendency to micromanage? Depending on the answers, micromanage selectively. Your management style can vary according to individual needs and preferences. You can micromanage some rather than all, as long as your motivations are clear to all parties.

  • Make small changes. What is the longest you can go today without checking in with your direct reports? Between scheduled meetings, calls or status updates, who calls or e-mails first? Challenge yourself to increase the time by 10% this month. Then absorb the results and see where you go from there.

When is it appropriate to micromanage?
Micromanagement isn’t synonymous with bad management. It has a purpose and place when:

  • Players do not have the maturity to maintain progress or initiate a remedy on their own if a snag occurs. Perhaps they are young or inexperienced. Will they gain competence within a reasonable time frame? Can you adjust their role to enable them to succeed independently today while training for more advanced responsibilities tomorrow? If they don’t have what it takes to evolve and you don’t want to micromanage forever, you may need to permanently redesign their role, or accept the fact you will have to replace them.

  • The stakes are high and people are learning new skills. No one wants to incur negative consequences—financial or otherwise. This could occur in many fields—health care, science, construction, or portfolio management.

  • You are put in charge of a group you didn’t hire or a group known to be problematic. For example, in a major hospital, a new manager was put in charge of the cancer laboratory reporting unit. The union shop was negotiating for higher compensation and was known to purposely misfile reports and delay deliveries to sabotage operations and strengthen its position, knowing that the manager would take the heat. Two previous managers had given up. The new manager fired two people within the first three weeks and laid down the law. “You aren’t damaging me, you are hurting innocent children, elderly people, and patients in critical condition. I’m going to enforce the rules and watch every one of you every minute until this stops.” Which it did.

Deploy micromanagement as a tactic, not a strategy. When you do opt to micromanage during a period, state the reasons. For example, “Until we work out the kinks in our new medical testing procedures, I’m going to keep a close eye on the process because I want to troubleshoot errors immediately. But after we analyze the first three months of data together, and we are comfortable with the results, I will delegate more responsibility to you.”

Remain open to recommendations for increasing efficiency, morale, or performance. Inspiring others to make strategic contributions builds mutual confidence and expands their abilities, which just may enable you to move on to a new management style.

Author Bio:
Stefanie Smith leads Stratex (, an executive consulting and coaching firm based in Manhattan, providing customized group workshops and private coaching programs to guide executives and their teams to reach the next performance level.

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