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The vicious circle of micromanagement

Micromanagement - by novishari

Micromanagement – by novishari

The manager buries his head in his hands. He complains: “I am exhausted. I have been working my backside off all year. My team has been hopeless recently. Whenever they write an internal report or a proposal for a client I have to spend another half a day working on it to get it done properly. My boss says that I should delegate more. But I haven’t got time to babysit my subordinates, to keep explaining why something is wrong and how to change it. By the time I’ve explained it all, I might as well have done it myself.”

Have you ever had a similar experience as a manager? Has it ever occurred to you that your team’s perceived incompetence might have something to do with your management style?

“Hands-on” managers who are deeply involved in the operative execution of tasks often complain about their team’s incompetence. They feel that their subordinates’ lack of skills and knowledge makes it necessary for them to get deeply involved in all operations.

On the other hand, when we talk to these very same subordinates they tell us that they feel micromanaged. They say they are capable of taking on more responsibilities. They complain that they are suffocating from the high level of control and a lack of freedom to make their own decisions.

Three reasons why a micromanager’s team gets more and more incompetent

If you are a manager who keeps a very tight reign by maintaining a high level of control, three things are likely to happen in your team:

  1. Your subordinates will lose confidence and become dependent on you. If you are always there to think for them, and to “save them” from making mistakes, they will never learn to think independently. By exercising too much control, you are training them to guess what you would decide to do in the same situation rather than make their own decisions. Not surprisingly, your colleagues will keep coming to you with every small issue to ask for your opinion. But being overwhelmed as it is, you can’t deal with all those issues, so projects simply stop until you become available to advise, to decide. You yourself become the bottleneck. In the end jobs get done hastily at the last minute. The result is poor quality work.
  2. People will gradually lose their sense of initiative and motivation to create something excellent. They will lose the feeling that the ultimate responsibility for the quality of their work is their own. After all you, the manager, would check it through and probably change it anyway. Why should they bother making a huge effort? Thus many of your subordinates will settle for less. They might not become incompetent as such, but they appear incompetent because they don’t strive to get the best out of themselves. The result is poor quality work.
  3. Some of your most talented subordinates will leave your team. Some people are just too ambitious, too creative, too self-sufficient to put up with such a high level of control. They are the ones whose main motivator is self-actualisation. They would like to be free to create. So sooner or later they leave. And this leaves you with your B- and C-team players… not a winning team. The result is – you guessed it – poor quality work.

No wonder the quality of your department’s work is not high enough. What  more could you expect if most of the subordinates you are left with either lack confidence, can’t be bothered, or are already looking for another job?

What can a manager do to improve things?

Many micromanagers’ instinctive reaction is: “Let’s put in the extra hours. If I have double-checked everything before, now I’ll check them three times. I’ll go into every single detail to maintain quality.”

These managers almost end up running the business singlehandedly, with everybody else around them acting as their assistants. And so they get even more tired. And more frustrated.

This is how it becomes a vicious circle: Micromanagement leads to incompetent employees; Incompetent employees trigger more micromanagement.

Who knows what came first, employee incompetence or the micromanagement? It doesn’t really matter anymore. The important thing is:

It is the manager who can break out of the vicious circle.

How can you change as a manager?

  • Resist the temptation to look into everything. Take a risk. Easier said than done, you might say. “What if something goes wrong? What if they make a mistake? This is a risky game.” I couldn’t agree more.  But remember: if you don’t empower your team, you are risking more in the long run by making your own team incompetent.
  • Choose the person you trust and practice empowerment on them. Nobody expects you to give 100% empowerment to everybody straightaway. But you have to start somewhere. Choose a trusted colleague and work out how you could give more freedom to him or her. If you are not sure, just ask them in which areas they think they could be given more authority (if you trust this person, you can just ask them openly, surely?). Make an agreement and then stick to it. Have open discussions with this person about both their experiences and yours: this will allow you to fine-tune this new, more empowering leader-subordinate relationship. And in the meantime start to do the same thing with your other colleagues, too.
  • Be the one to ask the questions instead of the one answering them. People come to you with their questions all the time. Instead of answering them – thus effectively telling your colleagues what to do – help them with some coaching questions to find their own solutions to the problem. And when they do, do everything in your power to accept those solutions.
  • “It’s your decision.” At a later stage you might not even need to coach your subordinate to find a solution. It should be enough to simply remind her that “it’s your decision” when she comes asking about the next step. The point here is not that you should withdraw your support. But at a certain stage the best support you can give as a leader is to let your subordinate make the call knowing that you would cover their back.  So do a quick self-check now: how many times have you said this simple sentence in the last couple of months? Could you double this number?
  • But what if my solution is better? This is a question you might well ask. Initially your solution probably will be. This is often the case at the start of the journey to empowerment. You probably have more experience than your subordinates. You haven’t even given them the chance to make mistakes before! The more of a perfectionist you are, the more difficult this will be for you to accept. After all, how can a manager possibly compromise and put up with a sub-optimal solution? But remind yourself: those less-than-perfect solutions of now will pave the way to high-performing team in the future.


Illustrated by novishari