Micromanagement – The Incurable Disease

Try this experiment:  Get together with your coworkers and ask them what they think of micromanagement.  I’m guessing that you will get animated responses, indignant denunciations, and outright hatred of micromanagement and its practitioners:  micromanagers.  

In terms of public opinion, micromanagers are rated near the very bottom of society.  In fact, in a recent study (that I just made up off the top of my head) Americans rated micromanagers very low on the respect scale.  The results were stark, micromanagers finished just below “people who engage in human sacrifice” and just ahead of politicians.  It’s that bad. 

In other words, there is an almost universal agreement that micromanagement of subordinates is ineffective, annoying, and completely unnecessary.  Great!  We are all in agreement and we don’t have to worry about that subject anymore.

Now ask your coworkers just one more question:  have you ever worked for a micromanager? 

Hey!  What are all those hands doing up in the air?

It turns out that in a real study, nearly 80 percent of respondents said they either currently work for or have in the past worked for a micromanager.  That represents a huge disconnect between what we universally hate and what is actually practiced by leaders.   What exactly is causing leaders to do what everyone hates?

Make no mistake about it, micromanagement is not leadership.  In fact it is the opposite of leadership.  It does not empower, motivate, or inspire subordinates to achieve.  Instead it creates an atmosphere of fear and loathing; of anger and discontent.  So why would otherwise talented people use a universally despised method to “lead” their organizations? 

The Roots of Micromanagement

Micromanagement is rooted in a multitude of unsavory leadership defects.  Perhaps those of you who have encountered a micromanager will recognize some or all of these traits existing in your tormentor.

1.  I’m the smartest person in the room (Arrogance)

This is a very common trait among micromanagers.  They fail to trust their people and they question the competence of their people.  This trait is a deformed version of confidence.  Most people will tell you they are happy with a confident, self-assured leader.  What people despise is the arrogant boss claiming to know better than the front line worker on every subject.  In the military this manifests itself when Headquarters second guesses the tactical leader despite the fact that the front line tactical leader has access to the most relevant information.

2.  Fear of failure (Cowardice)

Micromanagers live in fear.  They obsess over “what will my boss think?” and “if this doesn’t work perfectly, how will I explain it?”  This leads to endless requests by micromanaging bosses for more and more detailed information, before the boss is willing to make a decision.  What the micromanager is actually doing is hoping to never make a decision on a subject.  This will frustrate subordinates who are closer to the actual problem, understand the risk, and want to take the best course of action even though they know it isn’t perfect.  The micromanager? 

They would rather do nothing than get it wrong.  So they demand more and more information to consider for longer and longer periods of time.  Frustrated subordinates either figure out a work around and don’t let the Boss know; or worse the subordinate gives up on trying to solve the problem altogether.

3.  Let me weigh in on every subject (Obsessive)

 Micromanagers have opinions on everything their subordinates do.  In fact, if a micromanager reads any report or document from a subordinate, rest assured he will find something that needs to be revised or changed.  Why?  Because, by their nature micromanagers are obsessed with weighing in on every subject.  This is a misapplication of leadership.  The leader weighs in only when he has to enable subordinates to accomplish a task; the micromanager weighs in on every tiny detail thereby slowing down and frustrating progress. 

4. There is only ONE way to solve a problem (Compulsive)

When I was a student at the Army Command and General Staff College we would always caution each other to find “A” way to solve a problem rather than getting bogged down with “THE” way to solve a problem.  The efficient leader accepts that there are multiple right answers to challenging questions.  Unfortunately the micromanager doesn’t believe that and insists on finding “THE” answer to all problems no matter how small.  What results is a game called “bring me a rock.”   It goes like this:

Boss:  “Hey Joe, run outside and get me a rock that will prop my office door open.”

Joe:  “Sure thing Boss!”  (Joe returns with a big white rock and hands it to the Boss).

Boss:  (Disappointed) “Joe, I actually think a black rock would be better.”

Joe:  “Sure thing Boss!”  (Joe returns with a black Rock)

Boss:  (Disappointed) “Joe I actually think a square rock would be better.”

You get the idea.  Every time Joe returns, he is met with disappointment.  The rock isn’t big enough; not round enough; where are the quartz speckles, Joe?  Not heavy enough; not unique; etc.

Eventually Joe starts to think there is no solution to this problem.  He starts to hate the rock and fantasizes about what color and size rock would do the most damage to his Boss’s skull.

5.  Today’s technology allows me to know everything (Hubris)

A micromanager almost always loves technology.  They want excel spreadsheets linked to other excel spreadsheets, managed by a complex access database.  Micromanagers love pie charts, fishbone diagrams, scatter graphs, and flow charts.  The reason micromanagers love these tools is because they believe they can actually understand everything and know everything that is going on in their organization with the right visualization tool. 

This is hubris and this is destructive.  It is not possible for one person to understand that much information.  This is why we hire employees to begin with.  At some point in the past a Boss said “we need to hire a guy to run project X, because I do not have the time or energy to manage that anymore.  I need to focus on other leadership level stuff.”   

Then years later along come Mr. Micromanager and he wants all the detail weekly on Project X.  Not only that but he’d like pie charts on the projects associated with the other 25 letters in the alphabet too!

Soon things devolve into a death spiral, as frustrated subordinates come up with new, bright colored slides, with shapes, arrows, symbols and shadows – all designed to give massive amounts of information to the micromanager.  Unfortunately the micromanager begins to re-imagine bigger and better slides, data bases, and spreadsheets that will eventually unlock life’s mysteries.  Before you know it a significant portion of the workforce is dedicated to creating graphs, charts, and slides – all in the name of technology making information “more accessible” to decision-makers.

 Curing Micromanagement

Okay, we are in agreement.  Micromanagement is a disaster and we need to find the cure for this leadership disease.

Except there is just one problem:  There is no cure (didn’t you read the title of this article?).

Like Michael Jordan, you can’t stop micromanagement; you can only hope to contain it.  The best way to contain micromanagers is to stop putting them in charge of other people.  If you have a micromanager in your organization, find a detail oriented job that requires no human interaction for them.  That is your best option.  For Heaven’s sake, don’t put him in charge of people.

Another way to limit the effects of micromanagers is to let them know they are arrogant, cowardly, obsessive, compulsive, and hubristic leaders who are more hated than people who conduct human sacrifice.  In other words, the micromanager must be confronted and then the micromanager, like the alcoholic, must go to battle with his demons daily.  Will he occasionally fall off the wagon and demand a Pareto Chart when he doesn’t really need one?  Yes.  But as long as he gets back on that wagon, your organization stands a chance.

A third strategy for limiting the deleterious effects of micromanagers is to mock them.  The movie Office Space is a great example of just the type of mocking that is necessary.  Give the micromanager a good drubbing with mockery – remember this is for his own good; he has a disease.  Obviously this option only works with peers and subordinates.  Open mockery of a boss will probably land you out of a job.  So be careful how you use it.  Think of mockery as a tourniquet – a last resort that could result in the loss of a limb.

Lastly, realize that these controlling techniques will only work on about 50% of micromanagers.  The other 50% will not be affected at all by these weak efforts to control them.  In fact, the other 50% are probably oblivious to the fact that they are micromanagers at all. 

So, there’s a good chance you will work for a micromanager at some point – just don’t become one. 

If you really have to do something people detest, go with human sacrifice – you’ll be more popular.

-cj cheetham

One thought on “Micromanagement – The Incurable Disease”

  1. Hard to top that assessment. If I may be so bold, let me add a bit from my experience (yes…seen a few micromanagers in my day).

    One of the worst types of micromanagers is the one that doesn’t think he/she is one. In one manifestation of this, the micromanager issues overly broad guidance (like “go do good work” or “make it better”), but either (a) already has a specific solution in mind and will waste everyone’s time in an effort to figure out what he really wants through an iterative “go back and fix it” process, or (b) has no idea what the solution is, but “knows it when he sees it.” Both are destructive and utter wastes of time, talent and motivation. The ironic bit is, many micromanagers think they are being good leaders in “empowering” subordinates when they ask for vague results, and miss the concept that they should actually be very clear on WHAT they want, and then let the subordinates figure out HOW to do it. Alas, like Mr Cheetham says, few ever recognize their flaw, and make it miserable to be in their organization.

    How to avoid becoming one? Watch for the warning sign of your subordinates/peers asking you “what do you really want?” or saying “I’m not sure what you’re asking for here.” Those are clues that you need to think a bit and refine your guidance to be as specific as possible about what you want in the end (the deliverable in many cases) and exactly when you want it, and let them figure out the means (how it gets done and presented). And if you like things presented a certain way, that’s OK, but don’t drown yourself or your people in the details. Be a leader.


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