Everyone hates it… Micro-Managers! No one ever thinks they micro-manage others, but let’s face it… we have probably all had at least one. I’ve had my share. I kid others that if not for micro-managers, corporate training, and role-playing, I might still be working rather than retired!
I remember how it feels to work for a micro-manager. You never feel adequate, you feel as though you are failing, and your work is never good enough. After awhile, those thoughts make it seem as though you are groping through a heavy fog for direction and purpose.
As much as we hate working for a micro-manager, do they actually get better results? What are the characteristics of a micro-manager? Is micro-management an innate part of our personality or is it learned (genetics versus environment) or does it even really matter? How do you deal with and, possibly, even thrive under a micro-manager? Today, I’ll try to help answer these questions and, hopefully, provide you with some practical techniques or approaches to help you develop a plan forward.
The impact of micro-management on results
There are some individuals that might argue that micro-management is necessary to achieve positive results. They might point to someone like George Patton, as an example. Patton was a strong leader, yet his approach was very directive and demanding. A leader can be demanding without micro-managing.
When micro-managers are allowed or encouraged in an organization, individuals willingly give up their own opinions and defer to the micro-manager. I remember one manufacturing site environment that was led by a classic micro-manager. This individual demanded to see every document, every report, and review every action before it became final. After a while, individuals in that organization stopped being innovative, stopped feeling that their work mattered, and essentially relinquished their job to the micro-manager.
When micro-managers are allowed to lead, these negative things happen:
- Other leaders stop doing their own job – Why take a chance to be second-guessed? If he/she is going to rewrite my report anyway, I’ll just let them do it.
- Work quality declines – The micro-manager thinks that their hand on every activity will ensure that the work gets done right. In fact, the reverse is often the case. When the experts stop spending the time to do things well (because they know the micro-manager will redo it anyway), the motivation to go the extra mile is extinguished.
- Work productivity declines – When the micro-manager has to touch everything before it goes forward, he/she becomes a gate-keeper that slows down progress. I recall having a manager like this once and his “to do or to review” pile was over 3-feet high. It took weeks to get even the most simple report off his desk!
- Morale is negatively impacted – Clearly, individuals that are micro-managed lose the motivation to go above and beyond. They already feel unappreciated, so the ongoing feeling of inadequacy fuels a never-ending morale decline. Then, as a result, productivity and work quality are impacted.
Characteristics of a micro-manager
Before we go any further, I need to make a statement:
“Micro-management has no place in good leadership. An effective leader influences others to be productive largely through positive relationships. A micro-manager cannot trust others, thus, cannot create the positive relationships that define a good leader.”
Let’s look a little closer at a micro-manager:
- A micro-manager trusts only self – Most micro-managers have an elevated opinion of their own abilities and performance. As a result, they feel that the work quality needed will be achieved only if they have their hand on the final product. So, they only trust themselves to do work to the required level.
- A micro-manager lacks self-confidence – Most micro-managers I have known are insecure. This manifests itself in performance over-reach for themselves and others. Thus, they feel a need to overcome their own inadequacy by criticizing (actively or passively) the abilities and work of others.
- A micro-manager operates from a position of fear – The insecurity of most micro-managers results in a fear that they will not be successful. Thus, they feel a need to touch everything, to oversee to an extreme, and to keep a tight rein on others they manage.
- A micro-manager always assumes you are keeping information from them – The insecurity and fear that drive most micro-managers results in a feeling that, when you don’t inform them of everything, they will look inadequate to others. This fear of looking bad to others drives their over-reliance on information. They also have this fear that you might outshine them in front of their own management team.
- A micro-manager believes that only they are capable of making critical decisions – Many micro-managers think so highly of themselves that they feel a need to have their own fingerprints on every critical activity. So, they elevate their own status by demeaning others. As a result, your own feelings of inadequacy grow over time.
- A micro-manager is always looking for a way to deflect blame away from him/herself – Most micro-managers fear being all alone when a bad decision is made. Thus, they continually seek to protect themselves by either deflecting blame or by ensuring that their culpability is protected.
Practical steps for managing a micro-manager
Here are a few steps I have taken or directly experienced from others that might help you deal with your own micro-manager:
- Recognize that you cannot change a micro-manager – Yes, that’s right, you can’t make a micro-manager change into a trusting leader. So many times, I’ve heard colleagues tell me about how they believe that their micro-manager will start trusting them after they have gained some experience with their work style and work results. It won’t happen! It is possible for a micro-manager to mitigate their negative behavior, but they must do it. They have to initiate this significant behavioral change on their own. Even this is nearly impossible. In fact, I have never seen a true micro-manager loosen his/her grip on knowing every detail or verifying every action. You might be able to eventually gain some latitude with a micro-manager, but it is temporary (until the next issue or surprise) and is simply in hibernation. It won’t last! So, once you recognize this, you change your approach from trying to change your micro-manager to learning to manage him/her.
- Begin over-communicating – Micro-managers tend to always think you are holding back information they need. Thus, they feel a need to know what you are doing, the status of every project in real time, and what is next… in detail! I once had a micro-manager that exhibited this behavior. Despite the fact that I was responsible for operations in several countries with several hundred personnel, he constantly felt the need to know mundane details of those operations. Ultimately, I simply got tired of providing him with multiple updates daily on topics that should not have been on his radar. So, I began keeping a log of key activities during the week (a simple list). Then, every Friday, I would provide him with a detailed report of those activities from the week with a list of planned key activities for the following week. In essence, I started over-communicating. Yes, this did consume a couple hours of time each week, but I quickly found that this weekly report helped immensely in keeping my micro-manager informed enough to leave me alone.
- Have a frank discussion with your micro-manager – It could be possible that your micro-manager inflicts severe oversight on you simply because he/she believes you prefer that management style or that they do not realize how it impacts you. Perhaps, they are not a true micro-manager, but they just need a nudge from you to back off. This is probably rare, but I have seen it occur. This approach is more successful if you have a respectful relationship with your micro-manager. Simply telling him/her that your performance is being stifled because you don’t have the freedom to operate might encourage the micro-manager to ease up. However, don’t be discouraged if this approach is not successful.
- Get honest feedback on your own performance – The reason you are being micro-managed might be because you need it! It could be that you lack the experience or capability to actually perform to the level desired. Find a peer or mentor that can be unbiased and provide open, honest feedback regarding your performance and why your micro-manager might feel a need to provide extreme oversight for you. Another good indicator for this might be whether others reporting to the same micro-manager are also being micro-managed. If you are alone, it could indicate a need to modify your own performance rather than blame the micro-manager.
- Seek advice from others that have successfully worked with your micro-manager – In most organizations, you can easily find other individuals that have seemingly survived or at least coped with your micro-manager in the past. Because circumstances may be similar for you, ask for advice on what worked for that individual. What did that individual do to fend off or deal with the constant oversight that plagues you?
- Learn to cope until circumstances change – In some cases, nothing you can do seems to help. Your micro-manager cannot be influenced to loosen the reins or provide you more freedom. Techniques you have used do not help. And, to top it off, you must remain in this position because of geography, family circumstances, etc. In these cases, you must simply develop personal techniques to cope with the problem until it is resolved by other means (the micro-manager leaves, for example). In one of my difficult positions in the past, I forced myself to leave the site every day at noon to get away. I would get lunch at a drive up restaurant and listen to my car radio while eating. This time away gave me a chance to clear my mind and begin the afternoon with a clearer mind… a fresh start. Others I have known take a walk at noon, listen to music, or some other way to change focus from work to something more relaxing. Another way to deflect your anxiety is to focus on helping others. It is amazing how your perspective changes from your own problems when you are helping someone else deal with their own. In short, until something changes, you need to find a way to escape for a time to allow your body and mind to recharge.
- Leave – If everything else fails, it might be time to leave your current situation and find another role. Life is too short to spend most of your time at work in a situation that causes you significant anxiety. When you’ve tried everything else to no avail, begin looking for that next chapter. How do you know when it is time? My two keys for knowing a change is needed were: How do I feel on Sunday night when I begin thinking about work on Monday morning? Where do I want to be 5 years from now and can I get there from here? When you honestly seek the answer to these two questions, you’ll know when the time to make a change has arrived.
Being micro-managed is no fun. But, by understanding its source and how you might effectively deal with it can make life better and your stress less burdensome.