by Sharon Florentine

IT Leadership: Signs You’re a Micromanager (And How to Stop)

Mar 02, 20156 mins
CareersIT Leadership

Micromanagement may seem harmless, but it's sabotaging your teams, your productivity and morale from within, and stifling your business's ability to grow. Here's how to tell if you're a micromanager, and some steps you can take to overcome this fatal flaw.

Are you never quite satisfied with your team’s results? Do you avoid delegating at all costs, often taking on work that’s far below your experience and talent level just because you’re certain no one else can do it as well as you can? Are you constantly demanding status updates, progress reports and check-ins? It’s time to face the facts: You’re a micromanager.

Micromanagement might not appear to be a big deal — you’re just trying to make sure tasks and projects are on time, done right and in ways that will benefit the business, right? — but the truth is, it’s incredibly damaging to every aspect of a business, says Stu Coleman, partner and senior managing director at WinterWyman Financial Contracting and a self-proclaimed recovering micromanager.

Micromanagement Stunts Growth, Erodes Morale and Slows Productivity

“At its core, micromanagement chokes off growth. You can’t micromanage a team, or an entire business and expect to grow; you have to support, groom and grow leadership within your organization that can take on roles and responsibilities that you used to perform so you can focus on strategic issues,” says Coleman.

Micromanagement also negatively impacts employee morale, engagement and productivity, says Bob Hewes, senior partner with oversight for leadership development, coaching and knowledge management, Camden Consulting, and can lead to high turnover rates and even recruiting and talent retention problems.

“Micromanagement is almost never benign. It’s a destructive force that goes far beyond a ‘management style;’ it really gets at morale, at engagement and you’ll find that micromanagers often see high turnover of their direct reports,” Hewes says.

Productivity suffers, too, as teams and individuals must constantly interrupt their progress to deliver status reports and updates as well as explaining their methods and processes in meetings and phone calls. The likely outcome of these constant status reports is that the micromanager’s way is better, faster, and the employee is wrong, even though they may have excellent skills and a wealth of knowledge, says Hewes.

“It also creates a risk-averse culture. Workers aren’t going to even want to try new, innovative things if they feel their managers is going to be breathing down their neck, waiting for them to screw up,” Hewes says.

It can be difficult for micromanagers to identify their behavior, according to Coleman, because it can often be justified and excused. “I’m doing what’s best for the business,” “If this project fails, we’ll all be in trouble” and ‘too much is at stake for me to let the project be anything less than perfect” are all justifications for micromanaging behavior, but while those excuses may ring true in the short term, they’re sabotaging your teams from within, says Coleman.

“When these behaviors are happening, it can be difficult to admit to yourself. But you don’t have to relax your quality standards and your results-focused approach in order to be successful. Just like in professional football, you have to watch game tapes to see what you did right, what you did wrong and where to improve,” says Hewes.

How to Fix It

No one in a leadership position actively wants to be a micromanager, according to Hewes, but if you find yourself faced with overwhelming evidence, there are steps you can take to change your behavior. The first step is always being aware of the problem and having the willingness to take steps to change.

“You need to be open to soliciting feedback on your behavior, and be receptive to changing it. You must recognize that the way to grow, the way to get work done is by gaining more time — and you get more time by getting work done with and through others,” says Hewes.

Once you’ve recognized the problem, you must enlist the help of your team and direct reports to help you address it and recognize that change isn’t going to happen overnight. “You have to tell people what’s happening. It can be very helpful to schedule a sit-down meeting to admit you have a problem and ask for help to make it better. You can say, ‘I recognize that I’ve been all over you, and that it’s hindering you. I also recognize that you have skills and talents, and those haven’t been empowered effectively. So, let’s try some new methods,'” Coleman says.

These new methods could mean meeting with teams or individuals less frequently, or allowing them to work through problems, issues and obstacles without consulting you; only reporting back when problems have been identified, addressed and resolved.

Of course, if you’ve been micromanaging for a long time, there’s a chance your teams aren’t going to be able to function independently right off the bat, so you must be prepared for some growing pains. “When you finally decide that you’re going to empower your people, understand that you’ve become an enabler. You haven’t ever given them a chance to think or work independently, so just when you want them to start making decisions they may be unable to function without the intense supervision and direction you’ve given them in the past,” says Coleman. That’s completely understandable, and you must be patient and willing to work through the inevitable learning curve.

You also should consider doing a cost-benefit analysis of your time and where you’re spending it, says Coleman. Every time you get the urge to ask for a status report, or to step in and “help” a colleague with an assigned task or project, ask yourself if what you’re about to do falls below your pay grade?

“It sounds really terrible on its surface, but sometimes, as a person in a leadership role or in management, you have to think, ‘I get paid too much to do this work; I’ve hired someone at a lower responsibility level who can handle this. Let them earn their paycheck by taking care of this task,'” Coleman says.

While it sounds harsh, what you’re really doing is changing your own patterns and that of your direct reports, and establishing greater trust. By backing off and allowing them to do what it is you hired them to do, they are gaining skills, knowledge and experience and are performing their job as specified — and they’re empowered to do so. Or, put another way, “You have to decouple the ‘what’ from the ‘how’. In every project, every job, every task is ‘what you want accomplished’ and the ‘how you want that task accomplished.’ A micromanager will overemphasize the ‘how’ over the ‘what’ and will be laser focused on minutia to the detriment of the overall outcome,” Hewes says.

“You have to let go and understand that there are a lot of different ways to ‘how,’ a lot of different ways to get things done. Especially in knowledge work, there’s a lot of flexibility in the ‘how.’ It’s not like surgery where you have to do certain steps in certain order or else someone dies,” says Hewes.

Give It Time

And while it may seem painful and slow going, each step toward asking people to take responsibility for the ‘how’ and relinquishing some control is a step toward improving your relationships, growing your business, encouraging trust, engagement and productivity.