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The Problem with Micromanagement: Striking the Right Balance between Control and Autonomy

In the modern workplace, micromanagement has become a buzzword, often associated with frustration, stress, and decreased productivity. But what exactly is micromanagement, and why is it such a significant concern in many organizations?

The Dictionary defines micromanagement as “to manage, especially with excessive control or attention to details.” The key word here is excessive. Certain people and situations may prefer or require greater control or attention to detail. When the level of management is too high for the situation is when it turns into micromanagement. This causes stress and stagnation within an organization and creates many issues that can be difficult to remedy.

Why Do People Micromanage?

While it’s easy to imagine micromanagers as naturally irritating and controlling, the truth is that there are a variety of factors that may cause someone to micromanage.

One factor can be the culture of the organization. If there is a constant need for approval and perfection within the company, individuals will often micromanage because they fear mistakes and/or appearing incompetent. In their eyes, this could lower their reputation or even cost them their job, so they obsess over everything they are in control of.

A second factor can be a lack of trust in the employees a manager is overseeing. If they don’t have confidence that their team can get a job done or achieve a result, they will often micromanage to make sure everyone is doing their job properly and working towards the desired result.

Another factor is personality traits and behaviors. An obvious example of this is perfectionists, who are often micromanagers due to their need to always strive for perfection. However, there are many different traits that can lead someone to micromanage and each of those traits can have different reasons for causing this. For example, when it comes to each of the different categories of the DISC (Decisive, Interactive, Stabilizing, Cautious), there is a different motivation for why someone may engage in micromanaging.

  • Decisive – How you tend to approach problems and make decisions. Someone who is on the high level of this category may micromanage if they don’t have trust or confidence in their team.

  • Interactive – How you tend to interact with others and share opinions. Someone with a high level here may micromanage because they have a need to be needed. They may want their team to want and require their assistance and control.

  • Stabilizing – How you tend to pace things in your environment. Someone who is a high level in this category might micromanage because they assume that things will become chaotic and uncertain if they don’t. They want to keep a constant and stable environment.

  • Cautious – Your preference for established protocols and standards. Someone with high amounts of caution may micromanage because they have a need for everything to be safe. They may feel other members of the team will not adhere to this need.

If you want to learn more about these four categories and where you rank on the scale for each, take our Change Readiness Assessment here.

Sometimes micromanaging is due to our subconscious programming. If someone feels unworthy or lacking in value, perhaps due to past trauma or other previous experiences, they could try to boost that worthiness by micromanaging. To them, it may seem like they are helping their team and providing more value. However, to others, it can often be unhelpful and even detrimental.

There can also be an ego attachment to micromanaging. It can make someone feel more important, needed, or valued. Sometimes it brings individuals satisfaction to be primarily responsible for a result. It may also be born out of a constant need to be right and feel superior to others or the best at a certain skill or job. However, it hinders their ability and the abilities of those around them to be successful.

Working for a Micromanager

So why is micromanaging harmful?

It can cause a variety of issues for employees who work under someone who micromanages. Stress can increase and they may constantly worry about doing something wrong. It can lower their feelings of worth because their ability to contribute is hampered. Frustration and fear may plague them. It can also feel restricting. Having someone controlling their every move in the workplace can cause an inability to think freely. Employees don’t get to feel trusted or thrive under a micromanager.

Ironically, many of the problems micromanagers hope to avoid are actually exacerbated by this behavior. If there is a lack of confidence and trust that they have in their team, those employees are never able to develop proficiency at their tasks or jobs because the micromanager is always helping or doing things themselves. This makes employees struggle more with their tasks and does not allow them to grow. They are not able to make mistakes and learn from them.

Micromanagers, on the other hand, can be more prone to burnout due to their behavior. If they are constantly obsessing over details and controlling their team, on top of their other tasks, they are usually working too much. This can create more stress for them and impede upon their personal life, sometimes costing them their health, vitality, or happiness.

The organization as a whole also suffers. When employees are not given a proper amount of autonomy, innovation and problem-solving are nonexistent. There is little trust and collaboration, hindering productivity and efficiency. Burnout may be a common problem amongst other employees who struggle to handle the constant control. The organization will stagnate and be unable to achieve growth or success if micromanaging is a constant within it.

Effective Management

The qualifying factor for micromanagement is excessive management. The key to effective management is understanding when more management is required, and when it’s better to relinquish some control.

Where a team is at in a project or process can be a deciding factor in how much management they require to be effective. Check out the different operating states of a team below.

  • Formulation – The business or project is established, and tasks and roles are assessed and understood.

  • Concentration – Incredible focus on completing tasks and getting work done. However, the amount of effort for results is often too high.

  • Momentum – The team starts to produce consistent and predictable results.

  • Breakthrough – An unexpected and amazing result is achieved.

  • Stability – Reliable, consistent and steady results.

  • Mastery – Unconscious success. Every member of the team is independently responsible, sharing results, and coming up with solutions.

The early stages of the operating states will often require more management. In Formulation, the manager will need to make clear what everyone is responsible for, how they are supposed to do things, when tasks need to be completed, etc. In Concentration, the manager needs to make sure that everyone still sees the big picture of what they are doing. In this state, individuals can often become so focused on their tasks that they lose sight of that, so it is important for the manager to maintain a hands-on approach. However, once their team starts to enter a state of Momentum, the manager should start scaling back their level of control. Their team should be starting to thrive and putting everything together at this stage. Too much management will only hinder their progress. In the later states, a team does not need much management and when they do, they often proactively seek guidance.

The level of management needed is situational. The amount needed for the Formulation state is likely considered micromanaging for the Stability state. However, the amount needed in the Breakthrough state may be too little for the Concentration state. Make sure to understand the differences. To learn more about the Operating States, check out our article on them here.

New employees usually require more management as well. They may be learning new skills and adapting to a new environment and thus require more guidance. As time goes on, they learn what is necessary for their job and how to succeed within it, thus requiring less management. A manager needs to be aware of this and scale back appropriately as new employees integrate themselves.

It is also important to assess your team and their preferences on their level of management. To go back to the DISC categories from earlier, many individuals who are high S or C prefer more management and thrive under it. It gives them the guidance, stability, and/or safety that they crave. Those who are high D or I tend to dislike it and feel a lack of freedom and independence. They perform better in environments that give them autonomy.

If you are being micromanaged or are a micromanager yourself, there are a few things you can do. For those who are being micromanaged, it is important to have a candid conversation with the one doing it. Make agreements for how to scale it back. If you’re a new employee, discuss the lessening of management after certain amounts of time. Try to make your manager understand how it bothers you and makes you less productive or able to contribute. Many micromanagers don’t know they’re doing it. If you can make them see your perspective, they may learn from it and lower their attentiveness as necessary.

If you are a micromanager, it may be important to start looking inward and asking yourself some questions. Why do you do it? Does it help you in some way? Is it due to subconscious programming? Then try to think about your team. Does it help them? Are they performing well? Simply having awareness can often break people out of micromanagement. However, if it is a deeper problem, you may require coaching or more introspection to fix this problem.

If you want to learn how to break yourself out of micromanagement, or deal with it in your organization, check out our Response Agility and Ignite Your Power Programs. Our Response Agility Program teaches you how to effectively deal with change and respond to various environments, while our Ignite Your Power Program teaches you how to unleash your highest potential and grow and succeed in your work. Both can help you catalyze the change necessary to rid yourself or your organization of micromanagement. You can also check out our Reprogram the Brain Mini-Course, which teaches you how to become more self-aware, get rid of bad habits, and use your brain at its highest capacity.

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