Veteran comedic actor and National Car Rental Spokesperson Patrick Warburton says it well when he opens a TV spot by saying “I’ve been called a control freak; I like to think of myself as more of a control enthusiast”, he then goes on to taste his coffee and proclaim it to be a “perfect 177 degrees”. Control “enthusiasts” are often equated with micromanaging in the workplace.
People who micromanage consistently pay an inordinate amount of attention to details that are better left to their subordinates and they always do so with the same level of intensity and scrutiny regardless of the situation. They typically over-manage and are deemed to be persistently controlling. The impact can be stifling for their direct reports, undermines trust and confidence and ultimately leads to disengagement.
Those who tend towards micromanagement are often not satisfied with deliverables generated by others and are frustrated that it was done differently than how they would have done it. They pathologically need to know where people are and what they are working on, require constant updates and need to be cc’ed on everything.
In yet another one of my unscientific polls conducted at one of my recent workshops with 25 managers, 19 of the 25 assembled felt they had been micromanaged by a boss in the past. It is well documented that giving people more responsibility and autonomy leads to greater productivity, morale and employee engagement. So why do so many managers manifest micromanagement tendencies?
In a recent Harvard Business Review article entitled…wait for it… “How Office Control Freaks Can Learn to Let Go” by author and coach Elizabeth Grace Saunders writes “an internal battle rages inside many high performers who advance from positions where they thrived as individual contributors to positions that require them to depend on others.”
A managers need for control may come from a fear of losing touch with the work as their management role may isolate them from the shop floor or customers. Alternatively, the anxiety that drives the behaviour may stem from a magnified fear of failure that has them focusing on all the wrong things. Micromanaging initially may also be a function of being new to a role and needing to understand the intimate details or reverting back to their previous role which may be more comfortable. Though we can cut a rookie manager some slack, experienced managers who are overly control driven or compensating for their insecurities or incompetence by micromanaging don’t usually receive a compassionate response form their subordinates.
This is not to say managers should not focus on accountability, pay reasonable attention to details or have high standards. But when the tendency to control and insert oneself in details better left to others is consistent across all situations and especially at the expense of the bigger elements of the job they should be paying attention to, it is dysfunctional. When the tendency comes at the price of everyone’s productivity and employee engagement it is seriously flawed.
Telling a micromanager to simply “let go” may not cut it. As Claudia (not her real name) a senior manager in a professional services firm told me “constantly saying to my staff, I’ll do it myself, or telling myself that if I wasn’t involved they would mess up and always afraid my credibility was on the line if I didn’t scrutinize everything became exhausting and was proving to be my downfall as a manager. I was focusing needlessly on minutia, avoiding the more strategic work that really needed my attention and demoralizing my staff.” When it was made clear to her by both her boss and staff she needed to change, she took it on.
Claudia went on to tell me she slowly, one assignment at a time consciously let go of details, asked for fewer updates while remaining in the loop and became very mindful of when to get involved and especially when to let her people run with their assignments. She focused on letting go, becoming a master delegator over time while keeping high standards and managing accordingly.
She admits her staff were instrumental in her transition to what they jokingly refer to a “recovering micromanager”. Claudia related that her direct reports do exactly what you should do when trying to cope with a micromanager by keeping her well informed especially on the files that she worries about, by agreeing on standards up front and by clarifying on roles. “I still catch myself” she admits, but says her team and boss gently and sometimes not so subtly remind her that she is much more valuable on other parts of her job and by leveraging herself to the benefit of their clients and staff.