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4 Steps to Overcome Micro-Management

by  Mike Henry  |  Leadership Development

I read an interesting comment in an article today.  The comment wasn’t directed at the challenges and issues surrounding leadership, but it gave me many ideas for application.

Control is rooted in our weakness.

When a person in a leadership position micro-manages, that should be a signal.  The unfortunate problem is that many leaders fail to see that behavior in their middle-managers.  The weak manager can’t let the boss see the micro-management any more than he or she can allow the team freedom of movement.

As the leader of an organization or department, it is your responsibility to strengthen your people – all of them.   But what do you do when this micro-manager obstructs your view of their team and their behavior?

  1. Watch out for signs of the problem. Encourage open communication with structured decision making.  That’s a tactic I learned from A Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership by Steven B. Sample.  Talk to everyone in the organization.  Open your door to anyone.  But learn to “listen gray” as Sample said and avoid making judgments or decisions without honoring the chain-of-command.
  2. Invest in people regardless. Your goal is to create confident, experienced middle managers.  Avoid the temptation to assume they don’t have any problems because you don’t know about them.  Provide resources and training.  Invest in your middle-managers before you see trouble.  Find some creative training that you can provide cheaply.  Ask people in this forum if you don’t have any ideas.  There are many new ways of inexpensively giving your middle-managers resources, encouragement and confidence.
  3. Have the courage to address problem.  The word encourage means simply that – put courage into them.  Put courage in your middle managers.  Arrange time to coach them and ask them about their team as a whole and listen for 3rd party pronouns and ways they separate themselves from their team’s performance.
  4. Expect them to overcome this.  People micro-manage because they fear the consequences of giving people freedom.  Employees are not free to do what they want, unless they want the business to succeed and they understand their role and what it takes to make that success happen.  Put the courage into them that their people can do the job and that they can lead with freedom.

Put courage in your micro-managers.  Inspire them and encourage them that you will provide the resources (training, experience, room for trial-and-error) for their team to succeed and that they must create the atmosphere for their team to flourish.  Your entire organization will be better for it.

With some persistence, you can encourage most people out of micro-management.  Some won’t ever end the practice however.  When that happens, you must take permanent action or you will institutionalize the problem.  And when you create a culture that allows micro-management, only those employees that require micro-management will remain.

Maybe you have experiences with other ideas that will help free people from the felt-need to micro-manage.  Care to share?  All ideas are welcome here.

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About The Author

Articles By mike-henry
Chief Instigator (Founder) of Lead Change Group and VP of IT for a mid sized technology company. Passionate about character-based leadership and making a positive difference.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

William Powell  |  29 Sep 2010  |  Reply

So true Mike. It’s important to see the effects of micro-management on the side of the employee as well. When employees are micro-managed you stifle innovation, creativity, and initiative. People will become so accustomed to being told every little step to make that they will only do something when they are told to do so. Not to mention the minute direction needed to ensure it gets done.

This is terrible for morale and burns out the manager. It’s exhausting trying to keep up on all the minutia attached to 30 or 40 people. Most parents struggle with 2 or 3 kids!

A very important part of leadership is trust. If you’re micro-managing, you’re communicating that you don’t trust your team. Whether you meant to communicate this or not, that is the message being received. If employees don’t feel that you trust them, they’re not going to trust you.

Thanks for sharing this!

Mike Henry  |  29 Sep 2010  |  Reply

I agree William. Thanks for the comment. So often too, the executives don’t know the micro-management is going on. The contributors think the rest of the organization runs that way because that’s all they see. Leaders have a responsibility for those weak “leaders” in the middle, too.

Greg Waddell  |  29 Sep 2010  |  Reply

Hey Mike,
Great post and interesting topic. I remember reading about Dutch Shell’s problem in Brazil with local site managers constantly wanting their superiors to make decisions for them. This makes sense since Brazil is a high power distance culture. What they finally did was create a ton of bureaucratic red tape to go through for them to get an answer. This forced their local managers to make decisions on their. I’m not sure where this fits into your discussion, but it does bring out the important cultural element in the whole micromanaging problem.

Mike Henry  |  30 Sep 2010  |  Reply

That’s an interesting approach. People need the confidence to swing freely or they’ll never hit a home run. They need to know they won’t get fired for an occasional strike out or pop fly.

Mike…

InBoston  |  30 Sep 2010  |  Reply

A great article from one perspective. Mike, how would you deal with a manager who micro-manages you when you know full well that you are capable of doing the job without being told exactly how to do it.

Joshua  |  30 Sep 2010  |  Reply

@InBoston: You have a valid point. This Article comes from the perspective of an upper management position to a Micro-Manager, it says nothing about how those who are micro-managed should respond to their supervisor or manager who is the Micro-manager.

I myself have worked under micro-managers, and each time I didn’t hang around for very long. Where I have been in a position of management I trust my people to know their job and how to do it. I had one manager, great guy, who would say “bring me the solution, not the problem” so in essence it was I trust you to handle it, and just let me know what the issue was and how it was handled, and then the critique would be in the execution, where he would say this was good, that was great, but this could be improved, and then later on if he saw the improvement it would be commended.

The micro-managers, however, rarely if ever have anything good to say, it is negative, negative, negative, and you can only really work so long in a negative environment before either the Micro-manager pushes you out the door, or you leave because you can’t stand it anymore.

So yeah, I would like to read more on how someone who is being micro-managed should respond. Going over their head never works, so… Some words of wisdom from that stand point would be great.

Mike Henry  |  30 Sep 2010  | 

@InBoston and @Joshua

I wrote this from the executive position because they are generally the most effective at achieving the ideal goal of converting the manager to being a true leader. The problem from an individual contributor standpoint is that generally the manager doesn’t convert altogether; they simply stop micro-managing the people they trust and continue to micromanage everyone else.

I’ll do another post or two on dealing with this from the contributor-up. But it starts with confidence. Realize that your job is first and foremost to make your manager successful. If you can’t do that and make the organization successful, you need to be looking for the door.

If you can make your manager and your organization successful, begin to think about how you can TRULY make your manager’s success your top priority. Find the places where what they want and what’s best for the company line up and go over and above the call of duty. Don’t draw attention to yourself, but help your manager be informed, make good decisions and help them never have to ask for the same thing twice.

I realize this can be more painful than a root-canal without Novocaine and it can take a long time. Most capable people find someplace else to go and the organization ends up with a bunch of contributors that must be told everything to do.

But start with the trust. Even if you leave, you are going to need a good reference and no other employer is going to consider that they were a micro-manager if they give you a bad reference.

Thanks for the great comments and stay tuned…

Don Shapiro  |  25 Oct 2010  | 

Joshua, that is a great question. It reminds me of a statement I’m going to paraphrase to put it the context of this discussion. Some say people are followers because there is a leader to follow. Others might say that there are leaders because people are willing to follow them. It’s like which came first the chicken or the egg.

Just because we are supposedly in a lower position reporting to someone above us who is not acting like a good leader doesn’t mean we don’t have options while still there on the job. Of course, we can move on which is why micro-managers and other un-leaders with titles have much higher employee turnover.

On a side note, I have been recommending to clients and giving speeches for almost three decades advocating that all executives and managers should have employee turnover included in their performance measurements and their bonus calculations. If people start losing bonus money because their employee turnover is too high they will be very motivated to change their ways fast. Haven’t had many takers on this idea but I keep hoping it will catch on one of these days.

If you know you are going to leave a job anyway, this is a perfect time to do some new things to see what change you can affect. I understand you have to do this carefully but if you are a true leader you can pull it off. First, assume a leadership role yourself. You don’t need a title to do that. Deal with your boss as if you are peers and become the leader. You might tell them, “here is what the team is going to do now. Some of my people are real sensitive about someone looking over their shoulder and I want them to give their all so we get the best results. Maybe if you can stay invisible on this project for the next three months, I can get them really moving. I’ll keep you informed on the progress but leave it to me to figure out the details. Thanks for having confidence in me. You’ll be pleased with the results.” Or something like that. In sales, we call that an assumptive close. You have nothing to lose. This is just one example. You can come up with a hundred different things you can do where you start leading your boss and educating your boss.

Yes, you can take charge. There is nothing that says because one person has the title everyone else has to just curl up in the corner and let them be the way they are. Remember, they are afraid…afraid the job won’t get done right…afraid nobody else knows how to do the job…afraid of what their boss will think if they don’t perform. They need their own confidence built and need positive reinforcement every time they back off.

What do you have to lose if you were thinking about leaving anyway? These are great opportunities to spread your wings and see what you are really made of. I know one person who moved up the ladder to a very senior position with the CIA. They would tell their boss what they wanted to do, write their employee evaluations for their boss (telling their boss what to write) and so on. They literally led their bosses for their entire career sometimes to do things the bosses didn’t really want to do. And it worked. This person was able to outlead their bosses. Their retired receiving two of the CIA’s highest honors, awards that had not been given out in over a decade.

The reason this doesn’t happen too often is because people become limited by their own perceptions. They think there is nothing they can do so they don’t do anything. Followers have an unbelievable amount of options and more power than they realize. I’ve seen situations where a group of restaurant managers revolted when the VP of Operations made some excessive demands on them. They all stood up to the VP and the VP got fired.

Followers make leaders. Without followers, the leader can’t lead even if they want to micromanage. This is the little secret that bad managers don’t want anyone to know about.

Seattle_girl  |  30 Sep 2010  |  Reply

Great article! What are some strategies for dealing with a micro-manager who is a peer? Often I find that they put restrictions and rules around how others can interact with members on their team. This hampers efficiency.

Mike Henry  |  01 Oct 2010  |  Reply

Great question. I guess I’m going to need to do a series on this topic. For peers, if you have some trust with them, off-line, after the fact or before it, ask your peer if they will give their resource some freedom. Assure the peer that you’re going to make sure they stay informed and I might even offer to provide feedback to the micro-managing peer. That way they can begin to see that people will perform well without strict direction. Of course, if the peer doesn’t trust you, that won’t work either. You have to go back to the trust-building phase.

Always work to show the micromanager that you’re for them, regardless of your organizational relationship. It all must start there.

Mike…

Tammy Rogers  |  01 Oct 2010  |  Reply

Ineffective leaders “tell” their employees what to do and then abandons them. Then if an employee flounders — the leader steps back in to “solve” the problem — thinking that the employee must not be very capable. If this cycle continues — the leader never learns to trust he/her employees — and becomes a micro-manager. But the root of the problem is NOT the employee — it’s the LEADER.

Micro-managing leaders often think that they don’t have enough TIME to develop their employees or the SKILL to coach their employees for improved performance. So their ineffective leadership behavior perpetuates the problem.

Mike Henry  |  01 Oct 2010  |  Reply

You’re right on Tammy. Someone has to take a little calculated risk or trust will never be established. Trust only grows when it’s strengthened by trials, just like working with weights. You must stress the relationship by allowing some measured risk, to learn what it can endure. People who never trust never have much freedom either.

Mike…

Mike Parker  |  01 Oct 2010  |  Reply

Hello Mike;
one of the most ineffective leaders I have known would distribute far and wide ranging tasks to senior people then phone them up a couple of weeks later and shout at them for not having done something which had never been agreed and then proceed to rubbish the work they they had done (preferably in front of their colleagues) without pausing for breath. Listening was not on the agenda.

In my view this is the kind of behaviour that results from extreme command and control cultures.
I’m afraid I take a really dim view of this, I think such behaviour is highly destructive and quite unforgiveable.

Confronted with this type of treatment I would write a considered and calm e-mail copied to HR explaining what I thought the problem was and how we needed to change the relationship for the sake of the business.

I feel strongly that when someone is jepoardizing the business in this way then you have both the responsibility and the right to act.

If HR are any good then there should be someone there who can help to defuse the situation, failing that if nothing else works consider your alternatives. If such behaviour is at a very senior level you have to ask yourself how much future the organisation has anyway.

Mike Henry  |  01 Oct 2010  |  Reply

Mike,

I agree wholeheartedly. People should not stand for that type of behavior. I don’t call that micro-management, or any kind of management for that matter. There are many different types of workplace behaviors that fall more in the category of bullying. This is one. In that case, I’d notify the person’s superior when I notified HR. If that did not generate action, you would almost have to leave. I hope no one feels like they must endure that type of treatment for a paycheck. A paycheck is a small price for a person’s life.

What I consider micro-managing is the manager that seems to give overly minute detail and want constant updates and requests for permission from people who report to them. Over time this type of behavior belittles the people on the team and discourages them from thinking or acting for themselves.

Thanks again.

Mike Parker  |  02 Oct 2010  | 

Yes I see what you mean. I guess there’s a grey area where one can start crossing into the other.

Micro management in terms of super-detailed instructions does have buckets to do with trust I think and this has to do with the culture of the organisation. Hopwever even though organisational culture may not support trust particularly well it is still open to us to acknowledge that is the case on a person to person basis and create trust relationships one at a time.
If it’s possible to surface the issue in discussion with the boss and suggest all the benefits they can get from moving to a different model then that will work. I have done it.
In general though I think far too little attention is given to training managers in the realities of human motivation and relationship management. In fact in 35 years I cannot think of one organisation that actually has any training resources devoted to how to really get the best out people.

This is a fascinating subject to me as I feel sure that the ROI on building this into an organisation would be far beyond trying to squeeze an extra cent or two out of production costs, or as Hamel points out continue to look for ever more operational efficiency as if it were the only business improvement game in town.

Kind Regards

Mike

Louise  |  03 Oct 2010  |  Reply

I agree that micro-managers are a problem. One other factor in creating micro-managers in when someone is promoted on the basis of their individual expertise. And they continue to try to use their expertise and struggle to let go, trust their replacement, and accept that things will be done differently – which is not the same as wrong!

Agree with Joshua – I don’t hang around long with micro-manager.

Jeannette Seibly  |  04 Nov 2010  |  Reply

Great article for why many poor managers need to “lighted up!” The good news is that they can become great ones with the right coach! Helping managers understand their core behaviors, thinking styles and occupational interests provides invaluable insights into why they “mirco-manage.” Coaching them on how to use their natural style to be effective managers can prevent career derailment and provide the financial rewards too.

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