It’s a slippery slope between micromanagement and mismanagement. And while we’d all like to believe that we’re not micromanagers, some leaders are. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be talking about it.
So, here’s a quick-check guide to confirm that you are, in fact, not a micromanager. And what to do, if you are.
What is micromanagement?
Micromanagement is a leadership style where managers excessively supervise their direct reports. So, rather than delegating a task and trusting it will get done, a micromanager will hover over each step as it is performed, insert themselves into the process, or take over completely. If they do delegate, micromanagers want the task done exactly how they would do it but provide minimal context or coaching to help the team member succeed.
And it’s, unfortunately, a more common leadership style than you’d think. Roughly 80% of people have worked for a micromanager at some point in their career. And about 70% of those people say they’ve considered quitting or have quit a job because of a micromanager.
That’s because having someone constantly looking over your shoulder creates a toxic work environment. It extinguishes confidence and cuts off autonomy. And as a result, it actually decreases productivity and quality of output rather than improves performance.
Ironically, this decrease in performance seems to validate most micromanagers’ need to micromanage. So, they tighten their grip rather than setting clear expectations on how the task should be done moving forward and trusting that it’ll get done. And if that doesn’t work, they take the task on themselves.
But when this happens, it doesn’t happen in one’s. Instead, several tasks will end up back on the manager’s plate. And doing these tasks themself ends up taking longer than if they’d just trained their direct report to do it in the first place. Not to mention, if these tasks don’t come off the manager’s plate soon, they’ll end up underperforming or burning themselves out.
🔥 Tip: Micromanagement is a leading cause of burnout. And if left unaddressed, it could impact your team’s mental and emotional health. Learn the best practices to prevent your team from burning out.
Micromanagement isn’t always bad
Today, “micromanagement” carries a negative connotation. Most people use it synonymously with being a total control freak, setting impossibly high expectations, and obsessing over the details. And it’s easy to blame this on being power-hungry, not trusting your employees, or simply thinking you can always do it better.
But there has to be a good argument for why micromanagement started in the first place. And arguing that some employees need to be micromanaged is a pretty good one.
For example, how do you handle an onboarding employee who just keeps making the same mistakes? Or an employee who’s on a performance development plan? Because simply “trusting that they’ll do the right thing” doesn’t work. Even with impeccable process documentation.
And that’s where micromanagement, as most people would call it, might be the most effective leadership style. That’s because, in these cases, a leader who monitors closely, provides extensive guidance, and real-time feedback might be how you get these employees back on track.
I say all this, however, knowing this argument only works in extensive circumstances. And even then, there’s a fine line between stepping in when the employee needs you and taking over.
So, I’ll give you the over-simplified, general rule my mentors taught me. If misused or underused, micromanagement can have horrible unforeseeable consequences. So, the most effective managers avoid micromanagement completely – save for the few and far extenuating circumstances.
But it is almost always not good
Being micromanaged is seriously irksome. But it also damages employee trust. And it leaves people feeling incompetent, like they don’t know how to do their job. Or defensive because they’re certain they know how to do their job and have years of experience to back it up.
Either way, the results are the same. Employees avoid their manager or, if bad enough, leave the company completely.
In fact, TINYpulse, an employee engagement firm based out of Seattle, surveyed 400 full-time US employees, trying to find a correlation between job satisfaction and autonomy. And they found that micromanaged employees are 28% more likely to quit than employees who have the freedom to make workplace decisions.
When someone turns over, your company spends up to 2x the employee’s annual salary offboarding, recruiting, and onboarding their replacement. And someone quitting is, unfortunately, the best-case scenario.
Worst-case scenario, micromanaged employees stick around. And after a while, they disengage or start relying on micromanagement to get their work done because they simply don’t know how to do it on their own.
Meaning, you’re left coaching them every step of the process, every time they do it. Or you’re responsible for fixing avoidable mistakes when they turn projects in. Neither option is cheap when you add up hours and resources. But long term, this ends up costing your company more.
As a result, micromanagement isn’t scalable. Not for anyone involved. For employees, it kills independence and autonomy. For the manager, it depletes bandwidth by adding unnecessary work to their plate. And for the company, it’s a massive pull on the budget, whether the employee decides to stay or go.
So, how do you know if you’re the micromanager that’s holding your team, yourself, and your company back?
4 signs you’re a micromanager
Like I said earlier, every leader wants to believe they’re not a micromanager. But why not know for sure? There are four habits that all micromanagers have in common (feel free to check yourself).
1. You manage instead of lead
In 1961, WCH Prentice wrote a revolutionary article on leadership. In it, he rejected the notion that leadership is an exercise of power and force (which is typically the case for micromanagement).
Instead, he argued that leadership is “the accomplishment of a goal through the direction of human assistants.” Meaning, leaders provide people with a goal, then inspire them to get it done.
But most managers tell direct reports what to do and how to do it without explaining the desired outcome. Meaning, there’s no clear goal for people to work toward and no room for experimentation. So, there’s only one way to do it – the manager’s way.
This leaves you (as the manager) stuck in the middle of every project. And employees are forced to pull on you for approval every time they’re unsure because they simply can’t finish the project independently. After all, they don’t know what the finished project is supposed to look like.
2. You rarely, if ever, delegate
Delegating is one of the hardest things leaders have to do. That’s because being the person who’s already “been there, done that,” you probably know the best and fastest way to get things done. And it might even seem easier to do the work yourself than train someone else and watch them do it.
In the short term, that might be true – you might not have time before the deadline to train someone else on how to do things. But long term, it’s not sustainable to do it all yourself.
Think about it this way. If you’re focusing on the low-priority tasks that anyone can do, you’re neglecting the high-level strategic work that only you can do. Meaning you’re setting yourself and your team up for failure.
And if you’re a micromanager, it’s usually not until you’ve reached the brink of failure that you’ll actually delegate. But even then, micromanagers keep themselves involved in the process.
Meaning, rather than setting a few checkpoints at major milestones, they’re checking in every step of the process to ensure it’s done right. But here’s the catch 22, delegating like this gets things off your plate, but it doesn’t free up any of your bandwidth.
3. If there’s a mistake, you takeover
What’s more important: the minor details or the bigger picture? And yes, I want you to actually answer this question.
People who say the minor details are more important tend to micromanage more than those who say the bigger picture. That’s because if you get caught up in the nitty-gritty, you’ll almost always find your team’s end results unsatisfactory. Because they’re more concerned with what’s wrong with the deliverable than what’s right with it.
For example, imagine you (for whatever reason) told your direct report to make cereal. A big picture person will just check that the end result has cereal and milk in a bowl, plus a spoon on the side to eat it with.
Meanwhile, a minute details person will focus on the little things. Such as which bowl they used, how much cereal was poured, that the cereal went before the milk, and so on. And anything that isn’t done how they would do it is wrong. But for a process like this one, does it really matter if someone pours the milk first? I mean, really matter.
Most micromanagers would say, “yes.” And chances are good that they would take over before their direct report ever reached the end results because of this. Typically, without breaking down why the work was unsatisfactory or providing space to fix the mistake moving forward. Meaning, you pull this work back onto your plate, not just this once but indefinitely.
4. Only your ideas matter
Fast Company conducted a recent study on micromanagement alongside the University of North Colorado Social Research lab. Employees shared their best ideas with their managers, and Fast Company focused on how management reacted.
In most cases, direct managers acknowledged that their team’s ideas would work, but then they’d go back to “the old way” without even testing the idea. Of the direct reports involved in the study, 41% chalked this up to leadership not valuing innovation. And 67% said leadership operates on the notion that “the old way” is best because that’s how it’s always been done.
But what this study really reveals is how many companies have built a culture of micromanaging. And as a result, they cut off innovative ideas moving forward. After all, why would employees keep sharing new ideas if you’re just going to stick with the tried-and-true way?
Here’s where it goes from being an issue to a full-on problem. If you were to think of a new way of doing things (even if it’s the same idea someone else had), chances are good that it’s suddenly a great idea. And almost overnight, you’ll figure out how to get it tested and put into play. And your team will be left boiling under the surface.
Help! I’m a micromanager
If you went through the four signs and realized you might be a micromanager, don’t worry! Here are a few actions you can start taking immediately to kick those bad habits:
This is going to sound counterintuitive. But if you tend to micromanage, delegate more responsibility out. It works because the more you delegate (AKA the more you have to manage), the less you can micromanage any one piece.
So, go over each recurring task on your plate, and ask yourself, “do I actually have to do this myself?” If the answer is no, assign it to someone else.
If the answer is yes, ask “why?” You shouldn’t have to do mental gymnastics to find a compelling reason to keep a task on your plate. And if the only reason is that you’re the only person who knows how to do it, it’s time you trained someone else to take it on.
👉 Go from doing to leading with delegation. We broke down everything you need to know about getting work off your plate without losing control of the end-product. Learn how.
Align on expectations
When you delegate a new project out, put 30 minutes on all the stakeholder’s calendars. Then, use this time to sync on the expected outcome and talk through the high-level strategy to get there, such as due dates for major milestones and who owns what piece.
Try your best to avoid the nitty-gritty details. But for the few that need sorting before anyone gets started, make your team the owners. One way to do this is by asking questions.
For example, if you’ve ever done a similar project, you probably already have a game plan in mind. But resist the urge to say, “do it this way.” Instead, ask, “here’s something that has historically come up – how are you accounting for it?”
Create coaching opportunities
You might be worried about things getting lost in the shuffle. But whatever actually needs your attention will be brought to your attention. And when it does, look at it as a coaching moment – rather than taking over.
Meaning, ask the team member what obstacles they’re facing and how they plan to overcome them. Then, only steer them away from options that you’ve already tested and know for certain don’t work. Whatever they come up with, let them try and have them report back on how it went.
And you don’t have to wait for people to come to you with problems. You can proactively check in with all your direct reports with a quick daily Slack that says something like, “Hi! Just checking in – how are you doing?” If they say everything is fine, take it at face value. But this will open up a continuous line for feedback, so you still feel like you’re in the loop.
Document your processes
Struggling to trust that the tasks will get done as well as if you did it yourself? Don’t worry – most managers feel this way when they start delegating. But if you can’t trust your people for whatever reason, trust your processes.
Document your tried-and-true way of doing things. With a top-rated documentation tool like Trainual, you can share exactly how you do something (including all your best practices). And then, you can assign the documentation directly to the person who’s taking over and track that they went through the information.
This way, you can hold employees accountable for doing things to your company’s standards – without feeling like you’re hovering over them. Plus, you provide people with an on-demand resource in case they get stuck – so they don’t fill your newly freed up time with questions.
Just make sure to leave room for experimentation. Meaning, if someone reads through your standard operating procedure and is like, “I think we could get better results if we do it this other way,” have them try it! After all, they’re bringing a fresh perspective and might see something you don’t. Just make sure they document the experiment and its results (even if it’s a total failure), so everyone stays aligned moving forward.
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Praise top-notch work
When you first aligned on expectations, you should have set a few checkpoints where your approval was needed. At these points, only accept work that meets your standards.
If it falls short, don’t fix it yourself. Instead, give clear and specific feedback on what’s unacceptable, why, and the improvements you’d like to see. Then, make that person who submitted the work fix it. That way, they can learn the right way to do this task – and you can eventually step all the way back.
Likewise, when your direct reports turn in incredible work, make sure you celebrate it! Call out what you loved about the work. And if possible, make this praise public.
For example, we have a company-wide Slack channel that is 100% dedicated to sharing praise! In it, we shout out our teammates (regardless of level). That way, everyone on our team hears about their achievements and knows where the bar is set. But you can also do this by praising team members in meetings or highlighting specific deliverables.
If you’re still stomaching the thought that you might micromanage, it doesn’t have to be your end-all leadership style. Just because you have a few micromanager tendencies today doesn’t stop you from being an incredible leader tomorrow. It just means you still have some work to do.