I recently received an email from a person who attended one of my workshops—I’ll call him Steve. He wanted to talk to me about a stressful situation at work. When we got on the phone, Steve talked about the excitement he felt when he started his new position many months earlier. He told me that as he was setting up his desk on his first day, another colleague came into his office and sat down. The colleague said, “You know, you’re not going to last more than a year here.” His colleague explained that Steve’s new boss was a micromanager known to drive good talent out the door quickly. Unfortunately, his colleague was right. Steve contacted me almost a year into his role, burned out and doing whatever he could to find a new job.
There is often a micromanaging leader lurking somewhere in my work with teams. Low employee morale, reduction in productivity, and high turnover are all associated with micromanaging behaviors. Micromanagers are also at an increased risk for burnout. Even worse, micromanaging destroys psychological safety, making it more likely that subordinates will hide information, which can quickly turn a small problem into a crisis.
The micromanaging mindset often stems from extreme stress, need to control, and back-against-the-wall pressure leaders face (or perceive) in their work rather than malice or intent to harm. Micromanagers convince themselves that if they yield even a small amount of control, things will go wrong and they will be blamed. As such, they tend to make these mistakes:
MISTAKE #1: They squash autonomy. Micromanaging is often about control, and micromanagers like to dictate every move. Rather than co-create a check in schedule with their teams, they often check up on folks. Leaders need to give their team a clear strategic goal, but then respect team members’ ideas about the different ways to meet that goal.
MISTAKE #2: They don’t provide any real help. Micromanagers frequently ask a lot of questions about the work, but they don’t help team members get back on track or thoughtfully analyze problems or challenges that arise. Leaders who work with their teams effectively also remain open to hearing about alternative explanations or solutions.
MISTAKE #3: They are quick to blame. Micromanaging leaders are often the first to point the finger outward when mistakes happen or problems arise. Team members then become focused on looking good rather than initiating an open and honest discussion about obstacles and live in fear of anything going wrong.
MISTAKE #4: They hoard information. Sharing information consistently with your team builds the important psychological needs of autonomy and competence. In addition, it also builds thriving – a powerful combination of energy, learning, and growth, which slows burnout. When team members have enough information to do their jobs well, it increases the likelihood that they will make sound, informed decisions. In addition, they can uncover problems quickly and coordinate action, which is important for team resilience. Broad information sharing also allows individuals to increase their understanding of how their work fits into the larger work system.
Changing the behaviors associated with micromanaging can be difficult, but here are some ideas to consider:
- Delegate. Proper delegation may be the key to correcting micromanaging behavior. You should know with extreme clarity what is the highest and best use of your time. And if you are consistently coloring outside of those lines, that should be an indicator that you need to delegate more or find additional resources to help.
- Expect the unexpected. Teams work on projects that are too complex to go right all the time, and adaptability is critical to resilience. Talk openly as a team about setbacks. As long as you have developed the right strategies, have good contingency plans, and people are trying their best, that is all you can expect.
- Make expectations known. It’s not wrong to have high expectations, but make those expectations clear up front but then let the team figure out the specifics about how to get to the end result (micromanagers often feel frustrated or slighted because they would have done it differently).
- Leverage your resources. Be clear about what success looks like and make sure the right resources and support are in place to make success happen. That includes being transparent about information the team needs to achieve success.
- Explain why you’re being so involved. There are times when leaders need to be more involved, like when training new employees or increasing the productivity of underperforming team members. Tell new team members that you plan to check in on them early and often, but constant status updates won’t be required long-term (you can co-create a less frequent check in schedule or make it as needed).
- Reflect on your own behavior. Leaders I coach almost always need to Identify the deeper mindsets that fuel their micromanagement style. Icebergs (or rules) are your core values about the way you think the world should operate, and they can act in productive and counterproductive ways. Iceberg themes that I often hear from micromanagers are, “I always need to be in charge or things will go wrong;” “If you want it done right you’ve got to do it yourself;” or “I must have all the answers.” Once they see the link between that mindset and the impact on their team, they can increase their self-awareness and practice new behaviors.
Micromanagement is the motivational equivalent of buying on credit: you get what you want in the immediate short term, but you pay a steep price for it later. Effective leaders consistently look for ways to support their team rather than control them.
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