3 Big Signs That You May be Micromanaging

  • July 6, 2018

Few people will admit to being a micromanager. But most employees—59 percent—say they’ve worked for a micromanager at some point in their career. So, with few leaders identifying themselves as micromanagers, where is all this micromanaging happening? Micromanaging can seep into organizations in subtle ways. Leaders sometimes closely guard information, making it impossible to delegate tasks. They provide detailed instructions that don’t allow team members to take initiative or be innovative. Or maybe they focus on small details instead of the end result of a project, and fail to acknowledge the growth and accomplishments of team members along the way. In other words, most leaders don’t set out to micromanage. It happens because they think they can do it all themselves, or they don’t fully trust others.

And the consequences can be devastating for organizations. Micromanaging has been found to be a top contributor to losing talent, thwarting team members’ professional development, and stifling innovation. It’s time to look for subtle signs that you may be micromanaging. Here, we’ll explore a few signs of micromanaging: work bottlenecking on your desk, providing instructions that are a little too detailed, and focusing on shortcomings instead of growth and opportunities for improvement.

1. You Have More Work Piling Up on Your Desk Than You Can Handle

Many leaders are guilty of micromanaging by way of refusing to delegate tasks and only spend about 10 percent of their time on forward-looking, strategic “purposeful pursuits.” The remainder is spent on “menial tasks” and day-to-day activities like meetings and check-ins. The damage this causes is twofold. First, all those daily tasks leave leaders with little time to focus on more important activities, like strategic growth opportunities. Second, delegating tasks is a critical component of effectively developing employees; failing to do so deprives them of gaining valuable experience.

The key, the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) reports, is not to “dump” tasks on employees. “Real delegation” requires “assigning responsibility for outcomes along with the authority to do what is needed to produce desired results.” So, even when leaders think they’re delegating tasks, they might be micromanaging. The inability to relinquish control over how tasks are completed is a sure sign of micromanaging.

The Solution: Why is failure to delegate such a common problem? World-renowned, bestselling author and scholar in management and leadership Henry Mintzberg explains that it’s because delegating requires us to give up control of information that’s personal, committed to memory, and often privileged. That’s why most leaders often find themselves saying “it’s just easier to to it myself.” However, openly sharing information is key to avoiding one of the greatest micromanaging pitfalls: failure to delegate.

The answer? Embrace a principle of the New Leadership Paradigm: sharing information openly at all levels of your organization. “One way for managers to alleviate this conundrum [of delegating]: as regularly and comprehensively as possible, share the privileged information with some other people in the unit. Brief them regularly, and have them brief each other,” Mintzberg writes in his landmark book, Managing. “And have a number 2 who is as fully informed as possible. Then, when it comes time to delegate, at least half the problem is solved.”

2. You’re A Little Too Helpful to Employees and Don't Allow Room for Initiative

Most leaders say want their employees to voice opinions, offer new ideas, and improve workplace processes. However, research shows most leaders also react negatively when their ideas or established workplace processes are challenged by team members. This is a form of micromanaging that shuts down dialogue, derails innovation, and creates stagnation.

And the problem is growing worse, especially when considering the changing nature of work. World-famous leadership experts Edgar Schein and Peter A. Schein warn that task complexity has been increasing exponentially, making it more difficult for a leaders to have all the answers. This creates blind spots that make it difficult for decision makers to identify and act on changing circumstances. What does that mean? Leaders don’t have all the answers. They must empower employees to take initiative, and trust their judgement.

The Solution: Focusing on building leader-follower relationships that are more personal than transactional. This is a managerial style that the Scheins have dubbed “Humble Leadership.” In their book, Humble Leadership, the Scheins explain the personal relationships foster dialogue and empower employees to speak up and take initiative. This can help empower employees and minimize micromanaging. They write that “the concept of Humble Leadership derives from this need and highlights the interactive nature of leadership as wanting to do something new and better within the boundaries of what the existing culture will accept and, if those boundaries are too restrictive, to begin to change those cultural dimensions.” So, leaders who think they have all the answers and don’t look to team members for guidance or feedback are likely guilty of micromanaging.

3. You’re Never Happy with the End Result, or Employee Performance

Looking for a good way to annoy your talent? Of course not! But you might be doing it without even knowing it. A BambooHR survey found that focusing on weaknesses and shortcomings, and not on progress or potential, is among the most annoying traits of bosses. Why? Because the manager is focusing on controlling the behavior and performance of the employee instead of guiding her growth. This doesn’t just have a negative effect on the leader-employee relationship, either. It can have a cascading effect throughout an organization, turning coworkers against each other.

Research shows that overly critical bosses stymy collaboration by making employees more critical of and aggressive toward their peers. Good bosses, on the other hand, focus on the end result, the BambooHR survey found. How can you focus on what matters when giving employee feedback without becoming overly critical?

The Solution: Kim Cameron, eminent scholar on management and organizational development, argues that how critical feedback is delivered shapes whether it’s perceived as constructive or nit-picking micromanagement. Cameron advocates for a management style called “positive leadership” that aims to shift the focus from negative aspects of employee performance to positive outcomes.

Cameron writes in his book, Positive Leadership, that the ratio of positive statements to negative statements is among the most important factors in predicting organizational performance. “It is not that correction and criticism were entirely absent; that is, these organizations were not characterized by a Pollyannaish or rose-colored-glasses approach to work.” Cameron also offers a variety of communication techniques to ensure that feedback focuses on a team member’s progress and potential. That will help the employee perceive the feedback as constructive criticism instead of micromanaging. These techniques focus on building positive energy networks, helping employees find purpose and a “calling,” and offering “best-self feedback.”

Don’t Ignore the Signs of Micromanaging

Micromanaging fuels employee disengagement and employee turnover. At the same time, it stymies innovation. So, why do leaders engage in micromanaging so frequently? Because micromanaging often isn't a choice—it’s a response. Micromanaging can be a response to leaders having high expectations for themselves. Micromanaging can also be a response to cultures that lack trust and the open exchange of information. Sometimes it’s easier for leaders to shoulder more responsibility themselves than to delegate tasks. The solution? Openly sharing information and delegating tasks, focusing on the end result rather than small details, and framing feedback in positively constructive ways will help ensure that you’re not micromanaging. And your team members will thank you for it. 

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