Theodore Roosevelt once described an ideal manager as one who has the good instincts to hire the right people and enough self-restraint to keep from interfering with them while they work. That one sentence illustrates the fine line between being an attentive manager and a micromanager.
If you’ve ever had a micromanaging boss, you’ll know how frustrating it can be. I did, and there were many times I longed for a return to the Mad Men era, when every office had a fully stocked bar. All you have to do is Google ‘micromanagement meme’ and you’ll run across every demoralizing thought that was in my head during those years.
If you’re one of the rare few who have never reported to a micromanager, you may be wondering, “What is micromanaging? What does micromanagement mean?” Let’s start by showing you how to identify it and why people do it.
How to Identify Micromanagement
Micromanagers have a lot of behaviors in common. For example:
- They don’t delegate. A micromanager believes that they are the only one who can do the job right. Over time, they become overwhelmed because their frustrated employees leave.
- They dictate, not direct. Micromanagers give precise and detailed directions on how to carry out a task. In some cases, it takes longer to explain the steps than to do the task.
- They are obsessed with control. If you get countless emails asking for a status update on a task or project, your boss is probably a micromanager.
- They constantly ask for reports. Unnecessary and detailed reports are another way that a micromanager likes to maintain control over their employees’ work.
- They get irritated when employees take the initiative. If your boss gets angry when you do something without consulting them first, they’re likely a micromanager.
It’s obviously a bad approach, so why do people micromanage? In most cases, they’re driven by a need for control. Psychology studies have shown that people dislike uncertainty in their life and career but the difference between micromanagers and the rest of us is that we accept that control isn’t always a good thing.
Another equally important question is: how does micromanagement affect employees? In addition to being a major reason why people leave an organization, micromanagement can cause the following negative outcomes:
- Reduced productivity: A study published in Journal of Experimental Psychology found that people who believe they are constantly under scrutiny perform at a lower level.
- Employee illness: Harvard Medical School instructor Jonathan D. Quick has linked micromanaging bosses to health issues such as high blood pressure, sleep problems, and increased risk of a heart attack.
- Reduced morale: A Trinity Solutions survey revealed that 85% of micromanaged employees said that their morale was impacted negatively.
In short, being dictated to, critiqued, and hovered over can make the office a very stressful place. You also feel robbed of any opportunity to develop professionally, which produces a paralyzing work environment. So what can you do about it?
How to Deal With a Micromanager
When people are controlled too closely, they become resentful. Then they mentally check out of their job. In the end, they leave as soon as an opportunity presents itself. While this is always an option, there are ways of dealing with a micromanager that don’t include leaving a job that you otherwise love.
In his book My Way Or the Highway: The Micromanagement Survival Guide, Harry Chambers revealed that 91% of micromanagers have no idea that their behaviors were causing people to quit. They may not even know just how extreme their conduct is.
Below are some ways of handling a micromanager without checking job postings on your lunch break.
- Take an honest look at yourself. If you are the only one under scrutiny from your boss, turn the lens inward. Is it possible that you’ve been giving them cause for concern? Have you been showing up late a lot? Taking longer lunch breaks? Making a lot of mistakes in your work? If your boss has legitimate concerns, take steps to restore their faith in your reliability, and the micromanaging will probably stop.
- Communicate often. If your work quality is good, respond to your manager’s need for information by taking the initiative. If they always email for status updates, provide those details before they have a chance to ask. Getting a flood of emails from you instead of the other way around may make them wonder if their behavior was a bit extreme.
If neither of these options motivate your manager to ease up on you, it’s time for a more direct approach. Wait until you’re completely calm: raising an upsetting subject when you’re already frustrated can cause you to lose control of the situation. Then take the following steps:
- Respectfully explain to them that you know how difficult it is to manage people.
- Ask them how you can make their job easier. If they are asking for status reports because they fear that otherwise they won’t be in the loop, volunteer to provide updates at specific intervals.
If your boss is inherently fair, they may agree to this solution. My micromanaging boss did. Alternatively, they may see your proposal as a suggestion that they are not doing their job properly and become resentful. In this case, finding another job may be the best option.
How to Address Micromanagement
If you’re a micromanaging boss, how can you satisfy your need for information without stressing your team? Even if you have a legitimate requirement for frequent updates (e.g. You have a micromanaging boss!), is there a way to get those details without flooding inboxes and raising blood pressures?
Absolutely! It’s called project management software.
When I started in project management, everything was maintained using a spreadsheet. Everyone had their own copy, which they updated and submitted to the team email. I don’t want to think about those days too much, but let’s just say that there were so many editions of a single spreadsheet flying around that it was a full-time job trying to extract the right information.
Today, I use Toggl Plan. It’s a browser-based Gantt chart software that simplifies the process of planning and monitoring all projects, even complex ones with multiple moving parts. Gantt charts consist of horizontal lines that help you differentiate project tasks, deliverables, deadlines, and more.
Even if you have never used project management software before, Toggl Plan has a minimal learning curve, thanks to its easy-to-use interface. Everything is clearly labeled as to function: if you need to add new team members, set a new date, or reassign tasks, you don’t have to click through multiple submenus to get the right link. You’ll also love how much transparency it gives into project progress.
One of my favorite Toggl Plan features is the ability to color-code tasks based on project, team, and even urgency. I work at a creative agency, so we reproduce our brand colors for use in project timelines. The result is a visual map that’s attractive and tells me everything I need to know as soon as I log in. There’s no need to ask anyone for updates because they’re right in front of me.
If your micromanaging tendencies arise from a need for real-time information, Teamweek can make your job -and everyone else’s- a lot easier. Employees who are frequently asked for updates may find that recommending Teamweek for the company’s project management needs can keep their boss in the loop and allow them to enjoy their jobs again.
Can Micromanagement Be Good?
I’ve heard people ask whether or not there are certain situations that justify micromanagement. Is it ever the Good Twin?
The answer is yes. I’ve come across some scenarios where things could have ended badly if I hadn’t paid closer attention to what my team was doing. For example:
- They are new to a task. When our agency has a new hire who has never done a particular task before, I am more hands-on than usual. It’s not necessarily because I don’t trust the person, but I know that new people, in particular, can be afraid to ask for help. Once I’m confident that they understand what’s required, I let go.
- They ask a lot of questions. If I’m getting multiple questions a day, I recognize that the person is asking for help. Some people do better with a lot of structure, especially if they’re learning something new. Technically, I micromanage them for a time, but the oversight is neither intrusive nor unwelcome.
Like most things in life, micromanagement has its place. It just doesn’t need to be a workplace tradition.
Workplaces are no longer expected to be autocratic places where one voice reigns supreme. Employees today want autonomy and to feel empowered as they use their skills and abilities to further the goals of the company. Failure to trust and delegate can result in employee turnover and interrupted company growth while an atmosphere of mutual respect will create a happier and more successful workplace.
Rose Keefe is an author and technical writer who has over ten years’ experience in supporting project managers in the manufacturing and construction sectors. One of her primary responsibilities was developing product manuals that supported efficient use of industrial equipment. She continues to write on the subject of time management and commercial productivity for trade websites and publications.