We often think of micromanagers as people who struggle to relinquish control. However, there’s usually more to the story.
One of the most common gripes you’ll hear from employees is that they feel they’re micromanaged by their boss. They roll their eyes at yet another message checking in on the status of a task, or they become annoyed at having to go through a ridiculous amount of sign off points, meaning it takes twice as long to complete a project.
There’s no denying that being micromanaged is a frustrating experience. However, assuming the person doing it is deriving pleasure from the power rush of keeping employees on their toes is an overly simplistic view.
Sure, there are certain leaders who act as the shadow of their employees because it gives them validation or cements their holier-than-thou attitude. But a need to maintain control is just one reason leaders micromanage their teams.
HRM speaks with some experts to unpack the psychology behind micromanagers, and outlines some tips for HR professionals to nip the behaviour in the bud.
Why are some leaders micromanagers?
There aren’t definitive elements that will determine if someone is going to be a micromanager. However, there are some contextual factors that can often predispose people to it.
“[These leaders] kind of set people up to fail without realising it. Because it means they get to run in and save the day, which makes them feel wanted and valued,” says Marie-Claire Ross, coach, speaker and trainer at Trustologie.
“It’s often rampant among highly technical people who feel validated by their technical prowess,” says Ross. “They often struggle with letting go, because they’ve grown up in an environment where it’s all about their results and what they can do.”
However, sometimes the opposite is true; people micromanage because they don’t feel good enough. An inferiority complex or feelings of imposter syndrome can lead managers to be too high-touch with their team. If they feel incompetent they might project these feelings onto their team.
These people are often prone to over-preparation and perfectionism, says Clare Mann, psychologist, author and communications trainer.
“[Their] inability to live with the anxiety of another’s poor performance – which [they feel] would reflect on them – is too uncomfortable, and so they try to control other people’s perceptions of their ability.”
Mann notes some other reasons people fall into micromanagement territory, such as having an authoritarian personality type and acting out unresolved dynamics from childhood.
Ross adds that high-pressure environments can also lead people to micromanage, as can psychologically unsafe “blame and shame cultures”.
“It’s no good coaching someone to ‘loosen the reins’ if the senior managers are hard task-masters who want results at all costs.” – Clare Mann, psychologist, author and communications trainer.
For example, if a middle manager is working underneath a toxic leader – say a senior executive or the CEO – who is placing unrealistic expectations on them or pressuring them to deliver results, they might be more likely to display the same leadership tactics with their own team.
“When leaders have to get it right, or they’re on the firing line if their team gets it wrong, it does create this micromanagement culture which is really damaging to morale and trust,” says Ross.
The transition struggle
Another common situation that can create a micromanager is someone stepping into a leadership role for the first time.
In an article on LinkedIn, Maktuno Suit, global transformation director at Iris, says it can be tough for new managers to sever ties with their former operational role.
Perhaps they used to specialise in the work their team is currently doing and therefore they have a strong sense of how they believe the work should be done.
“Often managers are promoted on their ability to achieve operational goals, manage budgets, control numbers and solve problems,” writes Suit. “In more senior positions there is a need for them to dial down their operational focus and become more strategic, which means trusting people to manage day-to-day operations… Some leaders really struggle to operate in a strategic capacity, so they play to their operational strengths and become too involved in the details of their employees’ work.”
When new managers don’t receive adequate training, they can default to trying to control everything, says Mann.
“Falling back on the, ‘It’s easier to do it myself than train the other person to do it’ narrative might seem like a time saver, but in the long term it won’t allow [employees] to develop [their own] skills.”
A culture of micromanagement
The impacts of micromanagement on organisational culture and productivity rates are well known. It can lead to low engagement, increased conflict, deviant behaviour (i.e. turning up late) and high turnover rates in those working under the micromanager.
“People often think employees leave [jobs] mostly for more money, and some do, but overwhelmingly they leave because of conflict with their manager or other staff,” says Mann.
It’s also likely to lead to poor performance.
“If a person doesn’t feel trusted or respected in their abilities… they end up dragging their feet, being resentful, taking more sick leave, refusing to cooperate, missing deadlines and they become a “time watcher” [i.e. counting down until the day is over].”
All of these issues are consequences of disintegrating trust. Once that’s lost, it can be really hard to get back.
“If a leader is micromanaging an employee, it sends an implicit message that they’re not trusted, which in turn makes the employee less likely to trust their boss. You get this vicious cycle of distrust,” says Ross.
“Some leaders really struggle to operate in a strategic capacity, so they play to their operational strengths and become too involved in the details of their employees’ work.” – Maktuno Suit, global transformation director, Iris.
A five-step framework
Ross believes reducing micromanagement in the workplace comes down to two main factors: changing the mindset of the leader and teaching them how to delegate. Easier said than done, right?
Helping someone to change their mindset can be a long and arduous process, but it starts with acknowledging the issue, educating them about it and then giving them practical tools to implement so, over time, their behaviour will shift.
One such practical tool that Ross often shares with clients is the Drake P3 Assessment resource.
“It provides really in-depth reports on communication styles with suggested behavioural adjustments. It helps managers to have more open relationships with team members and to communicate more effectively with [them],” says Ross.
Using a tool like this can help to identify improvement points in a leader’s current approach and give them a solid starting point to work off.
As for learning how to effectively delegate, Ross also has a practical tool in her five-step briefing framework – the idea being that every big project has a brief with a clearly defined plan that’s created in consultation with employees.
Its stages include:
- Construct the brief and set expectations – Managers need to set aside time to “think clearly about the deliverables and get clear on their own expectations”. This could include outlining budget restraints, who is responsible for what task, the check-in points, what success looks like, how team members will achieve the deliverables, and how success will be measured.
- Discuss the brief with your team – “This is all about a two-way dialogue giving the direct reports the opportunity to ask questions, talk about their concerns and get all parties on the same wavelength. “The goal here is to [gain] a shared understanding and avoid any vagueness. As soon as there’s ambiguity and uncertainty, people get fearful.”
- Reduce risks – Managers need to take time to plan for any unexpected challenges that may crop up and interfere with employees’ abilities to complete their tasks. Do they have the right skills? Is their workload reasonable? Have they got adequate resources? Have they been empowered to succeed and therefore feel confident to take on the task? Sometimes the best solution is to delegate to someone else.
- Bake in progressive feedback – We know micromanagers have a tendency to want to check in, so scheduling set times to assess progress, and making sure employees are aware of them, can help to alleviate the frustration of ad-hoc check-ins. This gives the manager the opportunity to ensure milestones are met and course correct if employees are slipping off track. “And more importantly, provide their direct report with an opportunity to ask questions and feel supported.
- Outline the consequences of an unsuccessful outcome – Do this during initial planning stages, Ross suggests, as this ensures everyone has skin in the game; people need to know the realities of what happens if the team fails.
“It also needs to be tied into how it’s going to personally impact [the employees] because that helps them to understand the meaning of their work and how their role impacts others. That’s often what’s missing. People don’t realise the full meaning [and value] they’re adding to other beneficiaries in the business.”
Final tips for HR
Mann adds that HR also needs to play an active role in assessing leaders’ performance to weed out micromanaging behaviours. This might mean changing up your current metrics to measure the success of a leader.
“If performance is judged on the number of sales, for example, they may find it easier, in the short term at least, to reach this through micromanaging.”
Instead, why not also try measuring success against employee feedback? Or their ability to connect with and develop their teams? Or how well they listen, mentor or coach? Choose a metric that encourages a coaching style of leadership, rather than one that’s stuck in the nitty-gritty elements of employees’ work.
HR also needs to do a sweep of the current leadership team to assess if there are any factors influencing micromanagement behaviours coming from the top.
“It’s no good coaching someone to ‘loosen the reins’ if the senior managers are hard task-masters who want results at all costs. If participation and informed decisions from a team are not valued, but speed of delivery is, then it’s hard to get a new leader to change their behaviour.”
Want to polish up your leadership skills? Or perhaps you know someone in your team who would benefit from a refresher. Then AHRI’s Leadership and Management Essentials short course is for you.