Coaching Session 16

Today’s audio is 23:29 minutes long.
Managers who micromanage never admit it. They prefer euphemisms.

  • I’m kind of a control freak.
  • I’m picky.
  • I have strong preferences.
  • I know what I want.
  • I know how I like it done.
  • I know what I have to have.

You’d never get a conviction if you had to rely on confessions in order to convict managers of being MICRO managers. I’m not sure what kind of court that would be, but I know the gallery would be filled with frustrated employees hoping for the harshest judgment possible.

Here’s what many consider to be a classic definition of micromanagement

Micromanagement is a style of management that is characterized by an excessive need for control and extreme attention to even apparently trivial details.”

The Internet is filled with various research materials, including surveys, that indicate the vast majority of employees have experienced working for a micromanager at some point in their career. It’s rare to find anybody who can say they have no experience working for one. That certainly indicates how pervasive it is as a “leadership style.”

Micromanagement: You Can Give & You Can Receive

I don’t know if you’re micromanager or not. Well, that’s not entirely true. I do know.

But since these coaching sessions are for all my clients, and since I don’t really know when you’re reading this or listening to the audio…I’m not able to know who you are actually. When we get together though (either online or in person), I know if you’re a micromanager. I also probably know if you’re being micromanaged by somebody else, too. By now, it’s probable that you’ve got some clarity about those things as well. You know what they say, “The first step to recovery is awareness.” Somebody says that, don’t they?

I know this is a quote and I like it, “Frustration is the first step toward improvement.” A guy named John Bingham wrote that. Okay, I took it out of context because he was talking about running. Here’s the entire quote:

“Frustration is the first step towards improvement. I have no incentive to improve if I’m content with what I can do and if I’m completely satisfied with my pace, distance and form as a runner. It’s only when I face frustration and use it to fuel my dedication that I feel myself moving forwards.”

It fits though, doesn’t it? You’re frustrated if you’re a micromanager because you’re never caught up or ahead of the game (whatever idiotic game you’re playing as a micromanager). If you’re subjected to being micromanaged, you’re frustrated because you just can’t get left alone to actually get the work done. And if you can get any work done you’re constantly wondering if you’re doing the way your micromanager wants – even though you know it’s a lost cause. You’re never going to make the micromanager happy. Micromanagers can’t be happy. It’s a permanent condition and they rather enjoy being miserable. The problem is, they enjoy making everybody else miserable, too. 

Micromanagers defend themselves vigorously. They don’t see their actions or oversight as “excessive.” Rather, in their minds, it’s necessary. Without their constant oversight and nagging, nothing would ever get done. Or it wouldn’t be done well enough. That’s the foundational belief from which they operate.

I have likely beaten you over the head (repeatedly) with two foundational truths behind our work together:

  1. You manage processes, systems and work product.
  2. You lead people.

So right off the bat I’ve got a problem with the term “micromanager.” We tend to use it like a big roller to paint with. It’s general and we apply it to any supervisor who scrutinizes work or people too closely.

When I was in 4th grade I had a teacher who would hover. She’d come up behind you while you were at your desk taking a test and lean in over your shoulder. Almost close enough you could feel her breath. And she’d linger there for an uncomfortable length of time. I don’t mean a quick glance and then move on. I mean a long stare like you’d do if you leaned into the bathroom mirror to find an eyelash in your eye. A long, purposeful (we never knew the purpose) glare. It drove me nuts. For this, and other reasons, she remains my most hated teacher ever!

I don’t view micromanagement as the act of scrutinizing work or people too closely. After all, sometimes it’s necessary.

The new employee has to be properly onboarded (don’t you love the HR terms we’re all using these days; we used to just call it welcoming new people to the team or something equally boring). They need training and instruction. They need feedback and correction until they get the hang of things.

Years ago I coached a number of hockey teams, including a group of 6 year olds. If you think you can just throw 6 year olds out on a rink and tell them to go play hockey…well, you’ve not been around enough 6 year olds. They need instruction. Repeated instruction. They need to see it. They need to have things demonstrated. Over and over. They need feedback. Constant feedback to remind them of how to play properly. They need encouragement – LOTS of encouragement. It can be an exhilarating, but exhausting chore. Any coach unwilling to “scrutinize” their work or their behavior isn’t serving them well.

At the same time I was coaching a competitive team of high school age guys. It was very different from the 6 year olds. They were experienced and accomplished. What they needed was discipline, a stern voice now and again and a game plan. The scrutiny wasn’t nearly the same as the 6 year olds. If it had been, I’d have lost them. They would have stopped listening to me in week 2.

So I don’t subscribe to the notion that micromanagement is scrutinizing work or people too closely. That’s management and leadership adapted to fit the people and the situation. That’s proper.

Nor do I think micromanagement is being too direct. Perhaps it’s true that most micromanagers are direct, but the directness isn’t often the problem.

At the root of micromanagement is a lack of trust coupled with extraordinary arrogance. I find this is always the case. In essence, the micromanager looks at team members and feels like this:

A) I don’t trust you.

B) I can do it better than you.

Sometimes I’ve know them to even say it. Most are more subtle about it, often employing passive-aggressive tactics to whip the scoundrels into shape. If you work for a micromanager, YOU are a scoundrel. Just so you know.

If YOU are a micromanager then you likely see your team as necessary evils, people who simply keep the ball moving forward albeit not nearly fast enough, well enough or even in the right direction. But, you’ve resigned yourself to the belief that some motion is better than no motion. And after all, with your brilliance to correct them…because you know how to do everybody’s job better than they do…you can come in and make things alright.

Micromanagers Must Wear The White Hat

When I was a young general manager, in my mid-20’s, I had an older business man who often mentored me, Howard. He was in his 70’s at the time. One day at lunch I was confessing my frustration with a particular internal political problem I was having. The person was difficult, combative and ego maniacal. Howard told me to “put the white hat on him.” He went on to instruct me that micromanaging control freaks have to wear the white hat. It seems I had been doing battle using the wrong tactic. I was trying to wear the white hat. Howard advised me to stop it and do everything I could to keep the white hat on my nemesis.

I’d love to report that Howard’s advice worked like a charm, but it didn’t. My nemesis was a royal, incompetent jerk. I simply endured – as most people do – and eventually he got what was coming to him. A ticket to leave the company.

But Howard was right. And I saw the wisdom of his instruction many times since. Micromanagers and overbearing leaders do need to always don the white hat. It drives them. It’s why they must always be right. And the smartest person in the room. And pointing out ways you could have done it better.

Yes, these are gross generalizations because I must generalize in these sessions. You’re already recognizing some things though and that’s what matters here. Remember, this is an exploration. With exploration comes discovery.


With all that said, I’d like to share some ideas and thoughts about micromanagement in hopes that you can discover some things – whether you’re being micromanaged or whether you’re doing the micromanaging.

What’s Wrong With Micromanagement?

It kills initiative.

It destroys morale.

It creates a culture that kills effort.

It stifles problem solving, innovation and creativity.

It only rewards compliance, which kills zeal.

I could fill page after page of what’s wrong with it. If you’re being micromanaged I don’t need to list any more. You’ve got a list as long as both my legs already. If you’re a micromanager then it doesn’t matter how long the list is, you’re not buying it. Any of it.

So let’s end with a few specific identifiers. These are common things I see among micromanagers.

One, micromanagers tend to set too many priorities. I discovered this in my 20’s and came up with the statement, “If everything is important, then nothing is important.” I blurted that out one day to my boss who seemed to always be barking about this being the urgent thing, and that being the important thing and it was never ending. In his mind, everything was a priority. I made the case that it was impossible for me, and my team, to execute on everything simultaneously. It was a breakthrough moment and maybe that’s why I continue to use that statement today. I’ve seen it work too many times in driving home the point.

No matter if the problem is big or small, it’s a priority. If might be an email, or a major budget item. They’re both priorities. The micromanager will drive home the point that nothing can “hit the floor.” It’s ALL got to be done. And right now. And 100% accurately, too.

We often liken it to plate spinning. You’ve got every plate on a stick (because it all matters equally), and now it’s your job to keep every plate spinning so none of them fall. Good luck!

It’s fiction. It’s not real-world. Every problem isn’t equal. Not all things have an equal priority. That’s never the case. Sure, everything might be important, but you can always put things on some scale of importance to quickly discover that some things are far more important than others. Micromanagers don’t want you to triage problems like that. They want to impose on you the belief that all things, at all times, must be given all your attention.

The result is a deflated work staff that knows there’s no end in sight. Things will never be where they should be. Why work harder? Other than to keep the boss off your back. High achievers will leave as soon as they can find a better gig. That almost always leaves the micromanager with only the most average of talent because they’re the ones willing to suffer the daily grind.

Two, micromanagers can talk it to death. Sometimes they even foster an over abundance of collaboration. This seems paradoxical, but hear me out. Micromanagers can often talk things into the dirt. It’s one thing to get input from the people directly involved, but sometimes the micromanager is so deep into the details nothing can get done.

I once watched a business owner of a multi-million dollar enterprise sit in on an accounting staff meeting. He happened by the room, overhead the conversation and hijacked the meeting. For almost 2 hours he horned in diving into one detail after another on the work flow of a staff whose job was so far removed from his daily activity he couldn’t have possibly understood the problem. Much less provide the best solution. It was talked about and talked about some more. He asked questions, often sidetracking the conversation to off topic subjects. Painfully I watched until he grew bored, ordered an edict that resulted in a heavier workload for the accounting people and left feeling “they’re lucky I’m around to help solve their problems.” Later, I watched their morale sink lower and lower as they followed his marching orders.

Three, micromanagers jump in too much, and too often. Maybe that last story illustrated this enough. Educators talk about helicopter parents. Those are the parents who hover around and are involved in every single thing that involves their kids. They’re a royal pain to teachers and administrators alike. I know because my kids are both educators. These parents think they’re helping. In fact, they’ll often say, “I’m only trying to help.” The problem with the micromanager who is always trying to help is that they foster a culture of helplessness!

Micromanagers hover and horn in constantly leaving no room for people to grow. People must be allowed to figure things out and make mistakes. Micromanagers don’t let that happen because they’re constantly jumping in to fix things.

Four, micromanagers measure too many things. This is similar to the “everything is important” problem. Given modern technology, it’s easy to get all the data you want – and more.

Most organizations are swimming in a sea of information. Just because you can measure something doesn’t mean you should. Micromanagers love to measure as many things as they can, and more. It’s one of the biggest problems I see in most organizations. They haven’t established a few very meaningful measurements opting instead to have reams of spreadsheets, data reports, studies and countless other data points that reveal nothing. And if they might reveal something important, nobody has the time to distill the data to find out.

Look around you right now. I don’t care where you are. Your car. Your office. Your bedroom. What if you got out a tape measure and began to measure every item within 10 feet of you? Height, width and depth. These are data points available to you. You can busy yourself for hours measuring those things. But I know what you’re asking, “Why would I do that?” That’s precisely my point.

Why? Why are you measuring all the things you are? What point do they serve?

Micromanagers measure things simply because they can, or because they can order others to do it.

Five, micromanagers watch too closely. They horn in on your space. They overstep their bounds. They’re like my 4th grade teacher. They breath down your neck.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a 6-year-old or a high-schooler, you’re treated the same – every move you make it closely examined. That usually means a lot of second guessing and back seat driving, too.

Six, micromanagers are incongruent. They embrace the motto, “Sweat the details. It’s all in the details.” They often step over dollars in order to pick up nickels. That makes it tough for their employees or direct reports to figure out.

Micromanagers are filled with mixed messages because a lot of their behavior is dictated by reaction to what they see happening. Like the owner who happened to overhear the accounting staff discussing a problem, micromanagers hear something or see something and they instantly react. Those reactions aren’t always in line.

A manager is barking at one of his direct reports about the condition of some old inventory in the warehouse. The items are a few years old and out of the box. He’s lecturing the direct report about how unacceptable it is to have this stuff in this shape. This goes on for quite awhile as the direct report scurries around barking out his own orders to the warehouse workers. He’s obviously trying to show the boss that he’s going to take care of this, and right now. Thirty minutes later, during this same visit, the boss tells the direct, “Okay, all that crap (the crap the warehouse workers had been feverishly trying to get organized to suit the boss)…just write it off the inventory and throw it away.”

Almost an hour of haranguing – with one supervisor and two warehouse workers, AND the boss – and for what? What was the point?

The boss could have entered the space, seen the obsolete inventory and made his point about how he wanted the items to be properly stored in order to avoid having to write them off the inventory, resulting in greater losses. Instead, the boss reacted. That reaction resulted in some incongruent behavior because the purpose went from upbraiding a supervisor to giving up! “Just…throw it away.”

What’s The Point?

That’s exactly the problem here. The micromanager fails to clearly convey “the point.” They don’t often understand the real point – to elevate performance! For them, the point is more singular, and selfish. They want what they want and they don’t much care about anything else, or anybody else. That sense of self-importance drives them.

Again, this can all exist on a sliding scale. Micromanagers can be tyrants who relentlessly berate people or they can be seemingly considerate managers who always have their finger in every single thing. As with most things, it’s not a one-size-fits-all problem, nor is there a one-size-fits-all solution. But improvements can be made…

Only if the frustration level is high enough. Micromanagers are like any other group, they keep doing whatever they do as long as it works for them. Sadly, sometimes when things stop working – there’s a disaster that kills the careers of innocent people. There’s almost always collateral damage. It’s better to get out ahead of it and start making some changes (even subtle changes can spur fast improvement once the micromanager sees that life can be different/better).


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