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Micromanagement: How to Think More Strategically and Less Operationally


Last updated 8/5/2010

The dilemma: Harrison, the head of corporate communications for his company, is proud of the job he does. He has a staff of four copywriters and three graphic designers, and he believes that he is familiar enough with each person’s work that he could step in to do anyone’s work if he or she might be away for the day.

He sees every piece of copy that leaves the department and reviews any revised work as well to ensure that his instructions are carried out. Sometimes, as he looks at the piece, he finds other changes that he believes are needed and instructs the writer to make those revisions and return the copy with the new revisions for “final review.”

When it comes to graphics, while Harrison isn’t a trained artist, he knows what he likes. And he expects the design group to make the changes he tells them to make. He doesn’t want to hear any arguments. The workflow goes much more smoothly if the work is done as he tells them to do it.

Harrison insists that each staff member clears any decisions he or she makes with him beforehand. So, any requests of Harrison’s employees is answered with the reply, “I have to check with my boss first.”

When Dale joined the department, he asked permission to work with one of the graphic artists to come up with a better headline and design for a landing page on the company’s Website. Harrison agreed to give her the chance. But, as he expected, the final job wasn’t what he had in mind—and he had the work redone to his specifications. Harrison lent a hand so the department still had the e-mail and landing page done by deadline.

Harrison’s manager worried that Dale might quit. She had lots of talent. But Harrison assured him that he would rather lose Dale than have to address the creative thinking of prima donnas like her. All that Harrison’s supervisor could do was shake his head in disbelief.

Harrison’s staff already has one of the highest turnover rates in the organization.

The nature of the problem: Harrison has turned out to be a micromanager. Yes, he can replace each and every one of his staff members at work, but that doesn’t ensure that the work is done more creatively, effectively or efficiently than the workers could do it. It just means that Harrison is obsessed with operational details. He spends little time on the long-term responsibilities of the department like the department’s strategic contribution to the organization.

And that is his most important job as the department leader.

Harrison’s supervisor and his peers believe that if Harrison delegated work—better yet, empowered his staff—the members of the group could come up with exciting copy and more interesting graphics than the department has been producing under Harrison’s tight reins. Turnover would be lower. And, most important, Harrison could focus his attention on how the operation could better support the entire organization’s mission, identifying ways to improve the company’s Website, increase responses from e-blasts, set up processes to enable the department to better handle the current workload and even take on more assignments rather than continue to go outside to expensive ad agencies for additional support.

There are other consequences to micromanagement than neglect of strategic issues.

While studies show that micromanagement works over the short term, frightening workers to produce more over the longer term leads to resentment. Creativity dries up. Customer service suffers. Frustrated with their supervisor, employees take their anger out on customers.

Finally, a micromanager’s best workers look elsewhere for employment. If Harrison is as efficient as he contends he is, he should recognize that constantly rehiring and training new employees is as inefficient as it gets.

Managers become micromanagers for many reasons. Sometimes, micromanagement stems from fear that talented subordinates could bypass the manager professionally. Sometimes, it occurs when pressure from senior management for better performance evolves into an addiction to control the work.

Sometimes, an attention to detail that was important prior to promotion can derail a new manager from further career advancement. First-time managers have to adapt to the the more strategic, “big picture” responsibilities of their new positions. That’s the best way to earn the respect of their new staff members, not by demonstrating that they can do their staff members’ work as well or better.

That may be Harrison’s problem. Whatever is the cause, however, it is time for him to turn over a new leaf.

Here is a list of questions for Harrison and all other managers who think even for a minute they might be a micromanager:

1. When you review the work of staff members, do you find at least one thing wrong each time?
2. Do you seldom praise staff members?
3. If you are home with the flu, do you call the office more than twice during the day? Even worse, do you call the office daily while you are on vacation?
4. Do you come into the office earlier than any staff member and stay later than any one member?
5. Do you take strolls around the office not to find opportunities to compliment staff members but to keep a mental list of staffers not hard at work at their desks?

Action plan: If you said yes to even one of these questions, here are some steps to ease the reins and free staff members to utilize their skills, abilities and knowledge:

Think about your responsibilities as a manager. Some executives aren’t always clear about what they expect from a new manager, particularly one who is promoted from within. They think the first-time supervisor will understand his or her role. If you haven’t seen your job description recently, pull it out of your desk and review it.

Meet with your own supervisor to get a clear idea of your priorities. Review the immediate and long-term goals for the department to ensure that you are on the right track. If you think you have been guilty of micromanaging, admit it to your boss and ask for his or her help to correctly direct your efforts.

Look into the future. Once you have talked to your manager, consider your vision for your department, as well as its contribution to the broader corporate vision and plan accordingly. Begin to get beyond day-to-day pressures.

Put aside fears about abdicating responsibility for the department. We’re not suggesting here that you don’t supervise your staff; rather, learn to trust your employees more. Practice situational leadership; that is, adapt the level of management of each staff member to his or her capability and the importance of the task involved. (For more about situational leadership, visit www.amanet.org/seminars.)

Lead, don’t just manage. Many of today’s managers are working managers with their own tasks to complete, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t also leaders with responsibility for setting the department’s short- and long-term goals and, with the support of the staff, setting action plans to achieve them.

Admit to micromanaging. Acknowledgment of the problem will get their support in ensuring that you don’t have reason for it in the future. Tell them that you want them to help you stop your micromanaging and that you will seriously listen to their ideas. Come up with a humorous way that they can use to point out if you are micromanaging, like suggesting that your head is developing a point like the pointy headed, micromanaging boss in “Dilbert.”

Share your vision and the rationale behind it with your employees. This makes a great second step after admitting to micromanaging to your staff. Be as graphic as you can about your vision and ask your staff to help you attain it. Don’t tell your employees what to do. Tell them your needs and encourage them to think strategically to help you meet those needs.

Generate expectations for each employee in achieving the unit vision and corporate vision. What will each employee do to contribute to the unit’s mission? The corporation’s? Draw up a specific list for each individual.

Delegate responsibility that will encourage employees to reach for the top. When you make assignments, challenge them with their increased responsibility and the opportunity to contribute to the bigger picture. Share your role in this as well.

Listen to your employees. Listening to your employees will tell you how you can support them in meeting your unit and corporation needs. This is critical. So if you promise to listen to your employees, you must hear them out. If they have an idea, truly listen. If it won’t work, explain why not and brainstorm with a staff member how the idea can be made to work. At the very least, suggest they think about the problems with the idea and come back with them resolved.

Develop the habit of praising employees. If you haven’t said “thank you” to an employee in the last three days, and sincerely meant it, go out of your way to find reason to compliment a staff member’s work. Acknowledging a job well done can become as habitual as micromanaging.

Allow mistakes to happen. You probably became a micromanager because you abhor mistakes, but mistakes can occur even when you micromanage. So learn to share the responsibility for getting a task done with a staff member. A mistake may occur, but so long as the staff member doesn’t make the same mistake over and over again, and he or she ultimately takes over the work without your input, you’ll be ahead of the game.

Provide feedback to your employees. When your employees demonstrate the skills, abilities and knowledge that you want, then let them know. If performance falls short of expectation, sit down and discuss the matter. Don’t ignore a problem—that is, abdicating your responsibility as a manager and a leader. As soon after you are aware of the problem, discuss the matter with the employee and come up with a plan to avoid a recurrence. 


Find more solutions to thinking strategically and less operationally—and not being a micromanager—at AMA’s leadership and management seminars. Visit www.amanet.org to read about AMA's public and onsite programs.