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Micromanage the Right Things

Micromanagement: PART I

Everyone knows that being labeled a “micromanager” is a bad thing, yet every organization has them. Many leaders go to extremes to avoid the title and many others feel like they have no choice.

So why do you micromanage? How can you stop? What is the alternative?

Why You Micromanage

People often associate micromanagement with the need to control, but a lot of the cases I’ve seen have come from leaders who have exceptionally high standards for their output, and a fear that if they are not involved, the quality might slip. (Other causes exist, but for the purposes of this article, I’m going to focus on this motivation.)

While this behavior is detrimental to their long term success, it is also pretty reasonable. It makes sense that the top performers getting promoted into leadership earned their success by consistently owning and producing high quality work. It is also possible that their team would produce less high quality work (at least at the outset) which reinforces their fears.

The First Step

If the cause of micromanagement is a fear around quality of output, then the obvious solution is to ensure the quality of output is good without extreme oversight. I say this is obvious, but it is rarely easy. Ensuring quality work from your team requires patience and coaching. In part II of this series, I’ll talk through some tactical ways you can work towards this.

In the meantime, I recommend a quick trick to curb your tendency: getting busier. If you have your own things to focus on, you’ll naturally micromanage less.

While I don’t propose this as the actual solution, it is a good first step. You’ll likely find that nothing is on fire and the quality isn’t as bad as you feared, which can give you the confidence to pursue an improved form of management.

Some Bad Alternatives

When leaders try to avoid micromanagement, it can often lead to one of two bad outcomes.

The Cool Boss

In the first scenario, a manager aims to be the “cool boss.” They definitely don’t micromanage, but they also often give up the professional respect needed to be a successful leader in the workplace.

The cool boss wants to be everyone’s friend, which means they are afraid to ask too much of their team. They tend to be very involved with their team, but are careless about the actual work. Instead they focus their energy on petty office politics and let quality slip.

The Absentee Boss

In the second scenario, the manager is afraid to overstep, so absents themselves from the day to day work entirely. Again, they achieve at giving control to their team, but they fail at providing the necessary support and oversight for success.

This type of leader might make important business decisions or speak strategically on behalf of the department, but if they are exerting any energy, it is not going towards their direct reports.

The Lasting Solution

The better alternative is micromanaging different things - not tasks or processes, but vision, metrics, and outcomes.

These critical leadership activities allow you to step away from the specifics, which are best handled by your individual contributors, while still maintaining a high level of support and care.

To achieve this, you’ll have to change your focus, without losing the intensity.

The individual contributor strives to land in the upper left hand quadrant, where they have deep knowledge of the ins and outs of the business. However, as this individual gets promoted into management, the shining star becomes the dreaded micromanager: someone who shows a high level of care over the minutiae, which other people are paid to actually do.

The common alternatives (The Cool Boss and The Absentee Boss) require an overall reduction of care. The lens may change, but these two alternatives show low oversight, which can lead to poor outcomes.

The true leader follows the green path to an expanded lens. They maintain a deep connection with the work, but they shift focus away from the small details (that is what their amazing people are for!) and manage against the big picture.

The better alternative is micromanaging different things - not tasks or processes, but vision, metrics, and outcomes.

Theory vs. Reality

Looking at the oversimplified chart of management, you might imagine yourself gliding along the green arrow to perfection.

Then you show up to your real job, which does not resemble this career theory hocus pocus, and wonder what the value of reading this article was. Accepting defeat, you go back to copyediting all internal communications for your 47 employees and wondering why everyone’s grammar is trash.

Don’t worry! My next article will tell you how to actually stop micromanaging.


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