“The problem is, I’m a terrible micromanager.”

Said nobody. Ever.

People constantly complain about micromanagement. But micromanagers never fess up. In their own eyes, they’re detail-oriented. They’re concerned with quality control. They’re ensuring continuity. They’re keeping their staff from looking bad. They lead by example and they care about effectiveness. And efficiency. And consistency. But, no, from their point of view, they’re never micromanaging.

It’s funny. Leaders often own up to less-than-ideal personality traits. I’ve heard CEOs admit that they’re too brash, reactive, soft-spoken, outspoken, intolerant, passive, or conflict-averse. But no leader or supervisor has ever told me that he or she is a micromanager. That’s an admission of failure that’s beyond the pale.

Let’s dig into this phenomenon.

First, we need to realize that micromanagement to a certain extent is in the eyes of the beholder.

Micromanagement is without a doubt over-diagnosed. Some staff members interpret any sort of criticism, correction, feedback, goal-setting, or suggestion as micromanaging. Some people simply resist being held accountable. They don’t want to have supervision. So they cry micromanagement whenever they feel crowded or observed or questioned.

That said, genuine micromanagement does occur. A lot. And to understand what micromanagement looks like, let’s contrast it with effective, empowering management.

Let’s imagine Sally, a 30-year-old relatively new employee at a mid-sized nonprofit organization. At her annual performance review, Sally is pleased that her supervisor expresses a commitment to her professional development. In fact, the supervisor suggests that she attend a major national conference later that year. Attending the conference sounds exciting, and for the organization to send Sally is a reassuring statement that she is valuable and valued.

But how this plays out varies considerably, depending on the nature of the supervisor.

An empowering supervisor might ask Sally a few weeks later if she has any concerns or questions about the conference. The supervisor would make it clear that Sally can feel comfortable asking any question whatsoever, from who pays for snacks on the plane to how to dress to how to deal with emails while she’s away to what a “plenary session” is. The supervisor might ask Sally what she hopes to gain from the conference and offer suggestions for strategies to get the most out of the event. The advice might include encouragement to meet new people, to try sessions out of her comfort zone, to go out to dinner with people from different parts of the country, and to remember to relax and enjoy herself.

If, on the other hand, the supervisor is of a micromanaging inclination, he or she might instead give Sally a specific list of which sessions to attend. That supervisor will also tell Sally the restaurants where the team will be eating each night. The supervisor will go on to tell Sally that she’ll need to make a presentation to the full staff about what she learned from each session at the conference. The manager might even mention how much Sally’s attendance is costing the organization, what a privilege it is to attend, how the organization needs to see some clear return on the investment, and how attending the conference this year is no guarantee of attending in the future.

Yikes!

These two managers have the same good intentions, and the same unquestionably admirable goal: to promote Sally’s professional development by exposing her to a broader training experience. But the way these two managers carry this out is so very different. One empowers Sally to explore, grow, and connect. She is treated as a responsible colleague, with a mind and interests of her own. The other lays out a narrow trail, and, rather than emphasizing learning, growth, and independence, focuses on short-term rewards, the imperative of sticking with the group, accountability, and duty.

That’s just one example. Multiply the micromanaging supervisor’s approach by hundreds of similar interactions over the course of a year, and the effect is a deadening of the soul, a suppression of creativity, and a loss of confidence, commitment, and caring. Rather than determining for herself how best to do her job, Sally learns – explicitly or implicitly – what her supervisor values and looks for. Instead of thinking for herself how best to further the organization’s mission, Sally figures out how to please her boss. That may earn Sally praise, promotions, and raises, but it won’t particularly help the organization or make Sally happy.

Now, an admission: despite what I said at the start of this post, there’s at least one person I know who has admitted he was a terrible micromanager – and that was me. Years ago I wrote a post called, “Confessions of a Recovering Micromanager.” If there were a market for a book on how to be a controlling, top-down, disempowering leader, I could have written a best-seller.

Perhaps I’m particularly sensitive to the damage wrought by micromanagers because I used to be one of them. And, as a recovering micromanager, I’m aware that nobody sets out to be a bad supervisor, or to micromanage the life of their staff. Everyone’s intentions are good. (Well, nearly everyone’s. There are indeed some insecure, power-obsessed jerks. But that’s not you, and I’m not talking about them.) For the most part, the intentions of supervisors are for the best, but the implementation is sometimes utterly counterproductive.

I wish there were a twelve-step program for micromanagers. There isn’t. But certainly the first step to redemption is admitting the problem. “Hi, I’m ________, and I’m a micromanager. I’m not a meddling, belittling jerk, but I sometimes act like one.” If you say that to yourself, or to the mirror, it may well begin to change the way you deal with your staff. And the best part is, not only will that make their lives better, but it will make you happier and more successful as well.

Copyright Alan Cantor 2018. All rights reserved.

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