Micromanagement… is there a cure?

What is micromanagement? I suspect everyone who experiences it has their own definition. Wikipedia describes it as “micromanagement is a management style whereby a manager closely observes or controls the work of subordinates or employees. Micromanagement generally has a negative connotation.

Closely observes or controls” could be good or bad, depending on the context. It’s a tricky thing but like some other creations, we tend to know it when we see it, or experience it. One person might say “closely observes” is good management and that “controls” is necessary when training new people or people in new roles, but experienced people might feel that controls is unnecessary. Is your waffle detection alarm going off yet? Good. Look, it’s clear that there will be differing opinions on this, particularly between managers and employees who naturally have different perspectives. I don’t expect that to change, but how we view these things can change, even if we aren’t able to “cure” it.

If we look at micromanagement like a cold or flu that we want to cure, we’ll naturally focus on the cause and on symptoms. We focus on symptoms to make life easier until a cure is found, and we focus on the cause because the origin can often tell us how to solve (or cure) the problem.

What causes micromanagement?

I don’t think there’s any one cause. Based on experience, research and discussions with a number of people, there are four things that I’ve heard as reasons why micromanagement is taking place (noting that managers rarely acknowledge it) :

  • Lack of data.
  • Lack of trust.
  • Lack of control.
  • Previous delivery failures.

If you look at that list, what you’ll probably read from it is that someone is frustrated. That someone is management. The things management does out of frustration with these things will almost certainly cause frustration among employees.

It’s important to understand the people we’re working with: entrepreneurs. One of the things that entrepreneurs seek when starting a business is control. Control over income, destiny, time, etc. With success comes an eventual realization that the entrepreneur can’t do it all. Success means that the entrepreneur’s business has to grow and hire people, or it has to stop growing – something that rarely pleases entrepreneurs.

Must. Have. Control.

The minute you hire people, there’s a loss of control. The entrepreneur is now a business owner, not just an entrepreneur doing and controlling it all. “Suddenly” they have to trust someone else to do what they do well. When your neighbor takes over your BBQ chef role at the quarterly neighborhood block party, letting go is difficult. This is no different.

Years later, it’s no different for the entrepreneur. The work of the business reflects upon the entrepreneur personally. The entrepreneur’s inability to know and control everything is a difficult beast to overcome, particularly if the business grows to a point where they no longer has the ability to “know” every employee personally. When the entrepreneur no longer hires every employee, another phase of this process takes place.

So what to do?

A prescription

How do we deal with the four causes?

Lack of data – A lack of information brings assumptions. Assumptions usually don’t go how you expect, so that leads to …

Lack of trust – Trust might seem like the wrong word here, but that’s likely what it feels like to the employee. Trust is built by publishing plans, milestones, deadlines and then HITTING THEM.

Lack of control
– Much of this comes down to treating the entrepreneur’s lack of control. It may be new to them or not, but feeding the other parts of this helps provide the opportunity to analyze how things are going at a high level, ask if any help is needed without having to drill down into the nitty gritty on every little thing for every project you have in progress – what most employees would view as micromanagement at a company of 20, 50, or 100 employees.

Previous delivery failures – When projects fail or are late, lack of data about the cause of failure leads to assumptions (and the cycle continues).

The big thing about this is freeing the entrepreneur to wear the CEO hat. No one else can do that work. If the entrepreneur can’t get to it because of time spent micromanaging, that’s not good. Help them escape the micromanagement trap by providing the data they need.