When to Micromanage and When to Back Off: How to Get Better Results as a Team Manager
The business world has some pretty strong opinions on micromanagers. Take Entrepreneur.com’s former West Coast Editor Kim Lachance Shandrow, who wrote of micromanagers in a piece for the site:
“Despite what they probably think, they’re bad for business. Much like overbearing helicopter parents, or a wall that blocks a plant from light, oppressive micromanagers inhibit growth and discourage independence, creativity and innovation. Instead, they slow workflow, shake confidence and cultivate a warped “wait-to-be-told” company culture.”
Shandrow, myriad other business leaders, and dozens of Dilbert cartoons all seem to agree: micromanagers are the worst, and micromanagement as a practice must be avoided at all costs.
But are their actions really so detrimental? Or is it possible that there’s a middle ground worth exploring where micromanagement – like every other leadership style – has both situations where it’s appropriate and situations where it should be avoided?
Are You Guilty of Micromanaging?
To be clear, micromanaging isn’t a black and white issue. You aren’t always a micromanager or never a micromanager. As a manager, you may find that your particular leadership style varies based on the team members you’re leading, the stakes of the projects you’re working on, or any of a number of other variables.
Fortunately, there are a few signals you can watch out for that suggest you might be lapsing into a state of micromanagement:
- Projects are being delayed because you aren’t able to give information and/or approvals as quickly as they’re needed.
- You regularly attend meetings to which you weren’t invited, and that for which your presence isn’t really required.
- The tasks on your to-do list are actually covered by the job descriptions of those beneath you.
- You spend time reworking the work produced by members of your team more often than you sign off on it without review.
- You request the same information be delivered in multiple formats, such as in both daily and weekly round-up reports.
- You regularly reach out to team members for updates or to ask questions outside of business hours.
- You regularly dominate meetings, such that team members or your superiors struggle to participate actively as well.
Obviously, this list isn’t comprehensive. Micromanagement can manifest in ways that are as unique as the micromanager themselves. But one really under-appreciated signal that you’re micromanaging is this: the people you manage will tell you that you’re doing it.
Sometimes, team members will tell you directly. But more often, they’ll express their frustration in more subtle ways. They may drag their feet on your requests for repeated check-ins. They may snap or use a sarcastic tone when responding to you. Maybe they’ll roll their eyes or try to leave the room when they see you enter.
These expressions may not be occurring because you’re micromanaging; a number of other factors could be at work. However, recognizing that they’re happening gives you valuable information that changes need to be made to your managerial style, whether or not micromanaging is at the root of your issues.
Is Micromanagement Always Wrong?
Recognizing when you’re micromanaging can help you deal with potential negative fallout on your team, but that doesn’t mean it’s always wrong. That isn’t just our opinion. It’s shared by former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, who wrote in a LinkedIn post:
“Look, we all know jerk bosses who stick their nose into every little thing their people are doing, and basically try to drive the bus from the back seat. We also know perfectly good bosses who do the same kind of thing for a different and legitimate reason — because they know the people doing the real work aren’t yet ready to do it themselves.
Let’s put aside those two situations, and talk about the much more common occurrence of bosses who get deeply involved in the day-to-day work of employees who are capable and competent.
And let me repeat myself: of that I approve.”
According to Welch, micromanagement is useful in a number of situations, including when:
- Managers have unique experience or knowledge that’s required for the team’s efforts to succeed.
- Managers close involvement in a project provides the authority needed to push it forward quickly.
- Micromanagement sends a message to teams that their efforts are critical to the organization.
Rather than creating a false dichotomy that pits micromanagement against all other managerial approaches, Welch sees a spectrum upon which circumstances may arise that suggest closer attention from leadership is warranted. The critical difference according to Welch, however, is that effective managers know when to pull back when more intensive guidance is no longer needed.
Finding the Balance
One conclusion that could be drawn from Welch’s writing is that micromanagement is appropriate on a situational basis, in a time-limited way. The following are some scenarios where micromanagement may be called for to improve overall team performance.
When a team member is new or struggling
Understandably, new team members require more hand-holding until they’re up-to-speed. However, even well-established team members may benefit from closer guidance if they’re struggling to find their footing in a new role, learn a new task or responsibility, or meet overall performance expectations.
If, for example, performance reviews suggest that one of your team members is falling behind, documented micromanagement can be an important part of a performance improvement plan (PIP) that proves you did everything in your power to help the employee succeed.
When the organization is struggling
On a broader level, a struggling organization calls for an “all hands on deck” approach. Management that’s perceived as being distant will be worrying to team members who don’t feel confident about their futures with the company. This could produce disengagement or unnecessary turnover that could be avoided with active management.
When the organization is pivoting or reorganizing
Similarly, a change in direction can cause team members to feel disenfranchised if they aren’t clear on their role within the new organizations.
Imagine, for example, that your company has decided to change from targeting clients in one industry to those in another. As a member of the team, you might be worried about whether or not your contributions will continue to be valuable – especially if you offered specialized knowledge or skills suited to your former clients.
Micromanaging makes it possible to identify those who are struggling, as well as to support them in finding a new path within the company.
When critical performance objectives must be met
Every so often (ideally, at least), projects come along that are mission-critical for organizations. This could be a major sale that needs to be closed, a huge order that needs to be fulfilled, a production deadline that risks throwing off other projects if it isn’t met, or some other circumstance entirely.
In these situations, managers may not have a choice but to become temporary micromanagers. If even the smallest details falling through the cracks could jeopardize other initiatives or the company’s ability to stay afloat, micromanagement isn’t just a managerial style – it’s a necessity.
When team members are disengaged
Disengagement on-the-job is a huge issue. According to a Harvard Business Review report, employee disengagement costs employers between $450 billion to $550 billion each year.
The signs that employees are feeling disengaged are similar to those you’ll see when they’re sick and tired of enduring micromanagement. They’ll contribute less and exhibit more negative behaviors. You may catch them surfing job boards while on the clock. Overall, their enthusiasm for their work, their team, and the company will diminish.
Your ability to eliminate disengagement as a manager may be limited. But by remaining closely involved in their day-to-day work, you can at least send the signal that at least one person within the organization is paying attention to them and cares about their performance.
How to Stop Unnecessary Micromanagement
Beyond the scenarios described above, there could be dozens more where an active micromanagement approach is warranted. The key consideration comes down to whether or not micromanagement adds value to the situation.
If you catch yourself exhibiting the kinds of micromanagement behaviors described above, pause and ask yourself what you expect to gain from being actively involved. Is your presence improving the situation in some tangible way? Or is it creating frustration for team members without producing a corresponding boost in performance?
If you can’t justify the micromanagement behaviors you’re engaging in, it may be time to consider a new approach.