Use This Leverage Point For the Micromanager and the Micromanaged

I often do an exercise in which I ask people to take index cards and write down the behaviors they have experienced from their managers which have dis-abled, de-energized, de-motivated, dis-couraged, or otherwise dis-sed or de-ed them.  Stop for a nano-second and consider a manager who had this dampening impact on you!  What did he or she do that killed your enthusiasm or drive?  Got it?

I have the participants pass the cards around, and read as many as they can in the space of a few minutes. They’ll exclaim, as they’re reading and passing cards, “Oh, yeh, that,” and “I hate when that happens,” or just “yep,” or “I hear that.”  Then I ask them to call out the themes that they have read on the fast-circulating cards, and as they call them out, I type them into my power point.

Today’s headline reflects the behavior that I hear the most, every single time I do this.  Sometimes people literally write the word “micromanage,” but they also express it in many other ways, e.g.,  doesn’t trust my judgment, takes back work they have given me to do, spends hours making tiny edits on my work, makes me do things exactly as they would, or constantly emails to check my progress, etc. Perhaps, when I asked you to think of a behavior that de-energized you, you thought of something like this.

The real a-ha comes for my participants when we look at the list of disempowering behaviors they have called out, and I ask them:  “Have you done any of these?”  The room tends to get humbler, quieter, somber, as people nod and some call out, “guilty,” “yep, I do.”  So, what do you do if you either micromanage, and/or are micromanaged.  Let’s start with the first, the slight chance that your reports feel you micromanage them (which almost no boss thinks they are doing!)  Let’s stipulate that there’s a fuzzy line somewhere between,

  • on the one side upholding standards and teaching subordinates — a totally legitimate responsibility of all managers — versus
  • substituting your judgment which may well not be better than theirs and which will almost certainly diminish their initiative, confidence, and determination.

Here is the leverage you have to work that fuzzy line:  Completely admit to yourself that your position does not give you special wisdom; titles have zero power to do that. The fact that you were elected mayor or named supervisor — or even that you’ve had the spot for a while — does not suddenly make you better at everyone’s job than they are!  To take a simple example, my dad was the “master of the house” (apologies if you get that song from Le Miserables in your head :-P).  But he was a complete ignoramus when it came to doing anything mechanical. But because he saw himself as master of the house, he would never think twice about doing everything himself (generating 95% of the swear words we heard from his mouth), or correcting his kids in the rare case he delegated a job, even though at least five of us were more naturally talented than he was. Now, he and you may be held accountable for what your subordinates do, as my Dad would have to pay for the repairs or might have to call in a professional if the job wasn’t done right.  And that accountability you feel may generate real conscientiousness (or likely its cousin, anxiety).  But, the idea that you’re better at it than them should be taken as a 50-50 proposition at best.

So, then what do you do if you’re being micromanaged? Know your boss is both of these things: they see themselves as conscientious and accountable.  AND they are also likely insecure and anxious about getting results.  So, their micromanagement is mostly not about you.  Don’t take it to heart. It’s about them.  See if you can speak to their legitimate concern about standards and results, and honor and validate that (some of you may find this advice painful; if so, see the footnote).*  Then, after you validate them, and only then, speak to how you’d invite them to trust you. They were smart enough to hire you. And you will seek their counsel if you think they need it.  And, if they trust you, you will be able to do it quicker and smoother than if you have to keep checking in, or doing it precisely they way they would.

In both cases — micromanaging down or being micromanaged — the secret leverage is in the emotional charge, the anxiety that is the shadow side of conscientiousness, and the reflex for asserting control.  Lower the anxiety level and you or they have a better chance of being practical and rational and

Leading with your best self!

* I had this discussion with a 27-year old manager not long ago.  I was encouraging her to validate her boss’ concerns (and his seemingly threatened ego), as a way to strategically get him to be more trusting and supportive of his team, and more open to their constructive criticisms of current policy. She exclaimed, “That makes me angry! Why should I have to be like a psychotherapist with this adult man? Why should I have to take care of his childish insecurity?”  I loved her response! She was right to be angry, or indignant if you please.  AND, the fact is that sometimes, bosses — who have the money, title, power, etc. — SHOULD be the MOST secure, but they are NOT.  I have increasingly come to believe there is a causal factor at play.  They are more insecure, not despite being the boss, because they are the boss. They feel they have more to lose. If they fail, they fail big. It’s not conscious on their part; it’s an unconscious fear that derives from the fact that their bosses, peers, and their subordinates all have their eye on them, and so they cannot fail.  No one likes to be out of control.  And most of us will assert more control — even when it’s the worst instinct we have.  I get that this young woman was angry and had good reason to be.  (I validated her anger, not unlike what I was suggesting she do with her boss.)  And then she had a choice — hate the job/boss, undermine the boss, give up, or . . . work with a very imperfect boss in a situation that was not bringing out his best.  I’m eager to hear what she does!

  • Another way for managers to deal with micro-management is to head it off with periodic discussions with direct reports, especially when hiring them. Some call it situational managing. As HR VP for a large urban hospital, I would ask a simple question: How would you like to be managed? One of my new managers said, “Let’s agree on the standards I should meet and how my performance should be measured, and we’ll check in every few months to see how things are going.” I replied, “Well, I have a need to be informed so that I can brag about your unit to the administrative council and if necessary, work with you to resolve problems before they get out of hand.” Another new hire said she wanted to check often with me especially on budgetary matters. I replied that I would honor her preference yet as she acquired greater confidence no doubt she wouldn’t have the time to check with me so often. Both of these individuals thrived in their jobs. The latter was promoted several times.

  • Barry, I could not agree more. I love how you have described theirs and the vivid examples. It points to how we think that our job is to give them feedback. But since we have such a big impact on those whom we manage, it makes so much sense for us to get feedback from them. Thanks so much for the great point, Dan

  • Good afternoon Dan,
    Other than delivering newspaper and babysitting, my first job I was 17 and I was there for four 1/2 years before being fired. I would come in when they needed me and stayed longer. I never called in and I even worked a second full time job. I was the fastest, and I knew how to do everything in the store, some of the managers didn’t. I could open and close the store (a privately owned McDonalds). I was well liked, but hated by the store manager, Rick the last one. There was a couple before him. Three to five times a week he take me down stairs and yell at me threatening to fire me. He send me downstairs first then he come minutes later slamming the door. I didn’t do anything he just yell at me for 15 minutes or longer. Almost thirty years later I see and hear people complain on FB or in person about their boss for one reason or another. Exam: somebody upset because she had to take off her fake nails. They don’t know what a boss from hell is like. The owner wouldn’t do anything about Rick, too afraid. Every three months they gave everyone a raise Rick wouldn’t give me one. I never knew why this man hated me that he would treat me like this I was nice to him and I did my job. I remember the one girl would always call him a schizophrenic. I learned something, not to take abuse at a job that don’t pay enough. He would always take the bacon and sausage out of the garbage after we thrown them away after breakfast, and eat them. I can see a homeless person, yes but a store manager.

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