Is Micromanagement Contagious?

Is micromanagement contagious?

Every so often I catch myself micromanaging staff members. Sometimes even very experienced, senior level team members. When it happens, I try to ask myself why. I know full well what the repercussions of micromanagement are. I know the impact it has on engagement and ultimately on performance. I write a blog about management for goodness sake. And yet it still happens more than I’d like. The question is, why?

Most of the articles written on the subject of micromanagement would have you believe it’s because of a deeply rooted need for control. I must feel insecure watching my team members lead and act as experts while I observe from afar. I must be fearful of losing power. Instinctively, we all jump to this conclusion. It’s easy, but I’m not sure I buy it. At least, not in all cases of micromanagement. For me at least, I think the root of micromanagement comes from another source. I think it’s contagious.

It’s easy to point to micromanagement as an inherent flaw in the individual. Something the manager was born with. A control freak. Can’t let go. Doesn’t want to see good people succeed. It’s easy to say that when you are on the receiving end of micromanagement. I certainly did. But if that were the case, why has micromanagement persisted for generations? If every employee who experienced micromanagement had rebelled against it, wouldn’t it have disappeared by now? Why are there just as many micromanagers today as there were twenty years ago? I hated being micromanaged, but I still catch myself doing it to others. Am I a control freak? Did a just forget how much I hated it? Or is there something more?

I will concede that a fraction of micromanagers are just flawed individuals who indeed let desires for control and power drive their management styles. But in most cases, I would argue, it’s something much less sinister. When I take an objective look at the times where I’ve caught myself micromanaging team members, there is one thing all of them have in common … someone was simultaneously micromanaging ME!

It’s a misconception that micromanagement is reserved for lower level employees. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I see senior executives being micromanaged all the time. Micromanagement has almost nothing to do with experience and almost everything to do with pressure. When someone is scrutinizing every detail of what I’m doing, directing me in exactly how I should execute, and restricting my creative freedom – I’m much more likely to micromanage the people under me. Micromanagement flows downhill. My contention is micromanagement is systemic, not isolated. Its cultural. If the senior leaders in your organization are under intense pressure – not just for results, but on specific execution details – they’re much more likely to micromanage the teams underneath them. And so it goes, from top to bottom.

Let me give you a hypothetical example. If I’m a senior executive and my boss is putting intense pressure on me to execute a project in a very specific way, it creates a unique kind of stress. It inspires micromanagement. In this example, rather than telling me what outcome we want and leaving me to manage my team to execute creatively, my boss has told me exactly how, when and why I need to execute a project. I’ve been given specific direction down to the last detail. In this case, it’s extremely hard for me (no matter what level I’m at) to then give my team creative freedom to deliver on the ultimate objective. It’s almost impossible unless I want to disappoint or disrespect my manager. I can’t give my team latitude to execute creatively because I was instructed exactly how it needed to be done. So instead, I feel pressured to pass the micromanagement down to my team – I tell them exactly what needs to be done and how to do it. And they do the same to their teams … and so the micromanagement flows downhill.

You may say this hypothetical ME should be stronger – that I should stand up to my boss and stop micromanagement at the source. You’re not wrong, but it’s not as easy as it sounds, especially for career minded people. But the bigger point is that my micromanagement is not the result of my deep seeded insecurity or my intense need for control, it’s because I’ve been placed under extreme pressure to deliver something very precisely defined. It’s because I too was micromanaged. Isn’t this a more logical case for micromanagement than the assumption all micromanagers are deeply flawed narcissist control freaks?

The last question is, what should we do about it? I do think senior managers need to do a better job of calling it out at the source. It’s a hard task but I agree we should endeavor to do it more. Now that I can see the trickle-down impacts of micromanagement I will try to protect against it earlier when I can. But what else can we do? Here are a few possibilities to consider:

Present Options

One safe way to overcome micromanagement is to present options back to your manager including the option you were specifically directed to do. If your boss gives micro-level direction on how to deliver a project, you can’t NOT do it. But you can ALSO present an alternative. Creative agencies do this all the time. They execute the direction given to them by the client and then also present a more interesting option for consideration. That way they’ve done what was directed but also had the opportunity to be creative. Very often you’ll see the client go with the alternative direction and it can change the relationship going forward. Presenting a second option is a good way to respect your manager and give your team an opportunity to be creative. Over time, as your manager observes the trend, the micromanagement may subside.

Make Creative Additions

In a similar vein, I will sometimes make creative additions when I need to fulfill a very precise request with little room for amendment. I will instruct my team to deliver exactly what was asked for, but give them the freedom to make some creative additions where it makes sense. Most of the time this will lead to a very positive result – the team delivers more than was expected and has some measure of freedom in the extra parts of the project. Occasionally, I should say, this backfires and you’ll get criticized for wasting time or expanding scope unnecessarily, but I think it’s worth the risk.

Give Context

At the very least, when you feel pressured to micromanage your team, you need to provide context so they can understand why. The worst thing you can do is just kick the micromanagement can down the road without an explanation. I’ll pull my team aside and explain that we’ve been asked to execute the project in a very specific way and that if we deliver, we can take on a more creative project next. I realize this isn’t a ‘solution’ per se, but I find acknowledging the situation for what it is, and providing some context to be better than saying nothing. Nine times out of ten you team will empathize with the situation and rally to support the project.

We all have stories about terrible micromanagers. It’s very easy to demonize these people and point to their inherent human flaws. But if it were that simple, micromanagement would have evaporated decades ago and we wouldn’t see it so often in ourselves. In my experience, micromanagement is more systemic than individual. It’s the byproduct of intense pressure that starts at the top of an organization and flows right down to the bottom. I’d love to hear about your experiences with micromanagement and any tips you have for overcoming it.

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