People Management

Micromanagement: what causes the toxicity behind it?

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Show me that email before you send it. Send me a meeting minute after the call, just to me, not everyone. Show me the defect you raised; I want to check the content. Show me step by step how you got to those numbers.

There’s a good chance you may have heard some of these. If not, you are quite lucky or didn’t work for long enough.

Managers are expected to think strategically or achieve goals – depending on their level of management, solve problems, manage budgets and / or targets. A micromanager is a manager who gives excessive and unjustified supervision to employees. Micromanagement may be indeed required when an employee is unable to perform well and requires guidance, but normally this should get delegated to a team leader. It may also be required when a situation is high-risk and it requires close attention, to achieve alignment. The distinctive feature is that micromanagers are obsessed by irrelevant details.

While being described by phrases like the ones quoted above, micromanagers also share other traits. They usually come in early and stay until late, since being a bottleneck requires overtime. They do not want subordinates to gain credit or become visible and for that reason they always discuss alone with their bosses. They become irritated when decisions are made, without consulting them and explode when one of their superiors talks directly to one of their subordinates.

The impact they have is pretty straightforward. Micromanagement creates bottlenecks and dependencies. There is only so much one person can process and if every work deliverable has to pass examination, speed of delivery is unavoidably affected. Autonomy, creativity and critical thinking are killed. No senior will tolerate this and if leaving the company is not an immediate option for the employee, tasks will get executed without any interest in (or commitment to) the end result. It’s demotivating, the employees start to feel unworthy as micromanagement is often followed by overcriticism.

Therefore, one question arises: if this behaviour is so bad, what leads to it? Well, it has nothing to do with the job title, because most likely that person behaved in the same way as a team lead and probably behaves the same way at home or among friends.

Ok, so what lies behind it? There could be several answers:

1. Lack of training. They simply think it’s a good way to manage a team, to achieve results. That’s why managers need training too.

2. Toxic organisational culture. It was simply cascaded from top to bottom. “It’s the way we work around here”.

3. Anxiety coping mechanism when put under pressure. Micromanagers cannot think strategically as it is expected from them, so they fall back to known territory: operations.

4. Fear of losing control, caused by insecurity. It’s quite common in people who advance too fast through the organisation, losing touch with what they consider to be “real work”. However, there may be good intentions behind this fear, even if the end result is a disaster, but that doesn’t help anyone.

5. Trust issues that manifest also in private life.

6. Dysfunctional familly. It may reflect a childhood experience caused by critical parents who were control freaks. On the same page with masochists, they recreate a traumatic experience over which they have control now and they are not a victim anymore.

7. Feelings of inferiority or incompetency which get “transferred” or projected on the employees. While a junior employee may actually ask for validation, on the long run it will undermine any chances to perform well.

Looking at it from the other side, what can you do if you are micromanaged?

  1. Prove your competency and set boundaries. Show that you are doing your job well, that there is no reason for these often checks, but you can understand the need to report as long as the cadence happens on your terms. Bring in rational arguments revolving around the time spent reporting and productivity.
  2. If the first strategy didn’t work… overwhelm the micromanager: let him or her approve and oversee every little thing, until he/she sinks in his/her own medicine.

Fact is, as a regular employee, if top management and HR don’t realize they have promoted a micromanager, there’s not much you can do other than seek for a better role. In another team or another company. Usually the bells start to ring when attrition levels increase.

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