Over the past few weeks I’ve been involved in three separate conversations around micromanagement. All have been in the business and nonprofit context, but the idea of closely observing or controlling the work of subordinates or employees can just as easily apply in the non-work environment. Think, for instance, of the “helicopter parent” syndrome.
The Harvard Business Review has an article by Rebecca Knight on micromanaging that suggests, “It is a hard habit to break. You may downplay your propensities by labeling yourself a ‘control freak’ or by claiming that you just like to keep close tabs on your team, but those are poor excuses for excessive meddling.” I’ll admit to having some of the micromanager bug myself, and I’m convinced that one is never completely cured. But as with the first step in Alcoholics Anonymous’ famous 12-step process, public recognition of the problem of micromanagement can be effective in beginning to consider different ways of working with colleagues, family members, children, and friends. A number of years ago I went through an executive coaching process where I asked several peers to provide unvarnished feedback on my management style. They spoke to my strengths, but it also became clear that I held too tightly to my work. That feedback set me on the path of—to paraphrase Dr. Strangelove—learning how to stop worrying and love delegation.
What are the signs you might be a micromanager?
- You worry that it will reflect badly on you if your team doesn’t do something exactly the way you would do it.
- You have trouble prioritizing what matters and what doesn’t matter for you to do your job
- You step into a project by thinking, “I can do this faster simply by doing it myself.”
- You worry about what is happening in your office/department/division and ask your staff to cc you on all their emails.
- You ask your employees to seek your permission before doing basic tasks.
- You want to see a daily schedule to ensure that your staff is doing the job the way you want it done.
- You step into a project at the first sign of (what you perceived to be) trouble.
- You don’t trust others to do the job as good as you would do it yourself.
- You find yourself working at 5 o’clock in the morning, or 11 o’clock at night, or all weekend.
- You schedule your children’s days and weekends so heavily that they don’t have time to just be kids.
Any of that sound familiar? Well, once you’ve recognized the illness, Knight suggest some cures.
“Fighting your micromanaging impulses might be hard at first so pull back slowly. You need to get comfortable, too. Do a test run on a project that is a bit less urgent and give your team full accountability and see how it goes . . . Recognize that your way is not the only, or even necessarily, the best way. The acid test of leadership is how well the team does when you’re gone.” (Side note: I’m reminded of how my team tackled my absence during a sabbatical—and made me laugh at myself in the process—with their What Would DJB Do? (WWDJBD?) mugs.)
. . . if things don’t go exactly as you’d like, try your hardest not to overact. Take a breath; go for a walk; do whatever you need to do to come ‘back from that agitated micro-managerial moment’ . . . After all, does it really matter if the memo isn’t formatted exactly to your liking? For most things, nothing is so bad it can’t be corrected.”
So what’s wrong with micromanaging? After all, if the job is done well, isn’t that the point. Not exactly. Knight suggests, “Micromanaging dents your team’s morale by establishing a tone of mistrust—and it limits your team’s capacity to grow. It also hampers your ability to focus on what’s really important . . .If your mind is filled with the micro-level details of a number of jobs, there’s no room for big picture thoughts” (emphasis added). You can set the broad vision and goals for your project and then hold your team accountable for reaching those goals without deciding in excruciating detail how they have to travel to that destination. For anyone with any type of oversight responsibility—be it a division chief, a project manager, or a parent—understanding and then focusing on your job while letting others grow into and focus on their job is the only way toward long-term success.
Finally, I think Paul Graham has one of the best reason to stop micromanaging: life is too short. Life is too short to do stuff that doesn’t matter. And doing someone else’s job because you are micromanaging is doing stuff that doesn’t matter.
“One heuristic for distinguishing stuff that matters is to ask yourself whether you’ll care about it in the future. Fake stuff that matters usually has a sharp peak of seeming to matter. That’s how it tricks you. The area under the curve is small, but its shape jabs into your consciousness like a pin. . . . The things that matter aren’t necessarily the ones people would call ‘important.’ Having coffee with a friend matters. You won’t feel later like that was a waste of time.”
Just about everything in that bulleted list above will fall, over time, into the category of stuff that doesn’t matter. So take a deep breath, step back, and learn to stop worrying and love delegation.
Have a good week.
More to come…
Image: The “What Would DJB Do?” mug my staff prepared for sabbatical. You can consider this my personalized “World’s Best Dad” or “World’s Best Boss” mug