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Second-Stage Sensei

by Dino Signore

Manager of Entrepreneurial Education

Old school or new school, micromanaging doesn’t make the grade

Micromanagers are typically viewed as people who provide too much feedback, who are constantly looking over your shoulder and telling you how to do something. Yet in a recent Gallup article, authors Ben Wigert and Ryan Pendell point to a modern version of micromanagers: Someone who doesn’t interact with you very much, who doesn’t provide context about a project, tell you why it’s important or set goals — until the end. Then they suddenly appear on the scene with lots of negative feedback and last-minute demands.

Wigert and Pendell note that micromanagers are often regarded as bogeymen of the business arena, and rightly so because they attack our autonomy. From neuroscience we know that autonomy is a highly motivating factor for workers. When people have control over such factors as when they work, where they work and who they work with, they are more productive and engaged. Conversely, when managers decrease autonomy for team members, the threat response kicks in. The limbic system activates cortisol, causing disengagement and reducing an individual’s cognitive abilities. This is particularly dangerous for companies that rely on knowledge workers.

The “new school” of micromanaging can be especially frustrating because workers might initially believe they have autonomy. Then, when managers get hyperinvolved at the last minute, a culture of uncertainty, distrust and second-guessing replaces their sense of autonomy.

What’s more, micromanaging affects an individual’s sense of status. If someone is constantly telling you what to do and how to do it, you feel belittled and stupid. (Status, certainty and autonomy are the first three components of David Rock’s SCARF model, a wonderful framework for understanding how employees react to rewards and threats in the workforce.)

Micromanaging also has negative repercussions for whoever is doing it. For starters, it decreases productivity along with team morale — two things managers don’t want to mess with. If you lower the morale of your team, you’re going to have a hard time getting it back. And you’ll have a hard time getting a job at another company if micromanaging becomes part of your reputation.

If it’s the CEO or business owner who is constantly stirring the pot, they become a constraint to company growth because everything has to go through them. In addition, the company will experience brain drain, because talented people will leave.

So why does micromanaging happen? According to a HRB.org article, many chronic micromanagers believe it will save them time, that too much is at stake for something to go wrong, or that their own boss wants them to be heavily involved.

From my perspective, it’s a sign of disorganization. The micromanager doesn’t really know what his or her team is doing — despite how involved they seem to be. And similar to delegation, management can be a dirty word for entrepreneurs. They typically don’t enjoy it or feel naturally inclined to it, and often the first steps for management newbies is to micromanage. Also, entrepreneurs may fear that autonomy will translate into an overly laissez-faire environment. Yet there’s an optimal range here…a middle ground between being too involved and too hands-off.

The current pandemic could prompt a hike in both styles of micromanaging, but especially old school. All human beings, and entrepreneurs in particular, like control. And when there’s a crisis, the knee-jerk reaction is to become more hands-on than normal. Many business leaders are also managing virtual teams for the first time, which might trigger hypercontrol mode because they worry they can’t manage what they can’t see.

Yet leading a remote workforce simply calls for managing a different way. Granted, it might be slightly harder because workers are no longer located down the hallway from you. You’ll need to adopt new modes of communication. Fortunately, today’s technology provides plenty of options.

Back to the Gallup article, another point that resonated with me was the distinction between micromanaging and coaching: 

  • Micromanagers tell. They focus on the “how,” want to own your work and give feedback too late.
  • Coaches ask. They explain the “why,” want you to own the work and give ongoing feedback.

Clearly, coaching is preferable. Leaders who have mastered the coaching style of management may have frequent conversations with team members but aren’t viewed as over-stepping or too involved. Because they are encouraging and supportive, they build a trusting relationship over time. Employees view their input as collaborative, not coercive — a huge difference that not only results in high-performing teams but much happier workers.

(Published August 17, 2020)