I begin with a confession. I micromanaged. I started a new job managing a team of six plus four contractors, tasked with putting together an event in five weeks that had previously taken four months of planning. This was no ordinary, one-day event. It was a week-long, National Science Foundation camp for students with disabilities that included recruiting 30 students, creating a syllabus with teachers including anticipated outcomes, plus organizing vendors, multiple speakers, lunches, scheduling halls, science supplies and … you get the idea.
When the event took place, I raced around in an attempt to be three places at once, maintained mobile contact with staff and volunteers, ran through every presentation with the speakers a final time, and I was there to see a break in the food line at lunch and hand out portions of the meals. I did everything right, assuming I didn’t know anything about what I was doing. I micromanaged. By midway through, I faced a mutiny.
The irony of micromanagement (mm) is that the most organized, punctual, precise, want things to run smoothly types can create the most disruption, chaos, and bad feelings. Did I mention – when I jumped into the vacancy in the food line, I frustrated a volunteer who showed up a moment later and stood behind me for minutes, waiting to do her job? Yes, that happens when you micromanage.
No one considers him or herself an mm. We’re simply better organized, right?
The only way to see mm in yourself objectively is to watch for the symptoms.
Symptom One – The Moment I Turn My Back, Nothing Gets Done.
Here and throughout this short article, I assume that you are in a management position, so you have input in who gets hired, and that you are competent in that. As such, your staff is qualified and competent overall. Fellow staffers usually handle a slacker if you somehow made an error and one of those sneaked into the mix. If things aren’t getting done without your constant hovering, strong odds are that you have created an environment where no one feels in charge of his or own piece and is afraid to act without permission. At the least, human nature has kicked in and they see no point in acting until directly told – again, no sense of ownership. There’s nothing like an mm to sap your staff of pride and the motivation that comes with it.
Symptom Two – None of My Staff Has Fresh Ideas.
You read their résumés. You heard of their prior accomplishments. You were diligent in hiring and had confidence in the energy and intelligence you brought on board, so what happened? Well, maybe you happened. Think of a time you suggested a vacation to a significant other. They loved the idea! But the next thing you knew, they were hovering over you to make sure you booked the right hotel at the right rate on the right night, planned the dinners out at the right times in the right sequence and – oh no, we don’t have time to relax at the beach on Thursday, let’s bump that to Friday between 4:30 and 5:45 when the sun isn’t so hot and.... Can you feel the joy getting sucked away yet? Will you make another suggestion soon? Maybe, but with someone else!
Symptom Three – I’m Afraid to Take a Vacation.
And if you do, your check your work email and text constantly. Maybe you’re just a workaholic. But that’s different than checking for problems you believe only you can resolve. If you must work, remember your position (and the next) and plan great things! That’s different than checking in constantly because you believe only you can solve a problem. If only you can, then you created the underlying issue yourself through mm. I’m a strong believer in Market-Based Management where a major tenet is “The person closest to the problem should have the skill, training, and authority to resolve that problem.” That is common sense for any small business owner, soldier, or nurse. If you hired and trained well and still worry, then re-check Symptoms One and Two.
Symptom Four – I delegate tasks based on what I don’t want to do.
Every job has its tedious times, whether you are a receptionist or CEO. But when you frequently give assignments not based on the skills and abilities of those you hire, it’s not just not poor resource management (though it’s that too). It can be a symptom of mm. Think of the flipside to what you are doing. By pushing off the mundane, you may be keeping the high end work for yourself. Which can be fine – you are in that role – until it turns into giving your MBA with an ethics degree and 10 years of solid outcomes in business your email hit list and what to say – say it just like this – because you believe only you can manage the new project in partner and funding stream development. The great thing about hiring and trusting the best is that they make you look good!
Symptom Five – Mutiny.
It’s almost too late. People call in sick. Everyone is slacking on the job. You find a résumé on the hard drive and someone isn’t at the desk who should be so you question them and – stop! You’re doing it again. Beating up the symptoms won’t cure the disease, and the disease is mm. It’s time for discussions with your staff. It’s time for meetings and one, two, or even three won’t fix it. By now your staff feels too cornered and distrustful for honesty. This is going to take a while, and may include after work talk or even a staff retreat. It’s going to take a lot of listening and introspection on your part. The alternative is to fire all those in mutiny, keeping only those fearful enough to agree that yes, we’re better off with those troublemakers gone. The problem will persist in the long run if you treat these symptoms and not the disease of micromanagement.