Managing the Micro-Manager

by Eric Samuels

Micro-managing. We’ve all experienced it. The boss who pays painstaking attention to minutia, resulting in a stifling environment where employees feel their every action is being closely monitored. With few exceptions, a micro-manager’s need to control the workplace is a fear-based response to their own insecurity about allowing other people the latitude to make decisions.

We’re back to the smartest person in the room syndrome.

Problem is, micro-managed businesses are far more likely to stall, as there is no incentive for initiative; the cornerstone of growth within a healthy organization. On the contrary, micro-managers are risk-averse, reluctant to consider the possibility that anyone else might have a better idea on how to get things done.

It’s important to understand what motivates the micro-manager, many of whom are business owners or CEOs. They are motivated by their own fear of failure.

Being The Boss means making major decisions that have a direct impact on the bottom-line. Oftentimes, a manager becomes overwhelmed by the magnitude of top-level decisions, choosing to backburner his actions (a cute euphemism for procrastination). Instead, the boss feels the need to focus his attention on things that will make him feel like he’s functioning effectively as a manager. So, by streamlining the supply closet’s stapler inventory, the micro-manager feels like he’s accomplished something, which helps restore his confidence and the sense that he’s in charge.

It’s important to emphasize that his positive feeling of accomplishment is the same neurological response (the release of feel-good dopamine into the bloodstream) as his having achieved the more significant, top-level business task. However, the dopamine released is far less significant, resulting in a much shorter-term buzz. The solution? There’s more where that came from! As a result, micro-managing, like any feel-good drug-use, usually escalates, making an organization more and more suffocating for the employees.

So, how do you break the cycle of micro-management? It’s not easy, particularly if it’s part of the corporate culture. It’s like that old joke “how many Psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? One, but the light bulb has to want to change!”

Unless the micro-manager is given substantial incentive to change, he’ll continue to do what feels right. So, what kind of incentives are effective?

· Firm feedback from his manager, who is aware of the problem.

· Indirect employee feedback (staff quit and provide critical feedback upon departure).

· Failing business (this requires a manager with both the insight and fortitude to look at his own performance in direct relation to the results)

· Direct employee feedback (staff who have both the nerve and tact to approach the boss).

The final point is rare, risky, but achievable. Approaching a micro-manager in a non-confrontational manner is an art in itself. Effective methods include:

  • Building the confidence of the manager by keeping him informed of the progress of projects (particularly those that he has shown an interest in).
  • Asking for feedback and direction (even if you have a good idea of what needs to be done), then provide measurable results in a timely fashion.
  • Demonstrating how delegating to you is in his best interest, by voluntarily taking on projects that you know are in your wheelhouse.

It’s all about managing upwards.

That said, managing the micro-manager is not easy. As a result, micro-managers lose good employees all the time. So if you find yourself in a position where a micro-manager has eroded your enthusiasm for the job, and you’ve exhausted all available efforts, it might be time to look elsewhere.

Suggested Reading: MESSAGES: THE COMMUNICATION SKILLS BOOK (Matthew McKay, Martha Davis, Patrick Fanning)

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