Can micromanaging be prevented?

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I’ve been working for about 13 years. Micromanaging is everywhere. I’ve worked in elementary schools, huge for-profits, massive health care industries, the travel industry, and now freelance. Regardless of where you run and try to hide, micromanaging is there. Can it be prevented?

In all likelihood, the answer is squarely no on ‘can micromanaging be prevented?’ But it requires a bit of deeper understanding.

Micromanaging: Where does it originate from?

This one is decently simple to address. We tend to design organizations around silos, because we care more about silos — pockets of functional expertise — than we do about the ability to learn new skills and grow. This brings to mind two things, both ultimately tied to micromanaging:

Here’s where we generally stand on micromanagement, then:

  • Because of silos, most ‘leaders’ (managers?) come up through specific areas (finance, accounting, marketing, sales)
  • Those ‘leaders’ are very comfortable with the vocabulary and concepts of that silo
  • They may not be comfortable with the terminology and concepts of other silos they need to deal with

And now we come to a major fork in the road around micromanaging. The singular objective of many senior leaders is to avoid being seen as incompetent.

Let’s cue this up for a second.

If your goal is to avoid being seen as incompetent, what are you mostly going to do?

  • Focus on the areas you understand
  • Attempt to be critical there in an effort to “get the best product out the door”
  • Mostly ignore the things/concepts you don’t understand and hope someone else deals with them

That’s the essence of how micromanaging arises, truly: senior managers fear incompetence and focus on the areas they understand. If you think it’s anything else, you’re probably a few slugs off.

Micromanaging: Can we prevent it?

We can prevent micromanaging, but it’s a challenge.

Here’s where we need to start:

  • You hire a person based on vetting their background and knowledge
  • When you hire them, you agree to pay them a certain % of the company’s money
  • The company would probably rather keep that % of money for themselves
  • But, you hired this person because you felt you needed their skill sets to continue growing

Look at those four bullets above. What you’re saying is, essentially: “We don’t want to give up revenue to pay people” but “We need to do that in order to grow” so “We hire someone based on an extensive vetting process to help us grow” and then “We instantly assume they have no idea what they’re doing and launch instantly into micromanaging.”

That’s the essence of why the hiring process is broken, FYI.

So … with such a focus on task work and preventing incompetence, can we eliminate micromanaging? Somewhat. Here’s how.

Eliminating micromanaging

The single biggest key to eliminating micromanaging is figuring out a way to align ‘strategy’ (long-term vision and what executives talk about in meetings) with ‘execution’ (day-to-day work and what rank-and-files do). Consider this graph from Harvard Business Review:

Only 8% of executives are ‘very effective’ at ‘keeping their company on track’ and ‘developing company strategy.’ That’s 8 out of 100. That’s awful.

Here’s why this becomes a problem in terms of micromanaging: when ‘strategy’ and ‘execution’ are not aligned, corporate politics rises up. When corporate politics rise up, bosses’ brains predict threats. When bosses’ brains predict threats, the focus is now on making sure the core areas are managed according to process and not according to any models around innovation, growth, etc.

The focus has become “this senior leader or middle manager needs to protect their ass because other stuff is going down.” That’s where micromanaging begins.

OK, so … can we eliminate micromanaging?

Yes, but it’s very hard.

Here’s what we need to do, essentially:

What we tend to do is this:

I just hired someone. I trusted them through the hiring process but now I’m going to make sure I’m micromanaging every step of their lives so that they’re in accordance with goals and targets. I’m not going to let through any new ideas. It’s all process, process, process and deliverables, deliverables, deliverables — and if and when he/she gets out of line, I’m going to shift back to micromanaging. This will, in turn, make me feel like a good manager.

This attitude is not good, but it’s a micromanaging attitude I’ve seen at dozens of different jobs I’ve had over time. Do you think it’s preventable? What else would you say about micromanaging? I know you’ve got thoughts, so leave ‘em.

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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