Help For Micromanagers

Micromanagers can be the bane of many an employee’s existence.

These types of bosses figuratively breathe over subordinates’ necks. Unwilling to delegate, they feel compelled to get involved in the minutiae of their staff’s jobs. They watch over shoulders, check and re-check work and demand continual progress updates.

The message micromanagers send is that their staff can’t be trusted to do their jobs competently on their own. And these managers end up costing companies in poor morale, lack of productivity and ability to get a job done: Employees begin to second-guess themselves and start to under perform. They bring tiny issues and decisions to micromanagers rather than moving ahead. Work slows down.

Furthermore, resentment can build among employees, prompting them to avoid the manager. A micromanaging cycle begins: If managers can’t get the information they need because staff are avoiding them, they begin to tighten the reins, which leads staff to assume management believes they are incompetent and untrustworthy.

Yet the fact is, micromanagers live in fear, often because they are getting pressure from their own bosses. (This pressure could come because the micromanager has overpromised results. Out of a fear of inadequacy, and in the hopes of demonstrating their competence, they are striving to impress their supervisors). They worry that without their constant guidance, important details will fall through the cracks and that the results could be catastrophic, ranging from the project failing to the ultimate disaster – that the company will go under.

Many micromanagers believe everyone else is ineffective except themselves, but their real concern is their own deeply felt fear of incompetence. Rather than examine these fears of failure and their sense of inadequacy, micromanagers project their fears onto others.

Micromanagement can alternate between over-involvement in others’ work to abandoning and neglecting subordinates. These managers may monitor staff incessantly then suddenly back off when challenged. Rather than adjusting their levels of management after realizing they are over- involved, these people might hand over all the responsibility for the project to a subordinate. In effect, the micromanager abandons subordinates until they fumble.

It is difficult for micromanagers to find a happy medium. Often, they cannot sense when to be involved and when to back off. They lack a sense of perspective. They can’t adequately plan due to anxiety about the outcome. When the worry becomes too acute, their micromanaging intensifies.

Focussing on process and rebutting catastrophic beliefs are two key antidotes to micromanaging. For example, once a manager understands what needs to be accomplished and conveys that to staff, she can help them plan how it will get done and monitor their progress in a less intrusive way.

At the same time, micromanagers must listen to their self talk. They can catch themselves thinking, “I’d better check Sally phoned the customer about the schedule change because if she doesn’t we’ll lose the contract.” It may be wise to check with Sally. But instead of asking whether she made the call, it would be better to ask her about the customer’s reaction to the schedule change.

A general rule for micromanagers is: Don’t get caught up in catastrophic thinking when asking for information from staff. Pause and ask for the information you really need. Recognize that some of these irrational fears are rooted in a sense of inadequacy. If you are fighting thoughts about not being good enough, take a few minutes to calm down. Micromanaging may soothe anxiety or help you feel better about yourself, but the results are temporary.

If you suspect you are working for a micromanager, ask yourself whether you are making the manager nervous. If you are not completing work, taking enough initiative or omitting important details, you could be inviting micro- management. If your attitude seems too casual, the manager may feel compelled to make sure you have things under control.

Once you rule out ways you might be encouraging micro- management, you could conclude your manager needs help. If so, make him or her aware of how the behaviour is affecting you. Also, be sure to explain both parts of the cycle – what happens when he or she is looking over your shoulder and what happens when he or she tries to correct the situation but becomes unavailable.

Suggest meeting with the manager regularly to discuss updates on a particular project to allay his or her anxiety. You may be met with resistance since micromanagers often say they are too busy (unfortunately, because they micromanage). If this happens, suggest e-mailing regular updates. File hard copies of the updates so you can offer them to the manager if needed.

Ultimately, however, the issue is best dealt with by the manager’s superior. Micromanagement is a leadership issue and must be addressed as such.

Above all, remember that bosses don’t want to be micromanagers. By getting help, they will improve morale, speed things up and be a welcome relief for everyone – including themselves.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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