Micromanagement: The Greatest Temptation and the Greatest Sin of Leadership

We have all been there at one point or another. Placed in a position of authority over others and responsible for ensuring the delivery of a product and/or service we immediately feel the evil tug of micromanagement.

It starts really early.

Two five year old siblings set up a lemonade stand on the curb. One of them seems a little more vocal and hands on then the other. From a distance we would look at the two and say that the loud and decisive one is clearly more of a “leader” than the other.

But on closer inspection what we find is a person who doesn’t believe anyone else can implement their product better than they can. The extra person is just that, extra. They are along for the ride and might serve a purpose to lift and move things but otherwise they had best sit still, shut up and let the real leader handle things.

Sadly things do not seem to change much from the five year old and the adult tasked with similar, albeit greater, responsibilities at a business or in government.

The temptation to micromanage is everywhere. It is in the home, the workplace, in houses of worship, in book clubs, sports teams and of course, in government.

Something inside of people cannot fathom that others can assist in implementing a strategy, product or service in a way that ensures a quality end result. In fact it might even lead to an end result better than the person imagined.

The compulsive micromanager is a generally a small-minded, insecure individual who tends toward a “my way of the highway” attitude and an inability to trust. They are fearful of negative consequences, unwilling to experience failure and quick to blame others when failure all to often happens to them. They do not see themselves as part of the big picture – they are the big picture – and everyone else is raw material to be used, abused and discarded at their whim.

The good news is not everyone is a micromanager. In fact while most of us understand the temptation there are ways to avoid falling into the sin.

First and foremost a leader understands that they play one of many important roles in the ongoing delivery of product and service. The leader knows that to attempt to do or micromanage everything turns them into a bottleneck that stifles productivity, creativity and ultimately a quality end-result.

Part of being a good leader is surrounding yourself with talented people, generally people more talented than yourself in areas that are strategic to your goals, and actually letting them do their work.

Trust is probably the first skill a leader should learn to develop because trust is the enemy of micromanagement. Now we are not speaking of blind trust here but a trust that is built on the foundation of good hiring practices and a solid understanding of the goals of the organization.

If you want to know if you are a micromanager simply ask the people around you and the people who work for you. I’m serious. Staff can smell a micromanager coming a mile away. If you ask for genuine, honest opinions and some examples you will be obliged.

By doing this you exercise the trust that a good leader employs.

Nobody likes a micromanager – and I mean nobody. This is not an exaggeration. The career micromanager hears this and says to themselves and anyone else who is there to listen that “I didn’t get into this to be liked – I got into it to make sure stuff gets done”.

While there may be truth in this statement it is disingenuous because it is designed to deflect. It is the fallback of a person who struggles to learn. A good leader is humble and willing to learn.

To avoid the sin of micromanagement is to understand that people are your friend. You have staff who have been hired to accomplish certain tasks – some specialized, others generalized, but all for a purpose.

You need to let them do their job.

In order for them to do their job well you need to be a good communicator. A strong, well-written job description, regular performance evaluations, constant feedback and opportunities for free and open communication (staff meetings etc).

Of course for all of this to work the leader must exercise another critical skill – that of listening.

Listening is what causes a leader to leave their door open and make themselves available. Listening means not talking and not interrupting while staff are presenting ideas, struggles and concerns. Listening takes patience and time…something the micromanager struggles to employ.

A good leader seeking to avoid the sin of micromanagement focuses on enabling staff to do their jobs. Leaders set expectations, then they remove obstacles and provide support to enable staff to accomplish their goals.

A good leader does not simply have an outcome in mind but a road map to the outcome that outlines the necessities along the way – this might be a project plan or a strategy but whatever you call it, it keeps people on track. This should be created in consultation with the staff expected to assist in completing the project. Having this in place can help a leader avoid falling into micromanagement.

What happens when people do not meet expectations?

This is part of any workplace. For all sorts of reasons outcomes are often not achieved the way we would want. A lot of these reasons are not, in fact, your employee’s fault and you should be able to tell the difference. Your employee could not have anticipated the tornado that came and destroyed the lemonade stand. Sure they could put in place certain conditions to mitigate this risk such as selling the lemonade out of a tornado bunker but then you sacrifice valuable client visibility and as such the best bet is to take the risk.

If you have the correct tools in place – the good job description, the project plan, the open and clear communication, you can identify when the employee genuinely misses the mark and can implement strategies to ensure success. If it keeps happening the employee is asked to leave and someone new comes in.

In these circumstances the micromanager panics and blames the employee for the failure of the project. They hear a loud and repetitive voice in their head which says “I told you you should have done it yourself” and nothing changes.

Micromanagement turns your organization into an organization of one person with a lot of wasteful spending on everyone else. It creates a bottleneck and inefficiencies sky rocket leading ultimately to collapse.

You don’t have to be a micromanager. Sure the temptation is almost always there. We all look at a marketing design or message, a product strategy or a service delivery plan and think to ourselves “hmmmm”. The trick is to remind ourselves that we have good people in place to do these things and we need to trust they know what they are doing.

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