People often complain about their bosses being micro-managers. Not only are employees told what to do, which one could argue is a manager’s job, they are also told how, when, where and with whom to work. Thats where it feels a bit micro.
In some organizations there are performance standards, metrics and reports to assess how well everyone measures up to all of these expectations. Staff who don’t meet requirements are put on probation and may even be fired. Yikes! That’s where it feels really micro!
Micro-managing is grounded in scientific management which focuses on efficiency and effectiveness of individuals, teams and organizations to meet their goals. Managing down to the micro-level is not necessarily bad. Gathering data on work often creates useful feedback and insights on how to do even better—continuous improvement.
Micro-management also has risks.
First, performance standards have the potential to create competition where you want collaboration. Pitting people against each other in meeting performance standards seldom drives continuous improvement. It is better to drive competition and performance measurements against team goals or to exceed past team performance in order to engage people to cooperate to reach the standards rather than compete against each other to meet them.
Second, managing micro actions can have the effect of driving out variability and variability is where creativity lives. People are not machines but too often we manage them as though they are. Machines are supposed to be predictable, consistent, stable as they perform repeatable work without variance. Humans, however, have ideas, insights, visions, motivations and goals. Managing people like machines drives out these factors, creating drone-like functions where there could be rich human engagement with the work and within and across teams.
The third risk with micro-management is that too often it assumes that the people doing the work care less about about doing a good job than the people managing it. This is a flawed assumption. Most people care about their work. They want to do a good job and make a meaningful contribution. I have had the good fortune of working in the public sector where most people are downright passionate about their work! When faced with micromanagement they often have to work around their controlling bosses because they care so much about serving residents.
To steer clear of the risks of micro-managing, leaders need to look at the underlying dynamics, beliefs and assumptions. If the job requires performance standards and metrics, co-create them with employees, listen and adjust what is being measured based not only on management interests but also what works and is authentic from employee perspectives. Review performance reports together and find ways to capture the non-quantifiable aspects of performance. Invite whole human beings to engage in how to continuously improve. Ask people doing the work how to maximize productivity without driving out all variables and human creativity.
Challenge your assumptions. In my experience, leaders who micromanage are usually well intentioned. It is difficult to be responsible for the work of other people. To be responsible, we assume we need to take control. How else are we to ensure the work is done right? Ironically, this is the wrong path. Effective leaders don’t try to control employees, they engage them.
“Manage the essence, not the edges” is one of my management principles. Create a structure of alignment on mission, values and goals—the essence; and allow the edges—individual style, expression and creativity—to flourish. Trade control for engagement. Engaging requires humility, grace, respect and trust between managers and employees. It is up to the leader to initiate it.
Humility is admitting that you don’t have all the knowledge, wisdom and answers and are dependent on the contribution of employees to succeed. Grace is noticing and honoring differences, allowing people to make mistakes and owning up to the ones you make. Wisdom is knowing when to influence, interject and intervene and when to let dynamics play out.
If you are a manager and you believe you care about the work more than the people you manage, consider the possibility that this may not be true. Share ownership and responsibility for the work. Invite employees to help define the work—not only the what, but also the how, when, where and with whom to work. COVID has certainly taught us that employees are resilient and creative and we are all capable of working together in new ways not before imagined. People can be productive even (especially) when their micro-managing bosses are not hovering over them.
Instead of micro-managing, micro-notice what energizes the people you work with and what appears to deflate them. Help bring in more of the former and less of the latter. Micro-notice the good work being done every day and acknowledge it. Say please and thank you. Ask what people need from you and the organization to be successful. Pay attention to micro-dynamics, micro-aggressions and micro-alliances. Ensure there is micro-inclusion of all perspectives at meetings. Micro-manage your support. Great leaders pay attention and help facilitate the right set of micro-factors to help create a healthy and productive work environment where everyone can thrive.
For more radical ideas about how to improve the work culture, please check out my book, Management Culture: Innovative & Bold Ideas to Engage Employees (mgmtculture.com).