What is micromanagement?
Micromanagement is a “management style whereby a manager closely observes or controls the work of subordinates or employees”.
Micromanagement is bad. It hurts morale and works against making individuals or teams productive. An effective manager or a leader makes people use their brains instead of acting like mindless zombies who require constant babysitting and instructions. A micromanager is like a helicopter parent closely watching and monitoring the employees, which is very demoralizing especially to smart people.
While some managers micromanage out of fear or job insecurity, most do it because they don’t trust their direct reports to carry out the tasks as well as themselves or they fear that without their supervision, mistakes will be made. This lack of trust forces the manager to become defensive and assume that the only way employees will do good work is if they are being constantly monitored and reviewed and they cannot be trusted to make decisions on their own. Employees reporting to a micromanager become cynical and sometimes even despise the manager. They start acting in their own self-interest which is counter-productive and inhibits team formation.
An acquaintance once asked for my help on a project that was stuck. The technical manager who was in charge of a small team (less than 10 people) was drowning in work. I quickly realized that I was dealing with a micromanager. Employees were disenchanted and had very low morale or motivation to do a good job. They didn’t care. The micromanager, through his actions, made it clear to the team that he had no trust in them. He had put elaborate processes in place so that nothing could get marked as “done” until he had reviewed it down to the tiniest details. He told me that the team sucks and he was brought in to basically kick ass and get the project done. It was amusing because his lack of trust had become a self-fulfilling prophecy: he was frustrated that people were producing such low quality work and that that he had to redo everything and was swamped with menial coding tasks so much that he didn’t have time for anything else.
Chapter 20 of Peopleware is called Teamicide and describes a list of things to not do if you are trying to grow productive teams. Micromanagement is at the top of that list because if there’s one thing you cannot protect yourself against, it’s your own people’s incompetence:
It makes good sense for you the manager to take a defensive posture in most areas of risk. If you must work with a piece of failure prone gear, you get a backup; […]
There’s one area, though, where defensiveness will always backfire: You can’t protect yourself against your own people’s incompetence. If your staff isn’t up to the job at hand, you will fail. Of course, if the people are badly suited to the job, you should get new people. But once you’ve decided to go with a given group, your best tactic is to trust them. Any. defensive measure taken to guarantee success in spite of them will only make things worse. It may give you some relief from worry in the short term, but it won’t help in the long run, and it will poison any chance for the team to jell.
This is why companies should choose managers or leaders very wisely. Good leaders hire very, very carefully for both brains and cultural fit. They coach employees about their values and set goals and expectations clearly instead of holding hands all along the way. They show their employees that they are trusted to get the job done right and let them own it. Good leaders don’t treat mistakes at work like sins. They allow their employees to learn from their mistakes and develop skills and build knowledge. Trust is the key to growing productive teams.
There is however another problem on the other end of the spectrum: some managers fall into the opposite trap where they think that they can hire smart people who get things done and just disappear, leaving people on their own with vague goals and expectations. This style is called macromanagement, and it is equally as bad as micromanagement. You are not micromanaging if you provide direction, occasionally override a decision or help the team reach consensus. It requires the right balance.
In the end, it’s all about trust. Trust is a feeling and it takes time to build it. Trust build and jell teams - it makes people feel safe and when smart people feel safe and trusted, they do everything in their power to achieve the goal.