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Let It Go: Teaching a Micromanager How to Chill

Constant checking in, dissatisfaction with work products can reflect insecurity

A woman is holding her head up while a group of people are around her.

You can keep a calendar as well as anyone. So why is it that three weeks before a deadline, the boss e-mails to remind you of it, does the same thing the next week, and then again the week after?

Suffocating bosses—also known as micromanagers—often send this message to subordinates: “I don’t trust you to get the job done, nor to do it right.”

“The micromanager is down in the weeds, swamped in minutiae,” said Teresa A. Daniel, dean of the Human Resource Leadership (HRL) Program at Sullivan University in Louisville, Ky., and chairwoman for the HRL concentration in the university’s Ph.D. in management program. “Contrary to the best social science research—which shows that people who believe that they are being watched perform at a lower level—micromanagers require incessant updates and daily huddles, and they closely scrutinize, and often criticize, how their employees complete tasks.”

How do you spot a micromanager? He or she:
  • Constantly checks on where workers are.
  • Asks to be copied on all team e-mails.
  • Is reluctant to delegate.
  • Breaks projects into small tasks that make employees feel that their contributions are insignificant.
  • Checks and double-checks on deadlines and asks for frequent updates, even about small tasks.
  • Rarely asks for input from others.
  • Applies the same level of intensity and scrutiny to every task, failing to prioritize.
  • Is never quite satisfied with a work product.
  • Takes great pride in correcting or changing people’s work.
  • Is subject to extreme mood swings.
“When things are going as expected, they can be almost ebullient, but when there’s even the smallest deviation from their way, their emotions can quickly devolve into anger and frustration,” Daniel said.

What Makes a Micromanager Behave This Way?

Often, micromanagers have good intentions and don’t behave out of malice, said Rob Bogosian, founder and principal consultant of Naples, Fla.-based RVB Associates Inc., an executive leadership consultancy, and co-author of Breaking Corporate Silence (BCS Publishing, 2014). Instead, their smothering management style typically reflects an extreme need for control and a need to dominate. 

“They tend to see the world as a place that needs lots of structure to avoid chaos,” Bogosian said. “When the boss takes the solution to the finish line, their adrenal system dumps feel-good chemicals into the body. The micromanager scores the winning solution and is rewarded physiologically, so why stop? They are most likely addicted to control. Of course, the micromanager is unlikely to admit their addiction. We are likely to hear [from the boss] about the inadequacies of other employees.”

Hyacinth Guy, vice president of human resources at Caribbean Airlines Ltd., based in Piarco, Trinidad, sees it differently. Micromanagers, she said, tend to have deep-seated insecurities.

“A micromanager is a person who probably has a poor self-image, so he or she doesn’t believe they deserve to be where they are, and so thinks the same about the people they supervise,” she said. “So the constant checking and looking over employees’ shoulders are really checks on their own ability to do the job. They don’t believe in themselves, so they believe in no one else.”

How the Micromanager Affects Others

Employees who work for micromanagers often feel that their boss doesn’t trust them or value their contributions. This can cause workers to feel disrespected, devalued and demoralized. 

“Employees want some level of autonomy,” Guy said. “If I’m hired to do a job, I want to know that you have the confidence that I would do that job. If you are constantly fact-checking me, I feel hapless in the organization. That reduces my productivity.”

The manager’s mood swings can convince subordinates to avoid interacting with him or her. Daniel calls this a “climate of fear.”

Over time, employees’ professional growth is stunted because the micromanager won’t give them opportunities to shine, she said.

Ultimately, micromanaging “squashes the spirit and motivation of even the most talented and driven employee,” said Daniel, author of Stop Bullying at Work: Strategies and Tools for HR, Legal, & Risk Management Professionals 2nd Edition (Society for Human Resource Management, 2016). This, she said, “can quickly lead to burnout or, worse, talented employees electing to simply leave the organization.”

Moreover, the micromanager may eventually sabotage his or her own career or managerial reputation.

“It’s only a matter of time until the micromanager is overloaded and begins to fail, or sees a parade of underutilized employees leave,” Bogosian said.

Handling the Micromanager

Changing micromanagers, Guy said, often begins when they are shocked into realizing that their management style is offensive.

Guy tells of how she dealt with one supervisor who would remind subordinates each day of what they had to accomplish. The woman tracked the time they took for bathroom breaks and would sometimes stand over workers as they completed reports.

The manager told Guy she did these things because employees are inclined to slack off if they aren’t monitored.

“Clearly, that is her worldview of people, perhaps based on how she was socialized and conditioned,” Guy said.

Guy had employees conduct an anonymous evaluation of the woman. When she earned a 2 rating from her subordinates—out of a possible 5—she was appalled.

She “had to be shocked into the realization that she was not an effective supervisor,” Guy said. “I sent her on some supervisory training. I assigned her a coach who worked to raise her awareness of how she was viewed and who helped with delegating, time management and increasing [her] productivity by focusing on high-payoff activities. Then I placed supervision as a factor in her overall [performance] assessment. She is still a work in progress but going in the right direction.”

Bogosian said such coaching requires great patience.

“The belief systems that create the micromanager may not go away overnight,” he said. “Weaning the micromanager off their controlling belief system takes time and constant feedback. More importantly, the micromanager must know that they’re safe when they allow others to succeed. It doesn’t diminish their value but actually enhances it.”

Dana Wilkie is the People Manager editor for SHRM.

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