Emma: One of the biggest complaints about managers is that they’re actually micromanagers, constantly looking over your shoulder critiquing, commanding, controlling. I hate being micromanaged — Just let me do my thing! — but I also know that managing and micromanaging share a lot of the same traits. Both need to know how the work is going, its quality level, if it’s going to meet or miss deadline, and loads of other details about the means of production.
Andy: I think managers turn into micromanagers when they don’t have clear line of sight into those things — or they do, and aren’t happy with what they see. When I go micro, I’m almost always reacting out of fear or horror that things are not being done right, or well, or on time.
Emma: Totally. There’s usually some sort of pressure-cooker element happening, too: a looming deadline, a surprise review, new and important eyes on my team or the work. I feel like my overactive oversight is the only solution. We don’t have time for coaching right now, only doing! And only doing exactly right! And I’m the only one who knows how!
Andy: It’s a very reasonable reaction. In the end, it’s our job to deliver great results. But the very essence of management is that you’re taking on projects so big, you can’t do them alone. From here on out, you’re always on a group project.
Emma: Yeesh. Put like that, managing sounds awful. But I 100% agree.
Andy: A manager’s role in a group project is making it possible and efficient. We remove obstacles. Overseeing quality and process and day-to-day minutiae is wrapped up in those things, of course.
Emma: If poorly organized files from one person create a problem for someone using those files downstream, it’s an inefficiency and an obstacle that needs to be addressed.
Andy: Exactly. But it’s easy to exert control for less productive reasons. One of the things that separates management from micromanagement is the way it feels: blamey, ego-driven, detached from the final product.
Emma: I briefly had a boss who started micromanaging where we hung our jackets. She required us to start using coat racks instead of the backs of our chairs because she was afraid we’d look sloppy in front of a posh new creative director who was going to be joining the team.
Andy: Oh man. That poor woman was really feeling the pressure.
Andy: Luckily, micromanagement isn’t permanent. It’s not always easy to stop, especially in the middle of a project that’s been micromanaged onto life support. But it’s very normal manager behavior that you can absolutely recognize, and then change over time.
Are You Micromanaging? Ask Yourself These 5 Questions
No one can stop micromanaging overnight. That’s like getting a swimmer to switch which side they’re breathing on in the middle of a race — even if they physically can do the motions, their immediate performance will suffer. It takes time and training to break micromanage-y habits, and to develop systems that build trust and transparency with your team. Get started by asking yourself these gentle questions.
1. What can I let go?
Andy: Not everything about a project needs to be executed perfectly, or perfectly your way. The rational brain knows this. Meanwhile, the rest of the brain is positive it’s literally the only thing keeping the wheels on.
Emma: A scorecard is a really powerful tool to answer that question and help your rational brain convince the rest of your brain to let some things go. If it’s not on the scorecard, you have permission to completely ignore it — or at least to address it at another time and place. I can address nagging problems in a regularly scheduled 1-on-1.
Andy: Things I’ve given up trying to control over the years include exact wording of emails, ways meetings are set up and run, and formatting.
Emma: For me it’s what time people come into the office, when they leave, whether or not they take notes during a meeting, and how promptly they respond to emails.
2. What can I systemize?
Emma: One of my go-to ways to stop micromanaging a complex or intricate process is to let a checklist do it for me. I list every element in the checklist and require someone to literally check a box that they did it.
Andy: This also creates accountability. Someone signed off or they didn’t, so it’s easy to retrace and retrain.
3. When is the last time I explained the work?
Emma: I think this is a very frustrating concept for a lot of managers — myself included on more than one occasion — because the expectation is if I hired you to do the job, I shouldn’t have to keep teaching you how to do the job.
Andy: I also sometimes fear that explaining the work to a team of professionals is talking down to them. Are they just rolling their eyes behind my back?
Emma: But micromanaging is a big, flapping red flag that there are people on your team who would benefit from a refresher. That’s what alignment is all about.
Andy: We did this at Reviews.com every two weeks or so and it was insanely popular. We’d meet as a team for an hour to re-hone core skills, regroup on best practices, calibrate around the problems that were sparking me and Emma and our team leads to get micromanage-y. One of the sessions our editorial team loved the most was around cohesion and coherence in writing: English 101-type stuff that no one had thought about since their Freshman year of college.
4. Were there any issues I anticipated? Did I share this info with my team?
Emma: One of the big weaknesses I’ve had to overcome transitioning from individual contributor to manager (and back and forth) is just intrepidly charging into the work without thinking through where I’m going. I get a directive from the top and tell my team, “Sally Forth!”
And when the wheels come off — it’s under-resourced, there are new stakeholders that pop up in the 11th hour, the scope creeps, the people on my team aren’t doing a good enough job at their parts of the project — well, solving all that is just part of being a manager. Or, unfortunately, a micromanager.
Andy: There’s no such thing as a bullet-proof process. But it definitely helps to go on a sort of vision quest to understand the hows of the work that’s coming down the pipe. I try to do this whenever I’m starting something new or, when the work is tough, on a weekly basis. Sometimes both! I ask:
- How is all this work going to get done?
- Who is going to do what part?
- What are the checkpoints and the deadlines?
- Is it actually feasible?
- What skills will we need?
- What equipment or manpower will we need?
- What ways of thinking do I need to get my team on board with?
- What is our margin for error?
- What are the potential risks?
- What could go wrong?
- If that does go wrong, what will need to happen?
It’s also important to report back on what I saw. I like to tell my team: here’s the work, here’s how I approached it, here’s what I’ve come up with. Then I ask:
- What worries you?
- What equipment do you need?
- What risks haven’t I thought through?
- What checkpoints do you want or need?
- What oversight do you want or need?
- What safety net do you crave?
Emma: Modeling this process, and sharing the terminology to address these questions, helps everyone start marching in-time toward the same goal.
5. Where does my team go to get questions answered?
Emma: Beware if the the answer is, “They come to me!” It’s a sign you’re the sole knowledge holder, which for me is an early symptom of micromanaging.
Andy: The flip-side of this question is also relevant. Where do you go to get information? The answer should not be, “I go to them!” If that’s the case, your plan is more accurately described as constantly following up: What’s the status on this? Did you remember to do this? Where can I find this other information I need?
Tactically, I think a shared document or webpage is the best way to prevent both situations. I ask my team to learn to use the document and keep it updated. I use that same document to run our regularly scheduled production meetings. It is our source of truth.
Emma: The key is really using it. If there’s a document we’re updating and never looking at again, we should stop doing it.
Good Boss Achievement Stickers: Micromanagement Edition