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It’s OK to Micromanage . . . Sometimes

The conclusion drawn from many of the raft of management books published in the last 20 years is that micromanagement is bad.  They say, empower your employees and give them the freedom to explore, own the problem, deliver and sometimes, fail.  Don’t watch over their shoulders and don’t try to jump in and fix problems as soon as you see them.  Hands-off management leads to success.

Ideally, this is a great idea.  There’s is nothing like the fire that develops in someone when they have the freedom to achieve big goals under their own stewardship.  The problem is that not all people can handle high levels of independence at all times.  Sometimes, they need help – often, when they don’t even know they need it.  At these times, if a manager continues to manage them loosely, it is likely that they will ultimately fail, hurting themselves and negatively impacting the group’s productivity.  It’s at these times that good managers step up and get more involved in what the employee is doing, often turning to micromanagement as the correct tool for the situation.

The universal fear of micromanagement comes from stories of almost legendary failures associated with overbearing, in-your-face managers who feel that knowledge and control equate to power.  These managers have to have more power than anyone else on their team to feel like they’re doing their job.  For sure, this is a huge management issue that frequently leads to under-performing teams.  It is not, however, the only characteristic of poor management.  Here are a few others:

  • Timidity - the manager is afraid to actively engage with the people and projects in their group
  • Uniform style - the manager treats everyone and everything the same way, in every situation
  • Inability to read employees or the situation - the manager has little-to-no perception about what’s going on with the people that work for him/her or the situation they’re in

This is, obviously, not a complete list, but it’s indicative of the set of managerial problems that are founded in a manager’s inability to detect and anticipate needs for managerial focus and to apply the needed effort accordingly.  For a manager to be successful, he/she needs to be able to determine the needs of each of the people and projects that they are managing and adjust their style and level of attention to meet those needs.  My complete weakness for four-quadrant charts leads me to think about this situation as follows:

Generally speaking, if an employee has loads of experience and is a high performer, the manager should give that employee a lot of freedom, simply checking on progress now and again.  If an experienced employee is not performing well, however, the manager needs to more closely and actively monitor the employee’s efforts and use that increased attention to try to bolster that employee’s performance.

Inexperienced employees need to be managed in a very different fashion.  Those who are high performers need to be given more freedom and room to experiment and, perhaps, experience small failures.  The underlying management style should be one of teaching and guiding.  These employees don’t enjoy the freedoms of their experienced compatriots, but they still get a lot of freedom.  If inexperienced employees are performing poorly, however, the manager needs to virtually remove all freedoms from their environment and babysit the employee by working with them on a task-to-task basis.

Micromanagement, therefore, is needed in the low-experience, low-performance, babysit quadrant and, to some extent, even in the high-experience, low-performance, monitor quadrant.  More importantly, the manager’s style needs to be different for each of the four quadrants.  Even managers that understand the basics of this need often miss that an experienced employee may need to be closely managed as a result of poor performance.  Similarly, an overwhelmed, inexperienced employee can easily slip from being a high-performer to a low-performer, requiring more attention than before.

Managers need to be in tune with what is going on with each person on their team and adjust their style and effort accordingly.  Sometimes, micromanagement is the right management tool for the job at hand.  It should, of course, be used sparingly and it’s primary motivation should be to move the employee into a quadrant that gives them more freedom to learn and excel.

 

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  • Dave Jilk

    I’d add a few things. First, if an employee needs to be micromanaged over a longer period of time, that employee probably should be terminated.  A manager should have as an objective that employees move out of the micromanaging quadrants. Second, I find that occasional and limited micromanagement is a good way to (a) stay on top of some of the details of the business, (b) determine whether an employee is doing things as I assume he is, (c) remind employees of how much autonomy they actually have!  The idea is to just jump in, ask a bunch of questions, actually read all the documents in detail, and see if things match up the way they should.  If so, jump right back out. If not – time to dig deeper.  This can easily devolve into seagulling, so one needs to be careful (i.e., don’t ask people to change direction unless there is a big problem). Finally, I find that there is another dimension that is represented by the performance of a functional area of the business.  If a particular area is struggling or is of crucial short-term importance, dive in and be involved in the details in that area.  It will give everyone an incentive to have their area OFF the crucial list (to reduce the manager’s attentions) but will also allow you as a manager to navigate the difficult time in a more time-sensitive fashion. These things all said, the happy state of affairs is when no one needs to be micromanaged so that the manager can focus on longer term issues.

  • Dave Jilk

    I’d add a few things.

    First, if an employee needs to be micromanaged over a longer period of time, that employee probably should be terminated.  A manager should have as an objective that employees move out of the micromanaging quadrants.

    Second, I find that occasional and limited micromanagement is a good way to (a) stay on top of some of the details of the business, (b) determine whether an employee is doing things as I assume he is, (c) remind employees of how much autonomy they actually have!  The idea is to just jump in, ask a bunch of questions, actually read all the documents in detail, and see if things match up the way they should.  If so, jump right back out. If not – time to dig deeper.  This can easily devolve into seagulling, so one needs to be careful (i.e., don’t ask people to change direction unless there is a big problem).

    Finally, I find that there is another dimension that is represented by the performance of a functional area of the business.  If a particular area is struggling or is of crucial short-term importance, dive in and be involved in the details in that area.  It will give everyone an incentive to have their area OFF the crucial list (to reduce the manager’s attentions) but will also allow you as a manager to navigate the difficult time in a more time-sensitive fashion.

    These things all said, the happy state of affairs is when no one needs to be micromanaged so that the manager can focus on longer term issues.

  • http://www.2-speed.com/ Will

    Excellent points, Dave.  I hadn’t thought about the advantages of jumping in to :remind employees of how much autonomy they actually have.”  ;-)  I also strongly support your notion of getting more involved in project important to the group/company at times, regardless of the employee’s position in the chart.  It send a strong signal about just how important the project is. Thanks.

  • http://www.2-speed.com Will

    Excellent points, Dave.  I hadn’t thought about the advantages of jumping in to :remind employees of how much autonomy they actually have.”  ;-)  I also strongly support your notion of getting more involved in project important to the group/company at times, regardless of the employee’s position in the chart.  It send a strong signal about just how important the project is.

    Thanks.

  • http://www.samsonanddelila.blogspot.com/ Jennie

    I have just found your posting about micromanagement as I was just curious if there was anyone out there in the world who truly thought that micromanagment was a good thing. I actually thought I would find none but of course much to my surprise I found this one.
    I have to tell you as someone who has managed multiple people from the military and civilian world both I see your points but in the end I disagree with you. Here’s why….

    A good manager hires people who are competent even despite the fear he/she may have that they will advance past him/her. If there is reason for micromanagement like you stated in your post, “it is likely that they will ultimately fail, hurting themselves and negatively impacting the group’s productivity” then it means that person should have a job elsewhere. If someone is the type of person who will ultimately fail then they are not the someone for the position. It doesn’t mean they are bad or that they are a failure it simply means that particular job is not for them.

    Managers fail when they fail to train their people therefore insuring failure in their people, they fail when they hire incompetent individuals who they fear will ultimately fail if not babysat, and they themselves are incompetent for hiring people who cannot advance the company in the manager’s absence. Excessive control of others is generally a sign of someone who feels insecure and out of control in their own personal lives and positions. Micromanagement is a sign of a weak manager.

    If you have people you have to micromanage then there is a weakness somewhere. 1- the person is weak and needs to be fired or moved to a new position or 2- the manager is weak and seeks people he feels he can control to protect his image, his job or in many cases his illegal activities. If a manager is on the up and up then his people won’t have to be micromanaged it’s as simple as that. Don’t hire losers/weaklings and you will find you have more time to devote to your own job instead of babysitting the jobs of others. A good manager can be involved with his people in a more appropriate way than dictating and overseeing their every breath, and an absent manager is no better than a micromanaging one so why not be present and involved without being insecure and dictatorial? Micromanagement can be resolved simply by making sure that those more experienced and skilled workers are properly training the newer, less experienced ones. Proper training prevents most of the need for micromanagement.

  • http://www.samsonanddelila.blogspot.com Jennie

    I have just found your posting about micromanagement as I was just curious if there was anyone out there in the world who truly thought that micromanagment was a good thing. I actually thought I would find none but of course much to my surprise I found this one.
    I have to tell you as someone who has managed multiple people from the military and civilian world both I see your points but in the end I disagree with you. Here’s why….

    A good manager hires people who are competent even despite the fear he/she may have that they will advance past him/her. If there is reason for micromanagement like you stated in your post, “it is likely that they will ultimately fail, hurting themselves and negatively impacting the group’s productivity” then it means that person should have a job elsewhere. If someone is the type of person who will ultimately fail then they are not the someone for the position. It doesn’t mean they are bad or that they are a failure it simply means that particular job is not for them.

    Managers fail when they fail to train their people therefore insuring failure in their people, they fail when they hire incompetent individuals who they fear will ultimately fail if not babysat, and they themselves are incompetent for hiring people who cannot advance the company in the manager’s absence. Excessive control of others is generally a sign of someone who feels insecure and out of control in their own personal lives and positions. Micromanagement is a sign of a weak manager.

    If you have people you have to micromanage then there is a weakness somewhere. 1- the person is weak and needs to be fired or moved to a new position or 2- the manager is weak and seeks people he feels he can control to protect his image, his job or in many cases his illegal activities. If a manager is on the up and up then his people won’t have to be micromanaged it’s as simple as that. Don’t hire losers/weaklings and you will find you have more time to devote to your own job instead of babysitting the jobs of others. A good manager can be involved with his people in a more appropriate way than dictating and overseeing their every breath, and an absent manager is no better than a micromanaging one so why not be present and involved without being insecure and dictatorial? Micromanagement can be resolved simply by making sure that those more experienced and skilled workers are properly training the newer, less experienced ones. Proper training prevents most of the need for micromanagement.

  • http://www.2-speed.com/ Will

    Hey Jennie, thanks for the comment. I think we are actually in agreement on most points with, perhaps, one subtle difference. While I agree that it is a manager’s job to hire competent people who can do the task at hand, it is not always possible or even desirable to hire people who have done that task before. As such, they need to be trained.

    Sometimes, as you stated, the team can take care of the training. Sometimes, though, the skills required for the task don’t exist in the group. This is especially true of startups where companies cannot afford to have much overlap between skill sets or areas of focus. This is where the responsibility for training; hand-holding and *micromanagement* lies with the manager, in my opinion.

    The manager could throw the new employee to the wolves of course in a sink-or-swim sort of test. If the right person was hired and they have what it takes, they’ll figure it out, right? But sometimes, this will cause an otherwise worthy employee to drown. This situation isn’t good for anyone – the employee, the team or the company. At the very least, it’s a waste of time. More likely it’s a demotivating for all who are watching what’s going on.

    I complete agree that any manager who hires “losers/weaklings” isn’t cutting it as a manager. But I think that there is a lot of gray area between having previous experience with a task and incompetence. There are many people who can add value to an organization that fall into this gray area and are completely worthy of being hired. Some of these people will need more hand-holding than others and this is where the manager comes in. Often the managerial role is creating a sparkling diamond out of a lump of coal and seeing that the diamond was in there in the first place. Sometimes, it’s just polishing up the shiny rock that was clearly visible. Some of this is left to the team, but the personal responsible – the primary teacher and guide – is the manager.

    Hope that makes sense.

  • http://www.2-speed.com Will

    Hey Jennie, thanks for the comment. I think we are actually in agreement on most points with, perhaps, one subtle difference. While I agree that it is a manager’s job to hire competent people who can do the task at hand, it is not always possible or even desirable to hire people who have done that task before. As such, they need to be trained.

    Sometimes, as you stated, the team can take care of the training. Sometimes, though, the skills required for the task don’t exist in the group. This is especially true of startups where companies cannot afford to have much overlap between skill sets or areas of focus. This is where the responsibility for training; hand-holding and *micromanagement* lies with the manager, in my opinion.

    The manager could throw the new employee to the wolves of course in a sink-or-swim sort of test. If the right person was hired and they have what it takes, they’ll figure it out, right? But sometimes, this will cause an otherwise worthy employee to drown. This situation isn’t good for anyone – the employee, the team or the company. At the very least, it’s a waste of time. More likely it’s a demotivating for all who are watching what’s going on.

    I complete agree that any manager who hires “losers/weaklings” isn’t cutting it as a manager. But I think that there is a lot of gray area between having previous experience with a task and incompetence. There are many people who can add value to an organization that fall into this gray area and are completely worthy of being hired. Some of these people will need more hand-holding than others and this is where the manager comes in. Often the managerial role is creating a sparkling diamond out of a lump of coal and seeing that the diamond was in there in the first place. Sometimes, it’s just polishing up the shiny rock that was clearly visible. Some of this is left to the team, but the personal responsible – the primary teacher and guide – is the manager.

    Hope that makes sense.

  • CarrilloBeavor@aol.com

    I don’t have a comment more of a question. How can my “GM” apply this with our “AGM”? It’s a very touchy situation because he is upper management. My “GM” is just thinking about demoting him but then feels this would just fuel the fire. Of course she would rather him quit instead of firing him but she might not have any other choice if he keeps up the way he is. If any one has any suggestions that would be wonderful.

  • CarrilloBeavor@aol.com

    I don’t have a comment more of a question. How can my “GM” apply this with our “AGM”? It’s a very touchy situation because he is upper management. My “GM” is just thinking about demoting him but then feels this would just fuel the fire. Of course she would rather him quit instead of firing him but she might not have any other choice if he keeps up the way he is. If any one has any suggestions that would be wonderful.

  • http://www.2-speed.com/ Will

    CarilloBeavor@aol.com,

    My guess is that you know the answer here. “Hoping” that someone will quit to solve a problem is never a solution. A manager has to be proactive and make things happen. As such, assuming your GM has had discussions about the problem with the AGM and created a plan to resolve any issues, the AGM should be fired.

    It sounds like there are some political issues. Perhaps the AGM is connected with upper management? If so, this can be a tough situation for the GM, of course. If the upper management is any good at their jobs, they would be delegating this responsibility to your GM and not interfere. It always make sense for your GM to bring them into the loop and make them part of the solution first, rather than having to explain why he fired the AGM later.

    In any case, action is ALWAYS better than inaction. If the AGM is a real problem and avenues to resolve the problems have already been pursued, then there’s really no choice. It’s all in *how* it’s done.

    Hope that makes sense.

  • http://www.2-speed.com Will

    CarilloBeavor@aol.com,

    My guess is that you know the answer here. “Hoping” that someone will quit to solve a problem is never a solution. A manager has to be proactive and make things happen. As such, assuming your GM has had discussions about the problem with the AGM and created a plan to resolve any issues, the AGM should be fired.

    It sounds like there are some political issues. Perhaps the AGM is connected with upper management? If so, this can be a tough situation for the GM, of course. If the upper management is any good at their jobs, they would be delegating this responsibility to your GM and not interfere. It always make sense for your GM to bring them into the loop and make them part of the solution first, rather than having to explain why he fired the AGM later.

    In any case, action is ALWAYS better than inaction. If the AGM is a real problem and avenues to resolve the problems have already been pursued, then there’s really no choice. It’s all in *how* it’s done.

    Hope that makes sense.

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  • Chloe

    so, can someone give me advice? I am a high acheiver who has a great boss, however , I know she tends to micromanage sometimes which can occasionally lead to grief as she is not always fully aware of the groundwork I have done. I also have a support person who assists me for one day a week, a happy soul with the best personality, who unfortunately gets very distracted and quite often doesn’t complete a task or does not handle it the way it needs to be. If i have time off I come back to work to find that I have nore work to do or there is no information relating to things which have happened in my absence. I feel like I am micromanaging him, but I also need to follow up to make sure that my deadlines are met

  • Chloe

    so, can someone give me advice? I am a high acheiver who has a great boss, however , I know she tends to micromanage sometimes which can occasionally lead to grief as she is not always fully aware of the groundwork I have done. I also have a support person who assists me for one day a week, a happy soul with the best personality, who unfortunately gets very distracted and quite often doesn’t complete a task or does not handle it the way it needs to be. If i have time off I come back to work to find that I have nore work to do or there is no information relating to things which have happened in my absence. I feel like I am micromanaging him, but I also need to follow up to make sure that my deadlines are met

  • http://www.2-speed.com/ Will

    Chloe,

    I don’t really know what you’re asking. If you are micromanaging your assistant and they are still not performing, it’s likely that you either still have not communicated issues and goals well or, more likely, the person can’t cut it and may need to be replaced with someone who can. I hate to sound like Sun Tzu here, but nice and well-intentioned are great, but in the end, workers are judged by what they get done as well as how they do it.

    Hope that helps.

  • http://www.2-speed.com Will

    Chloe,

    I don’t really know what you’re asking. If you are micromanaging your assistant and they are still not performing, it’s likely that you either still have not communicated issues and goals well or, more likely, the person can’t cut it and may need to be replaced with someone who can. I hate to sound like Sun Tzu here, but nice and well-intentioned are great, but in the end, workers are judged by what they get done as well as how they do it.

    Hope that helps.

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  • Michael Cusack

    Different Perspectives

    Two individuals with PHDs in Industrial Psychology recently highlighted the issue of micromanagement. They focused on the obvious problems of over-managing capable professionals, but also touched on the reality that some claims of micromanagement are false. In some cases employees perceive being “aggressively managed” either because they are incompetent, or simply do not like being managed (this point of view is presented at http://www.transassoc.com/whatismicromngt).