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3 Tips for Recovering Micromanagers

Being able to let go is critical to becoming a good leader.

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You hover. You can’t help it — when you delegate a project, you need to make sure that it’s completed to your standard. You step in with corrections when you see your employee begin to veer from your preferred procedures. When you spot mistakes in their work, you decide to reclaim the task you assigned to them, rationalizing that fixing the project yourself would take less time than coaching them through any necessary revisions. 

You have the very best of intentions — but you are a terrible manager. 

“Micromanaging is one of the most damaging habits an executive can have,” one representative for the Forbes Coaches Council wrote in a post on the problem. “Teams get bogged down going through laborious procedures, and worse is the environment it generates: Groups that adapt to a micromanagement style are either quietly rebellious or hapless, unable to make any independent decisions.”

The damage caused by leaders’ well-meant but overly-controlling interventions can be severe. Micromanagers erode team morale, create anxiety and mistrust, and, worst of all — foster disengagement. Research indicates that micromanagement can ultimately result in lowered staff morale, creativity, and productivity, as well as an increase in staff turnover. 

In 2017, NPR’s Yuki Noguchi sought to explore the human impact of intrusive leadership practices and found a pervasive pattern of anxiety, disillusionment, and poor morale. One interviewee, a marketing professional who worked for an insurance firm, described a panopticon-like office experience where lunch breaks were discouraged, tattling was rewarded, and two-minute bathroom breaks incited supervisor ire. The unnecessary oversight had consequences, as you might expect. 

“I did the absolute bare minimum to get my paycheck,” the beleaguered ex-employee shared. “It did not make me want to help the company in any way.”

It is worth noting, too, that low individual morale can pose a significant organizational toll. According to Zenefits, less-engaged teams tend to be less productive, less customer-focused, and — ironically, given a micromanager’s concern for achievement — provide lower-quality work. 

Because employees with low morale don’t feel valued by their managers, they often don’t care about assigned projects and aren’t interested in innovating outside their designated to-do lists. Turnover expenses are similarly expensive; according to estimates from Deloitte’s Josh Bersin, losing an employee can cost a business up to twice their annual salary. 

The harm that micromanaging causes to team members is evident. But what about the damage to you, their manager? 

Micromanaging can be just as stunting to leaders’ development as it is to their employees’. 

“[Micromanaging] hampers your ability to focus on what’s really important,” journalist and management expert Karen Dillon noted for the Harvard Business Review. “If your mind is filled with the micro-level details of a number of jobs, there’s no room for big picture thoughts.” 

By focusing on the minutiae of day-to-day work, micromanagers hobble themselves from accomplishing their primary directive: to lead. As a result, they are never able to evolve or inspire their employees to innovate or think outside of tried, tested, and manager-approved protocols. Controlling leadership practices are harmful to employees, leaders, and organizations alike — so why is micromanaging still one of the most common complaints that dissatisfied employees air? 

The answer appears to be fear. As Ron Ashenkas, a leadership expert and author, explained for HBR, “As managers rise through the ranks, they often become concerned that they’ve lost touch with the actual work of the organization.”

Leaders often seek to alleviate their worries of being out of the loop by mandating extra reports, meetings, and conversations. Their hovering soothes their anxieties at the cost of exacerbating their employees’. That said, a lack of knowledge isn’t the only driver behind micromanagement. Ashenkas further notes that new leaders might — consciously or not — fear their new roles as leaders and visionaries, and try to return to the familiarity of day-to-day operations by controlling their subordinates’ actions. 

“Managers have to trust their people to manage day-to-day operations and coach them as needed, rather than trying to do it for them,” Ashenkas concludes. 

Do you micromanage? If so, don’t worry — there are ways to break your adverse habits and inspire new positivity and productivity in your team. 

Accept Imperfections

Micromanagers are often perfectionists at heart. They have high, inflexible standards and hold themselves — and everyone else — to them with zeal. At a glance, this trait might seem like a good one, a characteristic that promotes high-quality work and effort. But in truth, it’s the opposite, because perfectionism fosters resentment, insecurity, and disengagement. 

“Nobody is as good as they are,” Forbes Council Coach Gaurav Bhalla writes of perfectionist leaders. “Consequently, they don’t believe anyone can do the job as well as they can.” 

According to Bhalla, the solution is the 95-95 rule: if leaders can accept 95 percent of work as perfect, 95 percent of the time, they will micromanage 95 percent less. 

Being able to let go is critical to becoming a good leader. Mistakes will almost certainly be made as your team members start working independently. But in the end, it will be to a net positive effect; your employees will perform better, be more accountable, and be more engaged than they were under micromanagement. 

Consider Your Role

Put aside your overstuffed daily to-do list for a moment. When you look beyond the day-to-day minutiae and pressing projects, how do you define your role? What were you hired to do; what is your most important function within your organization? 

Taking a moment now and again to reflect on how you can best contribute to your team and business is crucial, especially if you struggle with micromanagement tendencies. You may find that the tasks you deemed necessary — say, setting up endless meetings or providing constant feedback — aren’t as important as furthering your big-picture responsibilities. 

Concentrate on Results and Trust

Trust is paramount in every workplace. Your employees trust you to set a direction; you should trust them to follow it. Focus on coaching your team, rather than dictating to them — if you feel the need to hover, limit yourself to once-weekly check-ins. These meetings will allow you to stay in the loop without alienating your employee. 

Always remember that trust isn’t just a fundamental part of workplace happiness. It empowers employees to feel safe enough to innovate and share their ideas (and concerns) with their leaders. 

As one writer for Forbes puts the matter, “When an employee holds back information out of fear of losing their job, their reputation or a beneficial relationship, that tension doesn’t go away on its own. If a manager neglects to engage employees in positive, non-judgmental ways, the tension inevitably escapes elsewhere, usually in the form of gossip, sabotage, emotional withdrawal, or, worse, anger.” 

Micromanagement is toxic — so evolve beyond it! Good, talented people are at the heart of every thriving organization. If you support your employees and they trust you in turn, your business will see the benefits. 

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