The Micromanagement Myth
Think about the worst boss you ever had. Do you have an image of him/her in your mind‘s eye? Is your stomach starting to clench? Are you getting a little angry? Ok, now that you have that image in place, I want you to grab paper and pen or your electronic device and create a list of the behaviors that this person exhibited to win the infamous title, Your Worst Boss.
What does your list look like? What words or phrases did you use?
Over the past 15 years, I’ve asked this “worst boss” question to employees within small and large organizations inside and outside of the US. Some consistent phrases almost always make these negative lists. They are: “They never listened to me, They took credit for my work, They picked favorites, and/or They were a MICROMANAGER!”
The consistent use of the term Micromanager always fascinated me, because during my business career, I hardly ever encountered this type of leader.
If you Google “Micromanager,” you will find millions of hits. You’ll find comics that poke fun of micromanagement behavior:
There are hundreds of articles that give advice on dealing with micromanagers. Here are examples of a few:
- 4 Signs Your Boss Is A Micromanager And How To Challenge Them
Forbes, February 28, 2021
- Let It Go: Teaching a Micromanager How to Chill
SHRM, March 31, 2020
- 7 Signs you’re dealing with a micromanager (and how to manage them)
Breathe, July 24, 2019
Let’s agree on a definition for Micromanager. Merriam Webster states:
“A micromanager is a boss or manager who gives excessive supervision to employees.”
Given this definition, I can see why so many people add the term micromanager to their worst boss list. I am not sure if anyone wants to work for someone who consistently provides “excessive supervision.”
But is the business world really inundated with bad leaders who are micromanagers? If you let employees vent about WORST BOSSES (as I do), I can see why so many people feel that micromanagers are everywhere. Ever since the term micromanager was introduced to the business world in 1975, it has grown in popularity as the generic or cliché term that people use to describe bad bosses.
In reality, I think that the workplace is NOT filled with Micromanagers. As a matter of fact, I feel that the WORST bosses in organizations today are the exact opposite of micromanagers. I feel that most bad bosses today are _______________Managers!
Ha, I have you now. So what is the phrase that describes someone who behaves in the exact opposite way of a micromanager? What comes to mind?
How about Absentee Manager?
Most people haven’t even heard this phrase, but as noted in a 2018 Harvard Business Review article:
“Absentee leadership rarely comes up in today’s leadership or business literature, but research shows that it is the most common form of incompetent leadership.”
If we were to create a leadership behavior continuum, maybe it would look like this:
Let’s explore the two extremes.
Why do leaders behave as Micromanagers?
Some reasons that we have uncovered over the years are:
- A new manager was previously a high performing “doer.” They feel that their approach to completing a task is the best way, and they want their people to use that same approach.
- They feel insecure in their role as leader. They want to exert their positional power to remind people that they are in charge, but they do so by relying on their sources of self-confidence (i.e., their technical/individual contributor skills) to review/critique their people’s work.
- They had poor management examples in the past.
Why do leaders behave as Absentee Managers?
Some of the reasons could be the same as those mentioned above, but this is where insecurities, poor communication behaviors (fear of confrontation), not knowing how to approach staff or hold people accountable comes into play. Absentee Managers:
- Feel that the right people – with the necessary skills – were hired, so they should be able to do their jobs without close supervision.
- And, if the right people weren’t hired, that is Human Resources’ problem to fix.
- Believe that if employees need something, they will come to them for help (“if you need my help, call me”).
- Feel they have so many fires to put out, they simply don’t have the time to “check-in” with their people.
- Lack confidence in their coaching and feedback skills, so they prefer to avoid those situations as much as possible.
- Are afraid to be viewed/labelled a Micromanager!
The last reason is massively important. It is our belief that our cultural norms have shifted dramatically from what was culturally acceptable in the 1970s and 80s. In those days, managers could scream and yell at employees and no one would bat an eye.
I recently reached out to my close friend, Scott Blanchard, President of The Ken Blanchard Companies – home of the world-renowned leadership model SLII – to get his thoughts on this topic. Here is what he shared with me:
“The Ken Blanchard Companies’ LBAII assessment measures the amount of directive and supportive behaviors a leader provides in different situations. In the 1970s and 1980s, people’s self-perception of their leadership style was more oriented around direction and control—and that was okay with them. The mindset was, ‘I’m a manager and I’m going to use more highly directive styles almost as default.’ Since then, self-perceptions have changed. More recently, managers identify with the supportive side of the framework—listening, enabling, and asking questions. Very few leaders see themselves as primarily using directive behaviors as their lead.”
“In the 1970s and 1980s the challenge used to be getting leaders to be more sympathetic, more supportive, and more collaborative. Today we have to teach young leaders how to provide feedback, evaluate performance, and offer direction when needed.”
From our point of view, which is supported by The Ken Blanchard Companies’ data, our movement towards a more positive work environment has led to many wonderful advances for businesses around the globe, but we also feel that many leaders today are either unwilling/unable to have direct/difficult conversations with employees. They don’t want to be viewed as a micromanager (which can carry connotations of being mean, angry, or uncaring), so they move too far along the leadership continuum in the other direction and turn into an absentee manager (which makes them unaware, inaccessible, and unable to provide value).
Everyone wants a “unicorn” that can take minimal direction and deliver/execute with perfection. This is not realistic.
It takes TIME to provide feedback, manage, mentor, and develop. I’d argue that most people don’t realize this when put into a position of management… they had an inaccurate picture in their head of what it really means to manage/lead/develop people.
Effective Leadership/Management occurs when leaders know the people whom they lead. Based upon this knowledge they can move effectively along the leadership continuum and provide the appropriate amount of “excessive supervision,” “Laissez-faire” leadership, or anything in between.
Let me share some survey data we recently collected that highlights the point that when leaders miss the targeted leadership zone, they are more likely to provide too little vs. too much supervision.
Within this confidential survey that was distributed within a single, US-based software company, we asked employees (ranging in ages from early 20s – late 50s) – at multiple levels in the organization – to rate individual leaders (late 20s – mid 50s) on 60 different leadership competencies.
We collected 17,925 distinct responses about these leadership behaviors. Responses came from the leaders’ direct reports, peers, their own managers, and other coworkers.
The employees’ ratings indicated that 87% of the time, these leaders were demonstrating their leadership skills in the exact amount that they should – that their usage of these skills was right on target – the center of the leadership continuum. A very good grade that most companies would be happy with, but what about the 13% that were off target?
Interestingly enough, only 2% of the ratings (358 responses out of 17, 925 responses) indicated that these leaders were using their leadership skills more than was needed – what would typically be described as MICROMANAGEMENT.
11% of the time, leaders were rated by others as demonstrating their leadership skill less often than needed; in other words, the leaders were being too hands-off in applying these leadership skills – Absentee Management.
When asked directly, “What should this person do to improve as a leader?” They stated (a small sample of their responses):
“Drive performance as frequently as every month and understand the importance of monthly performance and how that feeds the quarterly results.”
“An area where there could be improvements is with follow-thru and follow-up. I know we’ve had a few conversations where I was expecting feedback on a task but didn’t receive it.”
“Sometimes, she will do the task rather than ask the person to do it. I think this a common issue with leadership. They are so good at what they do that sometimes it’s hard to let others come in and do a job that they are very capable of doing. They are so busy that it’s easier for them to do that task rather than taking the time to bring someone else up to speed.”
“Connect more and more frequently with all your team members (don’t forget about the quiet ones).”
“I would enjoy having more employee reviews, bi-annually would be beneficial. The company should provide basic review criteria for management to utilize.”
Almost every quote within the data mentions providing more leadership behaviors vs. providing less.
Clearly, we recognize that this is one data set from one “white-collar” business, but it is revealing that there were 5 times as many ratings of “using too little” as there were of “using too much” – the exact opposite of what most would expect, given the conventional wisdom about micromanagement. It is particularly interesting when you consider that the leaders who were rated came from all levels within the organizational hierarchy, from first-level leaders up to the executives.
If you were to create your own leadership continuum, where would you place yourself? Would you say you tend to operate more as an Absentee manager or a Micromanager?
Most managers that we survey feel that when the do err, they tend to default more to the right side of the continuum vs. the left side.
Of course, there are micromanagers out there, but it is misleading to believe – and base your development investments on – the MYTH that bad managers exhibit more micromanagement than absentee behaviors.
Unfortunately, as stated previously, many managers are either afraid to give direct feedback, lack the time to gather feedback, or lack the skills to provide specific coaching/direction. How can you help them address these obstacles?
Help with WHY
Ask them if they are spending enough time with their direct reports. Many leaders today feel that they do have too much on their plate, and if they are asked anonymously, they will most likely admit that when they err it is more likely to be an absentee mistake vs. micromanagement error. What can you do to help these managers understand the real value – and payoff – of their time spent with employees?
Help with WHEN
Ask their employees if they feel that their leader is giving them the RIGHT AMOUNT of leadership (not too much/not too little)? Imagine what is happening every time those employees don’t get what they need. What can you do to help these leaders better realize what too little – and too much – looks like?
To put this in a different business context… only 87% of the time are your employees getting what they need from their leaders to meet YOUR organization’s goals. Does that still seem acceptable in this light? How would you evaluate other aspects of your business with a similar statistical result? “Imagine if your sales reps only sold 87% of their annual targets? Then imagine if only 87% of your customers received their products/services on time? What if on top of that your organization only collected 87% of its Accounts Receivables?”
Help with HOW
Create a culture of people leadership inside of your organization. When someone is a leader of people, let them know that they are responsible for helping that person to grow and develop (even if they are an experienced hire). Provide your leaders with coaching that highlights when to use more directive, hands-on management, and when it is appropriate to use more hands-off management (this approach will help micromanagers, too).
The myth about the amount of micromanagement might be more fiction vs. fact, but the total amount of poor leadership is probably under-counted.
We need to provide our leaders with tools and support to be great. All of us should start acting now!
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