Illustration of a large man using a magnifying glass to look down on a smaller man at a desk, symbolising micromanagement.
Image: © Nuthawut/Stock.adobe.com

Micromanagement: Why managers do it and how to stop

10 Jun 2022

Managers may not realise they’re guilty of micromanagement, so it’s vital that they watch out for the signs and change their behaviour for the sake of their staff.

Micromanagement is never a good thing. It’s always seen as a red flag when it comes to management styles and the negative effects can range from stifling creativity to causing good employees to quit their jobs.

Most will be familiar with this type of management. As the name suggests, this is where a manager supervises or manages an employee’s work at a microscopic level, giving them little or no autonomy over how they manage their tasks or how they go about their working day.

This high level of control can lead to an employee feeling constantly watched. This can lead to a lack of trust and freedom, causing them to become disengaged in their job.

Signs of being micromanaged include being expected to provide constant updates, to agree work tasks at the beginning of every day, being required to copy your manager on every email, your manager being reluctant to delegate tasks or even re-doing work already completed by others.

But if micromanagement is so bad, why does it continue to happen? Do managers realise when they’re doing it? To find out more about the psychology behind micromanagement, SiliconRepublic.com asked Prof Yseult Freeney of Dublin City University Business School.

Freeney said there are several reasons why a manager adopts this style of management, many of which are not ill-intentioned.

“Many people get promoted to people manager roles without adequate training. They lack confidence and experience insecurity when it comes to managing other people so they resort to what they know: the technical aspects of their roles and seeking control over aspects of the job with which they are more familiar and comfortable,” she said.

“Some micromanagers mistakenly believe that they are signalling support to their employees when they constantly check in and ask for updates. They take the ‘open door’ policy a step too far.”

This can be particularly prevalent when remote work comes into the equation. In fact, micromanagement went to a whole new level last year thanks to employee surveillance tools.

Gartner’s Brian Kropp told Computerworld that, within the first month of remote working under Covid-19, “16pc of companies put new tracking software on the laptops of their remote employees”. By July, this had reached 26pc.

Freeney said when managers feel ‘invisible’, they can end up trying to compensate for this somehow. “But what appears like a welfare check-in by the boss may just be an unwarranted interruption to the employee,” she said.

And while many of these situations might be accidental or well-meaning, Freeney said that there are still those managers with a superiority complex who believe no one can do the task as well as they can do it.

The negative effects

Bad management is one of the key reasons employees cite for leaving jobs. Even if your employees don’t leave under the shadow of micromanagement, it can have wider long-term implications for creativity, innovation, productivity and employee engagement.

“Research tells us that people need to be self-determined. That is, to make decisions about how they go about their work, that they have freedom to make choices and take initiatives,” said Freeney. “By telling employees exactly how to go about something, the opportunities for ingenuity and creativity are also seriously hampered.”

Micromanagement also means employees don’t get the chance to try things independently, slowing their learning abilities and making them feel less competent in their roles. This may lead the micromanager to continue the cycle because they won’t have allowed their employees to grow to a level they feel they can work independently.

Freeney also mentioned the lack of trust that can come with micromanagement, which can damage relationships and lead to a hostile work environment. “Distrust and cynicism resulting from poorer interpersonal relationships curtail proactivity and increase risk aversion, ultimately reducing innovation,” she said.

What can managers do?

As Freeney said, most micromanagers don’t intentionally set out to do this. They may not even have acknowledged their own insecurities as a manager.

“While we all struggle with workload demands, a first sign that you’re micromanaging is that you can’t keep on top of your own work and you’re having to work frequently outside standard working hours,” she said.

“You’re never satisfied with your employees’ work and have the compulsion to edit their work and do things better, or just to do it yourself to begin with. Sure you’ll do a better job yourself, right?”

Unsurprisingly, Freeney noted that one of the biggest red flags is the level of turnover you may be experiencing on your team, in which case she said it might be time for some “honest exit interviews”.

‘Look inwards to identify areas for learning and development as a manager’
– PROF YSEULT FREENEY

Once a manager has spotted some of these signs and is looking to change their behaviour for the better, Freeney said it’s important to strike a balance between being overbearing and having that open-door policy.

“It’s really important that employees know they can go to you with a problem, so make sure there is space for that. Don’t always be the one to initiate the conversation. What is important is that managers make it clear that they’re there to help, not there to take over. And they should start by listening,” said Freeney.

“How we learn to do this is by modelling others who are effective in their people management roles. So, identify someone who is admired as a manager and observe their behaviours. Seek out some mentoring, even informally, from such a manager and be open to learning from their approach.”

Finally, managers need to constantly practise self-awareness and reflection to ensure they’re management style is healthy and effective. Being a people manager requires a different set of skills and it’s important to consider it separately to the rest of your day-to-day tasks.

“Don’t just rush from one task to another, from one meeting to another, but take the time to pause and consider how others have reacted to your requests or direction. So, look inwards too to identify areas for learning and development as a manager.”

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the deputy editor of Silicon Republic in 2020, having worked as the careers editor until June 2019. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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