Everybody hates micromanagement. Want to become the most dreaded leader in your company? Earn your name as a micromanager. But, unfortunately, it’s such a sticky topic that way too many are waving it away as fast as possible as if there’s nothing of value to talk about it. But I think they are wrong.

Two Sides

I noticed everybody has their unique threshold of what they call a “micromanagement.” Where we draw that line, it doesn’t matter that much. What does is on which side of action you’re participating. Are you feeling that your manager is doing it to you, or you’re the one seeing no other path forward than closely looking over the shoulder? The good news is that understanding one direction helps the other, so let’s zoom in.

For ease to follow: I’m going to call situations when you are the micromanager as “Giver” and when you’re being micromanaged - as “Receiver.”

Giver: High Stakes, No Room For Mistakes

Let’s start with probably the most frequent scenario. Tension is enormous because there’s so much on the line, and you know that failure is not an option. Well, a failure is always an option, but such a turn of events would surely result in catastrophic consequences. In this case, the horizon of leaning in and double-checking every taken turn and reviewing output at much higher than usual engagement does start to sound reasonable, does it? While the alternatives are too risky, having all hands on deck makes sense. If your manager joins, let’s say, an ongoing investigation of the outage, you probably also wouldn’t blink and meet them with a “Stop” sign, too.

Giver: Lack of Trust

This one is an absolute classic. Some things are not going exactly well with your direct report(s), and after trying a few other techniques, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel yet. But, if you add a pinch of doubt about their integrity, this might look like the only sane way to ensure it’s not some misunderstanding before taking any further, often more destructive, action. Bottom line: micromanagement is one of the techniques to survive and buy time given no trust.

Giver: Apprenticeship

A good, well-prepared, in-depth mentorship plan is great and dandy, but what to do if there’s a need to onboard somebody to the new role very quickly? I believe it’s reasonable to apply some kind of apprenticeship model for a while. Show the main aspects of the job while it happens, use all observed chances to transfer your knowledge, and sometimes switch to the “do as I do” approach if the task is just too complicated. Yes, it’s a costly way to spend your time, but it’s the fastest highway for somebody to acquire practical skills. The highlight on “practical” is not accidental - do not have the wrong impression you won’t have to come back and give a proper background on how and why something works. It’s just to make sure your boat floats, but every good sailor knows why it floats.

Giver: None of the Above

You’re doing something you should not do. Stop. Or did I miss any situation when you could use micromanagement as a technique with an excellent legitimate reason? If so, please share in the comments.

Receiver: First - Triage

As a person feeling your manager is crossing the line of micromanagement, the first thing to do is triage the situation at hand quickly. Surprisingly enough, you’ll know this right off the bat in most cases. If not, better get ready for the minute of candidness with your boss than try to guess. Your reaction (and next steps) should vary wildly based on what you find.

For all “receiver” parts below, I assume you’ve read about those contexts above. However, if you jumped directly here, please read it up before continuing.

Receiver: High Stakes, No Room For Mistakes

Your manager is here to minimize risks to you, your team, your company, or simply themselves. It’s okay to inquire what’s at stake if that was not revealed yet. Collaborate to create a small but effective workgroup (or a war room) to accomplish what’s needed. Initiate a rapid reporting agreement yourself - define how often and in what detail your supervisor needs all information about new development on their table. Clear up your schedule or adjust your way of working to accommodate it.

Bottom line: become an understanding and driven partner until you both get the ongoing situation under control.

Receiver: Lack of Trust

If not told directly, this category is quite difficult to observe on your own. Given the lack of proof for the other two types, just default to this one.

How can you increase trust with your manager? I promise to share my thoughts in a dedicated article about this, but in just a few bullet points:

  • very carefully listen to the feedback, find the root cause even if you disagree, fix it;
  • display a series of successes;
  • step by step, increase your proactiveness - fix problems “before they happen.”

I guarantee - you can’t be wrong with such a plan ;-) Easier said than done, of course, but the alternative is often an eventual demotion or forced departure (you know what I mean).

Receiver: Apprenticeship

Wow, somebody is taking the time to show the most practical aspects of your new or changed role! Honestly, I wish I had received something like this at the beginning of my career :-) So I strongly suggest taking this chance and maxing out the time together. Ask many questions. Engage to your fullest. While on it, agree on challenges you feel ready to take them on (with supervision, of course). And then: make sure to ask for feedback. Rinse and repeat. It is extremely unlikely such hyper-care will last long, so the intensity of cooperation will wane off, but the kick-off effects will work as a foundation for your success. Take it!

Receiver: None of the Above

If you find yourself in a firm belief it’s something else, it’s time to have a painfully honest conversation with your manager about what is going on. I think there can be only a few possible outcomes:

  • Misinterpretation of intent: you both align what’s the real reason, and it’s one of the discussed above.
  • Acknowledgement of too much babysitting. You both should agree on how to scale this down and how you can prove you can handle challenges on your own while giving enough visibility.
  • Denial. In such a case, try to provide feedback, and if it doesn’t work, leverage skip-level meetings you should be having from time to time (and if not - initiate one yourself) with your manager’s manager.

In the worst case, nothing works and seems reasonable, and then it’s probably best to start the lookout for a new job.

Concious Micromanagement

Not sure if such a term exists, but if not, let’s invent it. I believe avoiding micromanagement as a technique at all costs is a sign of inexperience. But let’s agree, if this has to happen, then try to answer and expose:

  • What is the trigger or situation shifting your way of working? Both parties know why this has to happen.
  • What should happen for the things to go back to normal?
  • What is the communication and information flow contract for this period?
  • Are there indirectly affected parties because of this? Inform them if suitable, so authority is not undermined.

This way, the period of micromanagement should be short, with clear context and goals.

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko