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The micromanagement experience | Why micromanage? | When it is appropriate | How to handle micromanagers | See also


There is a style of management with which many are familiar and which has acquired the name 'micromanagement'. The manager in question acts as if the subordinate is incapable of doing the job, giving close instruction and checking everything the person does. They seldom praise and often criticize. Whatever their subordinates do, nothing seems good enough. It is the opposite of leadership.

The micromanagement experience

For the individual, this tends to be incredibly frustrating. They are being treated as if they are incapable and untrustworthy. We often see ourselves as others see us and, when treated as unworthy, we will soon feel unworthy. In this way, people who are micromanaged can become dependent, unable to make the smallest decision without asking their manager. Alternatives to this total submission, which many take, include remaining frustrated or leaving. In any case, it is easy for one's confidence to be severely knocked.

Why micromanage?

Why do managers micromanage? There can be a number of reasons. First, they may reasonably not trust the person either because there is evidence to support this or because the newness of the relationship has not yet yielded evidence to support trust. There might also be a high-risk situation which merits extra management attention.

A more likely explanation is an internal need for the manager to manage closely. They may fear failure personally, transfer that risk to the person then take ownership of the person's work. The manager may also feel (or want to feel) superior to the person, effectively confusing authority with ability. The person thus seems incompetent and the manager looks for confirmation of this in the smallest details of the person's work. A minor error is thus taken as evidence of the person's total incompetence and the manager's obvious superiority. This can be a reversal of a childhood situation with a critical parent. Just as the abused become abusers, so also may the criticized become critical.

Micromanagement also plays to strong identity and control needs. Telling people what to do and not do is a strong controlling action, whilst the sense of superiority strokes the identity ego.

When it is appropriate

Sometimes, close management is a realistic option. When a person is working in a job where they do not have the knowledge or ability to do the job, and where mistakes are costly and highly undesirable, then they will need careful supervision and education until they are able to work by themselves.

Sometimes also a person may become destructive for some inner reason, such as disliking the company or its managers and they need careful watching in case they do something harmful.

How to handle micromanagers

So what should you do when faced with a micromanager? The first thing is to recognize that it is their issue, not yours. However, this disability means they lack certain abilities and because of your situation, you are going to have to handle it.

The worst thing you can do is to get into a power struggle, as this is very likely to result in the micromanager using all the formal power at their disposal to beat you into submission, including threats of dismissal and negative references.

The simplest approach is to listen patiently and attentively when they tell you what to do (they hate being ignored). If you really disagree with what they are saying, ask politely for their reasons or explain your concern and ask for their advice. Quietly and carefully ensure you cannot be blamed for the micromanager's decisions (it can be useful to keep notes and confirm directives in emails in case of later disagreement).

You can give them feedback (through a third party, if necessary) about how they are behaving and how this makes you feel. Some micromanagers do not intend to act this way and will make genuine attempts to improve. Many, however, will feel slighted and the result can be unhelpful. In consequence, think carefully before using this approach.

A reversal can be an interesting alternative, effectively, micromanaging them. Book their time to agree what you will be doing. Agree in detail what you will be doing. Let them make every decision. Then do exactly what they said and report back that you have completed each step. Go back often to check for new each decision. In the end they may tire of your constant attention and tell you to back off. You can also pre-empt and prompt this by occasionally asking if your approach to managing the detail through them is ok and whether they'd prefer you to decide more things yourself.

Another approach is to use their control and identity needs as levers. Use these as punishment and reward, carefully removing control and isolating them, or giving feedback that shows they are in control and are wonderful. For example when they over-control, avoid them, whilst when they give you more space, even a little, look at them and smile (identity stroking). Be very subtle in all this -- if the micromanager feels micromanaged, they will react strongly.

In this way you will feel more in control yourself even as you give them a greater sense of control. Living with a micromanager need not be painful and it can be an interesting challenge

See also

Post-hoc Management, Identity need, Control need

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