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In the jungle of micromanagement

17/02/2022 2022/02

"Mr Müller, the e-mail template to the client is now OK, I have changed a few things, you can send it out now, as always with me in CC. Later I want to look at the calculation of the figures for Q1 from you, but that will be later because I still have so much on my desk." Are you feeling sick right now too? Or do you shrug your shoulders because such sentences are more common in your company? If so, you have obviously also had experience with micromanagement.

Definition: What is micromanagement?


"Micro" comes from the ancient Greek word for "small", so we can think of micromanagement as particularly small-scale management and leadership behaviour. This can also mean not explaining the goal or the framework guidelines to the team, but giving work assignments in small steps. When an order is completed, everything is meticulously checked for correctness before the next work order is given. It is also typical for micromanagement to get daily updates on how far the employees have come with the respective project. The initiative comes from the manager and the subordinates have to report back - there is no trace of eye level or joint consultation. Like in a jungle, the small-scale measures grow and grow...

Signs of micromanagement:  the most common jungle plants

  • Common signs of micromanagement are lush manuals, guidelines, written specifications, templates of all kinds and detailed instructions for action with concrete thresholds (for example, in customer service, only reimbursements up to the amount of €199 may be made by ordinary employees; sums exceeding this must be approved by the team leader). All these instructions must be strictly adhered to and serve to ensure that as few mistakes as possible are made. (Side note: in some highly regulated industries, such as pharmaceuticals or aviation, the rationale for being as careful as possible is obvious. In our example of customer service for returns and refunds, such guidelines smell strongly of distrust towards employees).
  • For the respective managers, micromanagement makes itself felt in an overflowing calendar and a lot of overtime. If you have to read through every protocol and approve every email before it is sent, if you have every team member tell you for 30 minutes every day what he or she has done all day like a schoolchild, you hardly have time for your actual tasks.
  • In order to report regularly on all the progress made, there are regular meetings for everything, i.e. a considerable number of meetings. In these meetings, each person lists in turn which tasks have been worked on most recently and which are due next. Those who are not speaking at the moment try to conceal their boredom with a polite face - except for the manager, who extensively adds to the minutes in order to come back to the progress next week at the latest.
  • Learned helplessness among staff: When (if!) the micromanaging manager goes on holiday, there is an extensive substitution rule for all topics (or it all goes to the:next higher:level supervisor). If a topic has been forgotten, the employees prefer not to decide anything themselves, but wait for the boss to return from holiday. Especially if the team has not been given an overview of what is to be done and for what purpose, thinking along is simply not possible. One does the assigned small tasks as far as one has understood them. Ironically, mistakes are much more likely than when competent employees work on a process from start to finish on their own responsibility.

Reasons for micromanagement: in the person, in the team, in the organisation, in society

One root for this jungle probably goes back to the beginning of industrialisation: unskilled, partly illiterate workers had to perform simple manual tasks in interaction with expensive machines. The poor working conditions and monotonous tasks led to mistakes. Therefore, it was the task of the foremen and supervisors to control every movement. 
The underlying conception of man was formulated by McGregor in his theory X: People are naturally lazy and indolent and can only be motivated extrinsically - from outside - either by the prospect of rewards or by punishment. The task of leadership is accordingly to distribute tasks and supervise their execution, since ordinary employees cannot see the big picture. Each:r has only as much knowledge and authority as is necessary to complete the tasks.
If micromanagement occurs only sporadically in an organisation, it may be due to the personality of the leader: Research has shown that people with personality traits of the "Dark Triad" narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy become leaders more often than average.
Especially someone with Machiavellian traits fundamentally distrusts his environment and tries to keep control over everything. But even people who are far from having a personality disorder can, for example, transfer their perfectionism to their team or department.
Sometimes the composition or performance of the team can also give rise to micromanagement - someone who is still at the beginning of their career or has just moved into a new area may need more frequent feedback on tasks in the early days (!). Taking over a team that is considered "difficult" or low-performing in the company is also a reason for some managers to stay as close as possible to the work of the members. In both cases, the tone makes the music: frequent feedback loops and interest in the challenges of the employees are helpful, but control is simply not better than trust.
Finally, one must not disregard the structures and culture of the respective company. In a company where a manager is held personally responsible for the results of subordinates, the idea of wanting to check everything again oneself is obvious. A culture of error, which is primarily designed to avoid mistakes without using the learning potential of failures, can also contribute to micromanagement. 

Countermeasures

The first step is to notice micromanagement and name it as such. Often this works better from the outside or as a newcomer, because internally everyone is already used to the impenetrable jungle. Next, a brief review is recommended: at what points, if any, are there legal or substantive reasons that matters have to be processed and checked in dual control? What other safeguards could be put in place instead? (Examples could be additional insurances or changing the terms of the contract to reduce claims for compensation, sometimes a tool can also check inputs automatically and thus reduce the error rate).
All areas that lack legitimacy for tight controls should now be scrutinised: where and how does micromanagement manifest itself? Are the reasons at a personal level, does the team play a role, what structures and mechanisms challenge micromanagement in the organisation? Depending on the answers, one option is 'cold turkey'. This means that from now on people will only be put in CC for mails in exceptional cases (and never in BCC), that ¾ of all regular meetings will be cancelled and replaced by collaborative tools, that all manuals will be reduced to concise process maps, and that the scope for decision-making for employees in e.g. approvals will be drastically increased.
If the uncontrolled growth of micromanagement is cut back in this way, there is room for the tender plant of trust. To stay in the picture: the small seedlings for trust can be produced in workshops for leaders, they should be watered by regular coaching (also for team members), and they need to be protected. After all, if the old habits of the micromanagement jungle start to grow again, every individual in the company should have the right to call attention to it loudly and to question in a joint conversation whether there is really a need for another Excel spreadsheet in which everyone enters their interim state of whatever.
Admittedly, replanting your organisation with trust instead of micromanagement takes time and determination. If you prefer to set out with company to contain the jungle of micromanagement, our organisational botanists Nadia Döhler and Valeska Szalla will be happy to support you in identifying and containing your particular micromanagement plants.

About the Author
Valeska Szalla
HR Consultant
Since 2017 I have been writing my success story at ARTS, where I can always add a new chapter through the various projects I have been involved in.

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