I believe 99.9% of people have good intentions. If you asked them, they would probably tell you they have good intentions too. How those intentions are experienced by others though, can sometimes be a very different story.
Consider the situation where a manager has been recently promoted from being a technical expert where their identity and value has been tied to being the subject matter expert and across the detail. What happens in their new manager role where the technical detail is now done by one of their team and their new role is to instead oversee, guide and develop?
Imagine another scenario where there’s been an increase in workload and everyone is under pressure and time poor. The manager has rolled up their sleeves and got involved to make sure deadlines are met. This pressure has continued as no new resources have been added and they now default to thinking “it’s quicker just to do it myself”, instead of delegating or developing one of the team.
Both scenarios can lead to micro-managing, and in turn a disempowered team and low levels of innovation, engagement and ultimately retention. The impact a manager can have on their team is not to be underestimated. How people can describe working for a micro-manager is often tainted with the brush that they are deficient and some almost erring on the side of evil. There are definitely micro-managers that act from a place of narcissism or arrogance, needing control and believing they are always right.
But there are other types of micro-managers that have evolved because they struggle to let go of the detail and believe that their value comes from being across everything. When questioning a new manager why they are so in the weeds, I have heard the phrase, “I never want to be caught out now knowing the answer”. We often underestimate how strongly our identity shapes our behaviour each and every day.
These managers aren’t micro-managing because they need control but because they have always relied on their own capability to do their role. Keeping with the theme of self-reliance, maintaining control over the inputs and outputs, fulfils a need for certainty and confidence. Their behaviour to deliver the best job possible is well intentioned. The way this behaviour may be experienced by their team is, unfortunately, not feeling heard, not empowered, lacking a sense of autonomy and mastery, and also lack of opportunity to develop. If not identified early, this leads to disengagement and increased turnover.
Situations where there’s a risk of becoming a micro-manager
Three scenarios that are most at risk of inadvertently becoming micro managers include:
- The newly promoted manager who’s identity is tied to knowledge and being a ‘technical specialist’, and they are unclear of the new expectations and deliverables of their role. They may not be clear how to measure guiding, reviewing and building capability.
- The middle manager that sits between the technical delivery team and layers of senior decision makers. They can feel untethered as they are now the conduit of information, not responsible for technical detail and also not responsible for ultimate decision making.
- The manager that has been promoted due to their performance in a delivery role but not given the extra resources to backfill the role they performed previously.
Helping break a cycle of micro-managing
Unfortunately, micro-managers rarely realise they are micro-managing on their own. If you’re a leader or HR Business Partner and you’re getting feedback that one of the managers is micromanaging:
- Get feedback back from all team members. The experience of managers is subjective and can also be situational. An individual team member may just need a voice in how they are managed but it may not be a whole team experience.
- Have a direct conversation with the manager to get their perspective. Often managers that are still in the detail instead of managing are overloaded as they try to do both. Are they open to the feedback and want to develop? Are they coachable?
- Do they have the resources to manage? Are the right people and skills within the team to deliver expected outcomes? Managers that have to continuously pitch in will eventually just become the default as they feel they have no other option.
- Is the controlling behaviour due to arrogance or a tendency to be a martyr or victim? These behaviours can come from a need for significance or self protection and may on the surface, show up in similar ways but the underlying internal beliefs of the person are very different.
Research in growth mindset says as humans we are most fulfilled when we can stretch from a position of confidence and comfort. But if we don’t have the knowledge of how to achieve the stretch, have access to available resources or are experiencing levels of stress that limit our capacity, more often than not, we’ll retreat to our position of confidence and comfort because at least we know how to do that.