Like many of you, I had the opportunity to work with managers with quite different profiles in my long career in business. Some were my colleagues while others were the one to whom I “reported” as it’s customary to say.
When I was lucky enough I had the privilege and the pleasure to serve under the direction of inspiring leaders who have helped me to grow. In these times I developed both as professional and personally.
When the luck run off, my path crossed with some neurotic and self-conscious people. The spectrum of which was broad from the unpredictable paranoid to the super toxic pervert-narcissist (I even had one that was both at the same time). However, there is one category that I have encountered later in my career and that was even more frightening: the micro-manager.
In this article; I share some tricks about how to identify micro-managers and mitigate the damages they create.
The micro-manager (let us call them MM) is dangerous because he/she is often considered by the hierarchy as very valuable. Professionalism, dedication and accuracy often earned MM the respect and recognition of the top-management. The same top-management sees only the visible face of the iceberg when the employees shatter daily against the huge immersed need for control MM has. It can take years before this imposter is unmasked, which gives MM the time to undermine not only individuals who defer to him, but also a whole business organisation.
Why are there more and more MMs?
In times of massive accessibility to various leadership trainings and the promotion of participative management there is no more space for MM, one’s would think. The research and the experience preach that micro management is ineffective and obsolete. So how come that in so many companies MM are still allowed to spread their venom even day after day, drop by drop, in the hearts and minds of the most enthusiastic co-workers. Here are some of the key reasons:
1. Over-processing. Work processes are there to improve the efficiency of companies and business units – certainly. But when they do not deliver the desired effect (as if everything were as simple as in an assembly line) then the temptation is to invest in process optimization. It is often in this environment that the MM raises dangerously. MM’s accuracy and the absolute respect he/she dedicates to the conduct of the process steps makes him/her assigned to take a leading role in “change management” programs, to use another fashionable gimmick.
2. “Report – mania” or over-production of follow-up reports resulting from the over-mentioned over-processing: MMs love ‘reporting’ and especially its formatting. No matter the relevance of the information that is collected (sometimes these are trivial or absurd); never mind the tangible impact of employees on the operations or on the end customer satisfaction… It is crucial to complete the Excel tables (which the MM often developed itself) as described previously in an email (MM sent with sentences in capital letters, in case the instructions were not clear enough). Everyone has to follow BY-THE-BOOK the layout of the PowerPoint template (let us rename it “PoorPoint” in such a case). MM is a devil who loves wallowing in the details.
3. Immediacy of the information. We are enslaved in our daily lives by social medias. In business, this permanent need of ‘here and now’ information, R.O.I. templates and other benchmark tools are ideal legitimation to the harassment to which we get subjected by our MM. How many times have we seen employees being stressed by a report to write “ad-hoc” while their presence on the ground would have been more profitable to the satisfaction of the end customer and to the achievement of the team objectives.
How to recognize MMs … and know them better?
Beyond the few examples seen above, here comes the non-exhaustive list of what distinguishes the MM:
– MM dictates to its subordinates not only what to do, but how to do it. MM delegates the responsibility, but not the decision making.
– MM is often a “be perfect” person. He/she has a strong tendency to do things “right” down to the smallest detail, rather than ensure primarily to focus on doing the right things – which is very different! This detail-centric mindset strengthens MM’s conviction of being a perfect example of manager and thus the “perfect” feels encouraged to become the “more-than-perfect”.
– Before development talks, MM is obsessed with the self-preparation of the assessed employee. MM particularly likes email sent prior to interview, often formulated in the form of a template, you the interviewee will fill in. Finally, the interview itself will focus on the way that you have followed the procedures and the obedience with which you have completed the follow-up documents that was provided by the MM.
– At the same time, the tangible and positive impact of your actions and initiatives on the business or on the end customer might be less of MM focus, as long as you have not stuck to the procedures MM asked you to follow.
– MM is quicker to comment on your weaknesses rather than on your strengths. MM is actually lacking self-confidence. Recognizing in others the qualities MM doesn’t have would be kind of demeaning.
– MM is often in a parent-child relationship with the employees. If junior employees can live with it (some beginners even might consider that this is a ‘normal’ management” and could reproduce the same patterns someday), senior employees are forced into submission, accountability or rebellion. MM wants experienced people to listen as new born babies.
– MM is easily offended that you take any decision without consulting, although these decisions would perfectly fit the responsibility of your function or be completely innocuous.
– When it comes to change management, if reference is made to the Diffusion of innovation curve for example, MM will hasten to value the self-reported “early adopters” and disqualify the yet very useful “resisters” (sometimes categorized as such without any form of trial). MM sees these “resistance” as potential obstacle to the application of routines that MM sometimes struggles to give a meaning to.
– MM often uses fear towards the employees, with all the known consequences on self-esteem or the physical integrity of these (for example belly ache caused by the too high production of cortisol).
– Last but not least – MM considers him/herself as a perfectly structured and organized manager.MM evolves in total denial that often reinforces the positive appreciation of his/her superiors that are little abreast of MM’s methods.
In reality our MM is a dissatisfied person, lacking self-confidence and with low self-esteem. As a ‘be-perfect’, MM feels phoney in its function; its instinctive defence or protection strategy will be then to create an environment allowing to demonstrate its value to its hierarchy. MM thinks that he/she can ensure the demonstration of his/her talent and usefulness, by implementing autocratic procedures and the use of standards that are clean and which legitimizes the objectives. MM uses authority because he/she feels ‘threatened’ by the presence of skilled and God forbid, more competent report who at the times dares to question or challenge. In short, micro-management often goes hand in hand with micro-talent…
But let us not give the blame to MM only as the first offenders are those who knowingly or unknowingly have recruited and trusted MM with managing the team. If the decision was taken in in full knowledge of the micro-manager’s profile, then we are forced to recognize it as semi criminal practices.
It happens that the micro-management is a practice deliberately desired and “installed” by the management team to eliminate employees with undesired profiles. Often senior co-workers with lots of experience and therefore costly for the organization. Then erratic standards are put in place to which the employees cannot respond; leading to confusion, motivation drop, and resignation. It might as well lead to burn-out or suicide as it has been the case with France Telecom and their NEXT program in the years 2006-2010 (60 suicides). In this kind of context, MM loves to bossing around and to apply shamelessly the meanest tasks.
Let’s look at the micro-management that is not institutionalized here and assume that this practice is not desired by the company management. Even in this case, here are the main consequences of the micro-management:
– A disengagement of the employees, linked to the feeling of a lack of confidence in their work or their judgment. This disengagement affects the productivity of the employee but can also act by contagion on the behaviour of his colleagues.¢ A toxic work environment. In the presence of a MM, defence strategies differ depending on the level of confidence and assertiveness of the employees, but it depends also on their individual scale of values. Some will be tempted to make a deal with the micro – manager by showing a submissive attitude – even a complicit one; while others will display a passive but inwardly destructive neutrality. The remaining ones will rebel and criticise their colleagues for giving no support insubordination. In short there is nothing good there for the trust, harmony and collaboration within the group.
– A growing stress. The extreme need of control, the importance given to the insignificant details, the lack of recognition, the self-centred attitude of the micro – manager – so many perverse effects on the mental health and physical integrity (stomach aches, difficult sleeping…) of the employees. This leads often to harmful absenteeism that affect the efficiency of the company.
– A slowdown or even a stop of the employee’s development in terms of self-esteem and general confidence in the employer in the broad sense, but also in terms of willingness to learn professionally and to grow in the company.
– A lack on innovation. The most committed and creative employees will soon grow tired to see their “outside of the box” thoughts and initiatives systematically refuted by their MM (when the latter will not resume the best ideas on its own initiative). Then, unmotivated, employees resigned themselves, follow the movement and feed the business “as usual”…
– The resignation of the best elements. The efficient and mature individuals, whose leadership differs from micro-management, will be the first to find a loophole. They will not hesitate to leave an environment they deem highly toxic. Statistically, 70% of those leaving voluntarily their job would do so because of their (micro)manager.
– An alteration of the team performance and of its ability to respond effectively to the assigned missions.
– In the end a negative impact on the satisfaction of the end customer.
What can we do?
Act before it is too late, in the interest of the employees so that they do not demotivate nor reach the point of no return in extreme cases (Burnout, suicide). Do it also in the interest of the company, its customers and not forget in the interest of the micro-managers themselves.
For the sake of the company:
Dare to speak openly about micro-management while ensuring that a fair and clear definition is known and shared by all managers and employees.
Request independent surveys on the social climate and on the employee’s motivation. Ensure everyone is free to speak on a fair and transparent basis. It is curious to see the no recourse to such surveys there even where teams suffer the ravages of the micro-managers.
Adopt Agile philosophy and methods. The “Servant leadership” radically opposes the micro-management. Ensuring it’s the practice is a guarantee of non-proliferation of the micro-managers. It places the manager in the service of his team’s performance. It is a commitment to trust the employees and to recognize their expertise. As a diligent practitioner of the Servant leadership -recently met during a workshop on agility summed up: “if I am the most competent in the meeting room, then it means I am the wrong room!
Use anonymous and frequent satisfaction survey sent to all co-workers with only one question “Indicated on scale from 1-10, how much has your manager support you in achieving your goals in last two weeks. 1- not at all, 10 fully”
For the employees:
Rebel! You have been recruited for good reason and not to behave as sheep! Challenge – your (micro) manager by referring to corporate culture (often documented, it is rare that the micro-management is set up as an example) or your track record. You are often paid too much to be just a mere executor, remind your MM!
Stand together against your MM. It is more likely that management is alerted and alarmed of possible micro-managerial abuses if complaints come from several individuals at the same time.
If nothing happens, leave! As with the narcissistic pervert, salvation is the flight. Micro-management – if it is not a practice insidiously voluntarily installed by management – is often a case of big denial. This disclaimer applies to both the MM and the micro-managed. Yet for there to be a bully, must be a victim at the same time. If there is no hope, then your talents will be more useful in another work environment where you will be recognized, appreciated and where you can fully develop yourself.
…and for the MM:
The MM is often devoted to his/her company. It would be a shame for the employer to dispense with the services of a so zealous and intrinsically motivated employee. And for the MM to miss the career dream because the/she could not live up to the manager that he wished to become. Here are three tips to the MM to find the way to true leadership.
Ask your employees, your colleagues and your supervisor. As seen above, the main characteristic of the MM is to be in denial. Dare to ask the question of whether or not, all the time or only sometimes you micro-manage (on the basis of a fair definition of what micro-management is). This will allow you to achieve progress but also to realize the extent of the disastrous impact on your team members.
Read about situational leadership. This will help you to adopt the most appropriate management approach based on the profile of your employees. Explore more especially the Servant leadership and agile methodologies. Also learn how to capitalize on the strengths of your employees and not on their weaknesses only. (I recommend for this purpose the Strengthsfinder 2.0 by Tom Rath). Then you will realize how the formula is magic, and you MM – who are often in need of recognition – will see your team approving the changes that you implement in your approach to leadership and managerial follow-up.
Use a coach that will help you without any judgment of values and will make you ask yourself the right questions so that you achieve the possible transformation from the MM you are into the inspiring leader that you thought you were.
There is no shame to confront one’s own demons and accept mistakes that have been done. And besides, being wrong and fail are in first place in the precepts of agility.
You are interested in the concept of Servant Leadership and trainings or workshops on this subject, do not hesitate to contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org