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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 06-Jul-08


Friday 04-July-08


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 criticise. Whatever their subordinates do, nothing seems good enough.

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 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 criticised 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.

So what should you do when faced with a micromanager? The first thing is to recognise 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 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 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 done it. 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.

Your comments

 Thanks for this post. You have described my manager to a "tee". Several of us have tried your suggestions, but she hasn't gotten the message. This particular manager can also become a rage-a-holic on occasion. I feel very disempowered and discouraged in this job.

-- A Frustrated Employee in MN

Dave replies:
Another approach is to organise, for example going en masse to HR. Gather evidence. Get witnesses. Read up on employment law. Sometimes also, if you can, the best response is to look for another job.

 Yeah, I told my manager my opinion and she simply replied that "this is not going to work" - meant us working together. I think that copying her on every email I send (over 60 emails a day and coworkers refuse to email me because they know she reads everything) to asking MY subordinates to email her with everything they forward to me.

I cannot micromanage her - I tried that and it just made me look incompetent. Any suggestion?

-- Terrified Team Leader From GA

Dave replies:
There's a few options: fight back directly, escalate within the company, quit or just tolerate her. My approach in the past has been to quit, but then I've been lucky enough to know I can get another job. A variant is moving within the company.

 My Senior Manager tells me that I am a micromanager because I like details. I am a manager of a team of 20 in a call center for an online university. I do like details, but mainly for my own comfort. I rarely use the details, such as how many transfers my employees make turn to appointments then enrolments by an admissions advisor, to confront an employee. Instead I see the info and it shows me who is effective and who needs more coaching. I am a stickler for professionalism, attendance/timeliness, not using slang, dress code, and rebutting to objections. However, I don't feel that this makes me a micro-manager, I just want to be a facilitator and have everyone know and do the basics without acting like little kids trying to get around the rules. I find myself always having to nitpick about attendance with an employee because our company policy says if you are more than three minutes late then you get an occurrence (after 3 you are gone) the company mandates that part timers be on the phone 3:30 of their day and full timers 7:20, anything less and I am supposed to reprimand them. When I do so, I am called a micromanager and told that other managers will give them leeway.

So, I ask you "am I a micromanager and just don't know it?" If I am, "how can I fix it?"

~Confused manager or micromanager?

-- David C

Dave replies:
Liking detail and being a micromanager are worlds apart. Micromanagement is about the personal control needs of the manager who does not trust his or her people. It is about the way individuals are demotivated, not motivated, by constant over-the-shoulder corrections. If the rules you are playing to are different from other managers then, by contrast, you may appear to be micro-managing. The challenge for you is to ask yourself how, in a culture you probably can't change alone, how can you motivate your people to give of their best.

Reprimanding is a tricky area, when it comes to motivation and can easily just make matters worse. One approach is to frame it as a joint problem -- a part of your job is to ensure the rules are followed, so what can we do? (note the 'we').

In our office there are two female young supervisors who are definitely need more supervisory skills training; apparently they have attended a class, but to no avail, have they changed. Our staff are not allowed to leave the area unless we email our supervisor every time we leave our desk area and return when we return back to our desk, we can not ask for any assistance from a co-worker or ask a co-worker a job related question, we must email a supervisor every time we are leaving and returning from lunch; our supervisor is new from another area, but she refuses to take our suggestions on how to help the court run better, she wants to make changes that we tell her are not possible for judiciary reasons. AND LORD FORBID THAT SHE CATCHES YOU TALKING TO YOUR WORK NEIGHBORS.


-- Ms Sal

Dave replies:
It sounds pretty much like it, although many micromanagers tend to more to check up on you and tell you more about the detail what to do, as well as make you ask permission for everything. It's a control thing and your supervisors sound like they have high control needs and satisfy them by demotivating their subordinates, which isn't really that good for business, is it?

 I can't imagine having to email my boss every time you have to leave your work area. I feel for you.

-- Janelle

to david c you are a total micro manager. The online university business allows for leeway within the rules. other directors do it and you know it. This is a sales position not rewarding those who do well with some sort of autonomy will cause them to not enroll. This is due to the fact that thier mood will be considerably down and in sales that is a very important factor. Im guessing by now you have no job as im sure your team quit on you and turnover is so high in for profit education.

-- derick

I feel that most people don't require micromanagement; but there are always those who do. In some cases, it cannot be avoided. We have a manager who allows us to do our work, on our own, and get the job done. Then, there are people who abuse lunch hours, say they are going to the field and end up out shopping, that kind of thing. The field in which I work requires some of the workers to visit clients in their homes... so I feel these people almost have to be micro-managed. The boss is beginning to crack down on these situations.


-- Bonnie H

Dave replies:
Whilst micromanagement is more often a problem with the manager, there are indeed people who need close supervision. This is one of the principles of Hersey and Blanchard's Situational Leadership.

i am a supervisor. i use to have a business like the one i work for. i know more than my administrator/owner on the business. i know all the regs and policies and usually everybody from staff refer to me for advise and direction including my immediate supervisor and the owner/administrator. the administrator is starting to micromanage and is asking for reports. i have same work as everybody plus my supervisor duties and indirectly helping with the management of the whole office. the reason i say indirectly is because my immediate supervisor ask me for advise. lately i heard a counseling/writeup is on the way. apparently for not keeping up with the report of the people directly under me. how can i respond to that counseling/writeup? thanks. i love my job but lately its been very stressful for the whole office including my immediate supervisor.

-- jj

Dave replies:
Oh I feel for you! To know something better than the boss (and worse, to have been the boss) and find that they not only don't appreciate you but think you are so incapable that you must be micromanaged.  I don't know what to advise, but it sounds like the problem is with the owner. Maybe you can talk with your supervisor to figure out what to do. It's also possible that you're giving them what you know they need but not what they think they need. All I can suggest is to first talk and listen, then decide whether you want to continue there. If you have to stay for personal reasons, then you'll also have to find a way to make it work.

 I feel that most people don't require micromanagement; but there area always who do. In some cases, it cannot be avoided. We have a manager who allows us to do our work, on our own, and get the job done. Then, there are people who abuse lunch hours, say they are going to the field and end up out shopping, that kind of thing. The field in which I work requires some of the workers to visit clients in their homes... so I feel these people almost have to be micro-managed. The boss is beginning to crack down on these situations.


Dave replies:
Micromanagement is a substitute for trust. If you cannot trust people, it can be because they are not trustworthy or you have difficulty in trusting them. Figure this one out first, before concluding that closer management is needed.

Some additional interesting perspectives on Micromanagement from two individuals with PhDs in Industrial Psychology can be found at

-- Michael C

I am a Supervisor, My Employer is funded from an agency, and is totally voluntary. The Community dev. Office in Charge of the Funding is totally micro-managing me as a supervisor and my employer. I have being working with the same agency over 15 years and never had a problem, until this new person was allocated to us due to the previous persons retirement, I am totally stressed out, and as you say this makes you feel worthless and useless while you are being put down on a continues basis. Her bosses are turning a blind eye on how she does her business, and thus this is being pursued by The Employer and Union. I do hope this will be addressed soon, so I can do my job to its perfection.

-- Teresa H



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