When does managing someone turn into the unwanted and unhelpful monitoring of their performance? There are many reasons a manager may need to take a more hands-on approach to productivity, but micromanagement often stems from the worry that an employee can’t do the job well without the manager’s close supervision.
At worst, micromanagement piles even more work onto high-performing employees, who are stuck having to prove they are doing work on top of actually doing their work.
“No one aspires to be a micromanager. No one aspires to be a bad manager. No one wakes up in the morning and thinks, ‘How can I make my team’s life as difficult as possible?’” said Gorick Ng, a career adviser at Harvard University and the author of “The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right.” “However, people become bad managers, or micromanagers, because of uncertainty, which leads to anxiety.”
If you are wondering whether your constant check-ins and requests for status updates have veered into micromanagement, here are signs to consider:
1. You check in only because you are anxious.
Micromanagement is sometimes necessary depending on individual employees’ motivational and development levels, said Kimberly B. Cummings, a leadership consultant and author of “Next Move, Best Move: Transitioning Into a Career You’ll Love.“
But check-ins can become unintended micromanagement when you don’t give your employees a chance to prove their competence, even when their track record demonstrates they know what they are doing.
To know the difference between a status check that’s warranted and one that isn’t, Cummings said you should ask yourself questions like, “What is this employee’s track record of success? Have they completed their assignments on time? Do they demonstrate a full understanding of their role, the tasks and the projects? If so, how have they shown that they demonstrate that understanding? ... Would this person be able to do my job if prepared appropriately?”
The answers to these questions can help you understand when your need for check-ins is a compulsive, unhelpful way to calm your nerves and when close supervision may be necessary.
″[Micromanagement is] when... the due date is like next week, they’ve never submitted something late and that leader is consistently like, ‘Well, what’s happening with this? What’s happening on slide seven? Did you get to slide 10 yet? Can you tell me what’s on there? Remember to do it this way.’ The employee hasn’t even gotten a chance to work on these things,” Cummings said.
2. You assign without clear expectations of when, how or why you want a task done.
Keep in mind that your management style needs to align with the individual needs of your employees, and those can change over the course of a working relationship. Maybe a new employee needs frequent check-ins and supervision to get up to speed but won’t later on. Being clear and upfront about why you are supervising people so closely makes the process better for them.
Cummings shared an example from when she worked at an organization where everything needed to be communicated in a deck. She was transparent with new team members about her plans to closely supervise them on how to do that in order to set them up for success and ensure their ideas were heard.
“I want you to be self-sufficient and do it on your own,” Cummings said she told her team members. “But those first 90 days, all we are doing is fine-tuning how you communicate. We’re checking in frequently before whenever that big meeting is.”
Before you check in with an employee to see how a task is going, ask yourself if you shared why the task was assigned, what they need to do, how they need to do it and when they need to have it done. If those key questions are answered and understood upfront, it can help you avoid the need for anxious micromanaging later, Ng said.
“What will end up happening is a manager will check in on someone and say, ‘Hey, are you done yet?’ ‘Are you done yet?’ ‘Are you done yet?’ And often that’s because we haven’t aligned on the ‘by when?’” he said.
3. You focus too much on the small stuff.
Micromanagers can get too caught up on the unimportant details of how a job should get done and miss out on the impact of what their employees accomplish.
“This can be frustrating, because employees are looking to leaders to think about the big picture and have vision. Valuing small stuff over the more impactful whole can be demoralizing and frustrating,” said Angela Karachristos, a career coach who previously worked in human resources.
“For example, if a report for a major project was done and done on time, but the manager is hyper-focused on one word or image that was ― in their opinion ― out of place, that would constitute a micromanager.”
4. You are convinced that your way is always the best way to get things done.
“Another sign of a micromanager is that they want to groom their employees to work just like them,” Karachristos said. “They tend to communicate in a way that suggests there is only ‘one right way.’ This can be stifling to creativity and motivation.”
This narrow thinking is a common mistake people make as first-time managers; they believe that everybody should behave exactly as they behave and want the same things that they want because it’s what worked for them as an individual performer.
Karachristos said that if a task can only be done one way, that expectation should be set upfront and you should offer helpful feedback to get the work to that standard.
Although forcing projects to be done your way can get the job done, it’s not an effective long-term strategy if you want your team to be at their best. Ng said that if you are not clear about the why, how, what and when behind assigning tasks, then employees will likely not do the job the way you want. As a result, you’ll feel the need to micromanage.
In this way, micromanagement becomes a lose-lose: Bosses are stuck with more work, and employees lose out on valuable learning opportunities.
“Micromanagement might get you what you want in the short run, but, in failing to educate, enable and empower your team, you’ll need to micromanage again and again,” Ng said. “The more you take over, the more people will expect you to take over ― and the more people will shy away from doing anything without you dictating every next move.”