Understanding Micromanagement: How a Leader’s Insecurity Can Make Their Staff Miserable

 Most leaders don’t want to be micromanagers, but slip into bad habits. Here’s why they take on these traits and how they differ from successful leadership actions.

Most leaders don’t want to be micromanagers, but slip into bad habits. Here’s why they take on these traits and how they differ from successful leadership actions.

Micromanagers have habits that can drive their employees crazy. One might check in every 20 minutes to make sure his team is on-task, while another insists on sitting in on all meetings, phone calls, and online chats.

The employees are left feeling annoyed or suffocated, and in the worst case scenario: ready to quit.

What makes these managers so frustrating to work for? Were they always like this or have they developed into helicopter bosses over time?

Most leaders don’t want to be micromanagers, but slip into bad habits. Here’s why they take on these traits and how they differ from successful leadership actions.

What Causes Leaders to Become Micromanagers?

It’s important to note that micromanaging bosses aren’t inherently terrible, meaning they don’t set out to make their employees’ lives miserable. Psychologist Seth Spain, assistant professor of Organizational Behavior at Concordia University in Montreal, says there are typically two types of bad bosses: dark and dysfunctional.

  • Dark bosses have narcissistic and psychopathic traits and enjoy watching people who are in uncomfortable situations. They are likely going to be mean and abusive in daily life.

  • Dysfunctional bosses are pretty harmless in comparison. They’re just not that good at their jobs.

In the latter instance, micromanaging is more of a symptom of incompetence. A manager might start to watch employees or create new rules because they feel like they lack control in a situation and need to overcompensate by exerting power over employees.

“The best way to know if you’re micromanaging vs. managing down comes from your personal state,” Dave Popple, Ph.D., president of Psynet Group, explains. “People who are managing down are focused on achieving the purpose of the team and the development of their direct report. However, micromanaging is an anxiety response meant to make us less anxious.”

Mark Murphy, founder of Leadership IQ, agrees. He uses the example that lower level employees can get their hands dirty and fix problems when they discover them, but managers have to explain problems to their team and convince them to do the work. If managers feel stressed about the problems or about their employees fixing them, they try to exert more control.

Furthermore, if managers feel uncertain about a project and want to feel like experts who deserve the role, they’re likely to start micromanaging to show their abilities and competence.

Micromanagers Affect the Health of the Company and Employees

 Even large companies with hundreds of staff can feel the sting of micromanagers hovering insecurely above their workers.

Even large companies with hundreds of staff can feel the sting of micromanagers hovering insecurely above their workers.

One micromanager in an office might slow down production and not seem like a big deal, but they could cause ripple effects throughout the organization. Even large companies with hundreds of staff can feel the sting of micromanagers hovering insecurely above their workers.

Micromanagers Create Disengaged Employees

At its core, micromanagement can turn high-performing employees into disengaged workers. This lowers productivity and creates a negative environment where workers just want to get by.

In an interview with NPR, executive coach Steve Motenko says micromanaging bosses are one of the biggest complaints he encounters from employees.

"We need employees who will do more than do what they're told — employees who will think for themselves, who will be creative," he says. "All of that is squashed by micromanaging."

In fact, it’s in the best interest of company leadership to make sure employees feel confident and respected in their jobs. According to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2016 Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement Survey, 67 percent of employees value respectful treatment of all employees over all levels as their top job satisfaction contributor. Furthermore, 55 percent of people say trust between employees and senior management is very important to their job satisfaction.

Companies can’t afford to create toxic work environments and expect employees to work through them. Even the best paid employees are likely to leave if they don’t feel respected.

Micromanagers Increase Turnover Rates

There is quantitative proof that bad bosses lead to higher turnover rates.

BambooHR discovered that 44 percent of employees have left their jobs primarily because of their boss. More than a third of these respondents quit because of a boss’ management style.

The BambooHR survey also found that older employees are less likely to accept micromanagement and other poor management practices. This is because older employees have had more experience with leadership and know what a good (or bad) leader looks like.     

When your business adds up the cost of replacing employees and the reduced production of disengaged employees, you can start to see exactly how stunted your company becomes because of poor leadership habits.  

Micromanagers Place Undue Emotional Stress on Workers

Along with hurting morale and the company’s bottom line, micromanagers can also cause health problems for employees.

A study from the Indiana University Kelley School of Business tracked 2,363 employees in their 60s over seven years. It found that those in demanding jobs with little control of their workflow were 15.4 percent likelier to die during the study. Meanwhile, those with similarly demanding jobs but with high levels of workflow control were 34 percent less likely to die.

In other words, when stressful jobs are paired with little leeway in decision-making due to micromanagement, the consequences can literally be deadly. Creating autonomy, even in the form of small freedoms to make decisions and control their workday schedules and goals, can help employees feel better about their work and lives.  

5 Ways Great Leaders Managers Slip Into Micromanagement

 Taking a step back is a big part of successful leadership.

Taking a step back is a big part of successful leadership.

Managers often start leading confidently and then change their behavior over time. They might realize the work is harder than they thought or respond with anxiety to new practices in the company. A few small changes can turn a leader into a micromanager.  

They Want to Be Included In Every Conversation and Decision

Taking a step back is a big part of successful leadership. Even the best leaders can become micromanagers if they insist on being in the room all of the time.

“Micromanagers tend to head up every project, conversation and menial task within their reach,” Andre Lavoie, CEO and co-founder of ClearCompany, writes. “What inevitably happens is that the manager creates a bottleneck of work, placing roadblocks at all junctures.”

This behavior further highlights the insecurity that causes micromanagement. In order to feel in control, micromanagers suck up as much information possible, and feel like they’re losing control when people meet without them.

Lavoie says that effective leaders delegate and facilitate ways for employees to do their jobs successfully. Their goal isn’t to check on every step of the process, but to set employees up for success and help when they’re needed.

They Get Overwhelmed By Low Priority Activities  

Successful leaders guide their teams, prioritizing tasks, projects, and goals. Micromanagers, on the other hand, typically get lost in the weeds in their effort to keep track of everything, ultimately losing focus of the big picture.

Career coach Lisa Quast encourages leaders to examine their calendars and document a list of their daily activities. If they find they don’t have time for developing big picture goals and planning for the future, it’s probably because they are micromanaging small tasks. Some managers need others to intervene and let them know they need to step back.   

They Confuse Accountability With Micromanagement

Additionally, managers and employees both tend to confuse micromanagement with accountability. Strategist and ministry consultant Paul Alexander at The Unstuck Group says that young employees often feel like they’re being micromanaged, when they’re really following accountability procedures. Conversely, managers feel like they’re holding their team accountable when they’re really micromanaging.

To tell the difference, Alexander says to look for these differences:

  • Micromanagement focuses on the process, accountability on the outcome.

  • Micromanagement assumes the worst, accountability hopes for the best.

  • Micromanagement requires employees to check in, accountability gives them the tools to figure it out.

It actually makes sense that many project managers struggle to balance micromanagement and accountability. They create check-ins to make sure the project is proceeding as planned and on time, but wind up creating speed bumps and bottlenecks.

They Obsess Over Every Choice and Change

Along with creating bottlenecks, micromanagers sometimes start nitpicking projects and asking for minor changes throughout the process. Jonathan Herrick, co-founder of the marketing software company Hatchbuck, refers to this as “becoming the client.”

“You know those pesky clients that keep asking for little changes, often ending up miles away from their initial direction?” he writes. “Sometimes owners do this too. If you are pushing for small changes and then find the project ends up in a completely different direction, then you probably took the helm and drove the bus off-course.”

By trusting employees to do their jobs successfully, any changes managers are left to make should be minor details at the end of a project.

They Are Never Happy With the Work of Their Employees

While pushing employees to do better is always an important goal, there is such a thing as pushing too much. This often occurs when managers spend so much time trying to improve the work of employees that they never acknowledge their effort or praise their accomplishments.

James Davis, editor at HR Daily Advisor, says this behavior manifests itself in constantly providing feedback and constantly coming up with ideas for employees to improve their work.

Think about this from an anxiety perspective. The micromanaging boss might be offering their advice to feel validated as an important part of the project, or they could be trying to make the project perfect to appease upper management. Either way, the employees suffer the most from this behavior.  

Organizational psychologist and executive/performance coach Karlyn Borysenko created a useful chart setting out differences between effective managers and micromanagers. She cites examples such as leading through influence versus control and sharing wins versus placing blame. It’s a helpful way to see that a few small slips might turn even the best managers into micromanagers.

What starts as a few requests for changes or meeting invites can become a frustrating work environment if these actions become habits.

Leaders Find Balance Between Micro and Macro Management

 Being too hands off and not giving direction can have the same effect of micromanaging.

Being too hands off and not giving direction can have the same effect of micromanaging.

While many employees are quick to accuse their team leaders of micromanaging, it’s possible for the pendulum to swing too far in the other direction. Tanya Menon, associate professor at Ohio State University, finds that some leaders become macromanagers, where they’re too hands off and delegate too much — often leaving employees in the lurch.

Menon explains that employees working for macromanagers experience higher levels of conflict because they feel like they have to solve problems themselves. They also experience confusion over their roles and what is expected of them within a task.

Maren Hogan, founder of Red Branch Media, is a great example of how to balance micro and macromanagement. She has a team of 17 highly-skilled employees that do their jobs well, but many are fresh out of college or have only been in their fields for a few years. Their lack of experience means they don’t always have a project completely covered and often need help along the way.

“My constant advice, edits and commitment to process all act as reassurance,” Hogan says. “I don’t have to respond to every email I’m copied on, but they know I’m there to jump in if something goes wrong or a detail isn’t quite right.”

Hogan is able to take a step back from the work, but still acts as a support system when needed.

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