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Micromanagers deliver micro-results

by Evert Akkerman
in Human Resources, Leadership
November, 2016

It continues to surprise me how many people end up in leadership positions while they lack the necessary people skills. They rise through the ranks through cultivation, manipulation, or office politics, or simply with the passage of time. Once in charge of a department, they lack the ability to give direction, build a cohesive team, and motivate people. Rather than charting a course toward achievement of the organization’s goals, they set out to control every aspect of every task their direct reports were hired to do.

They have their finger on every button and insist on being consulted every step of the way. The symptoms are low morale and high turnover.

Not Knowing When to Let Go

Some micromanagers have an ego that craves titles, company cars, and invitations to golf tournaments. Some see the people that report to them as threats, figuring that upcoming talent may outshine them. Others fear that mediocre or untested employees will make them look bad. And, there are those who used to do a certain job, got very good at it, and were then promoted out of it. They tend to revert to it – call it the gravitational pull of their comfort zone – as a break from work they are newer to and not as good at (e.g., managing).

When managers don’t let go, employees never learn how to do their jobs independently. Also, the message that employees get is that the boss doesn’t trust them to do a good job. If managers fill their days with trivial details, how can they possibly deliver on the overarching goals? When we focus our efforts on the micro-level, we will get micro-results. If we meddle in every aspect of the operation, we chase talent out the door.

Of course, there needs to be some reporting structure in place, with checks and balances and touch points. A manager can’t be completely hands-off, as there is an inherent danger in this management style: unless you are an exceptional judge of people’s abilities, you could end up with a massive liability on your hands. However, once new hires have been trained or subject-matter experts are on board, the manager needs to step back and trust them to put the puck in the net.

Micromanagers in Action

My friend Paul has the classic micromanager. The boss sends Paul emails on which he cc’s himself. He asks Paul to respond to emails from third parties and then replies to these himself. The entire office knows when he is in an airport lounge: everyone starts receiving emails with questions on the status of previous emails. The best part is when his staff asks him about workload; he is always very busy. And, he loves seeing people run around. Whether all this running gets them closer to or further away from the company’s goals is irrelevant, as he mistakes movement for progress.

Employees are always watching. If a manager states that she is a hands-off person who doesn’t interfere once work is assigned, she will lose all credibility when employees experience constant interventions and follow-up. Statements and behaviours have to be consistent and congruent. One of my previous jobs involved attending a lot of evening events and I was fine with that; plus, it had been discussed during the interview process. Although I was expected to attend after-hour events, the flip side was that I would not be expected in the office at 8:00 a.m. the next day. It sounded fair to me. Several months into the job, I attended an evening event, was home by 10:30 p.m., and arrived at the office at 9:05 the next morning. To my surprise, the boss was standing in the doorway, pointing at his watch and saying, “Well, that’s what I call taking it easy.” My reply: “When I got home at 10:30 last night, nobody said anything.” It never happened again; but, he did lose some points with me by undermining his earlier statement.

Once people know that every decision they make will be questioned, they stop being proactive. Micromanagers do huge damage to an organization by destroying teams and frustrating the best employees. Part of problem is that many people are addicted to excitement – to the adrenaline rush that comes from running around all day and telling the world they’re in such demand that their life is out of control. Ask anyone in your department, on your hockey team, or on your street how things are going and they will lace their replies with words like nuts, busy, crazy, crazy-busy, insane, exhausted, swamped, hectic, super-hectic, and rollercoaster.

I would love to hear someone – just once – say that he’s taking it easy and staring out the window with a cup of tea, waiting for a great idea to pop up. Most people would rather die than make a statement like that. A hold-over from the last century, lack of movement is interpreted as laziness. Nobody wants to self-select out of the hyper-society we live in.

Keeping Micromanagers in Check

In terms of solutions, keep in mind that you have a high degree of control in: 1) the recruitment stage; 2) the performance management process; and 3) succession planning.  If we want to hire for a current or new position that oversees people and delegation is a key requirement, it’s crucial to probe for this during the interview and when checking references. For both tenured and new managers, we can address and record a tendency to micromanage on their performance reviews. This creates a written record of counterproductive and dangerous behaviours.

If a manager consistently refuses to step back and doesn’t make optimum use of team members’ talents, HR can build an excellent case for not promoting this person to a position of even greater responsibility, where this behaviour would have an even bigger impact. Instead, give the nod to people who have a record of delegating responsibilities and whose staff members thrive. Documenting this skill – or the lack thereof – is an effective way to assess and manage risk. This is where HR has a key opportunity to add value. MW

as published in the February 2016 issue of Municipal World

Municipal World Insider and Executive Members: You might also be interested in the full version of this article or in Evert’s other article: Employer disengagement: What if the boss stops caring? Note that you can now access the complete collection of past articles (and more) from your membership dashboard.

Evert Akkerman is an award-winning HR professional based out of Newmarket, Ontario. He has worked extensively in the private and non-profit sectors and has broad experience in communications.

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