Harvard Business Review

Micromanagement Debunked


Posted on Harvard Business Review: November 17, 2011 1:02 PM

Over the past few decades I’ve worked with hundreds of managers, and many complain that they work for micromanagers. But strangely I don’t recall anyone who ever admitted to being one.

I was thinking about this incongruity while working with a group of senior managers from a manufacturing division who were trying to streamline their operational reporting processes. During the meeting, the team listed their various monthly reports and the review meetings that accompanied them.

From the discussion it became clear that the same data was being sliced, diced, and formatted in many ways and then being checked and rechecked by a variety of managers at different levels. In addition, ad-hoc reports were being created in response to particular questions raised by the regular reports. In other words, operational reporting had become a cottage industry that sucked up time and resources.

None of the senior managers found this process productive, and they knew that their people complained about being “micromanaged to death.” At the same time, none of them felt accountable for having created this problem. Somehow this burdensome, costly culture of micromanagement happened unintentionally.

So if nobody’s waking up in the morning intending to be a micromanager, then why do people still feel micromanaged? Let me suggest two mostly unconscious reasons:

Managers worry about being disconnected. As managers rise through the ranks, they often become concerned that they’ve lost touch with the actual work of the organization. Because they have less direct contact with the shop floor or customers, they start to feel isolated. One way of reducing this anxiety is to seek information in as many ways as possible — through reports, meetings, and one-on-one conversations. But since this attempt to stay connected is largely unplanned and driven by idiosyncratic anxiety, the result is that managers at different levels and functions end up looking at the same basic data in many different ways.

Managers stay in familiar operational territory. Many managers are unable to let go of their old job or their old ways of doing their job. It’s the well-worn saying: “What got you here won’t get you there.” Many managers are promoted based on their ability to achieve operational goals, manage budgets, control their numbers, and solve problems. However, at higher levels managers usually need to dial down their operational focus and learn how to be more strategic. To do so, managers have to trust their people to manage day-to-day operations and coach them as needed, rather than trying to do it for them. For many managers this is a difficult transition and they unconsciously continue to spend time in the more comfortable operational realm of their subordinates.

When the unconscious need for more direct information converges with a manager’s tendency towards operational focus, micromanagement is often the result. And when many managers operate this way, we end up with the complex micromanagement culture described above.

The good news is that once you discover these unconscious patterns, it’s possible to do something about them. The divisional manufacturing meeting that I attended is a good example. During the discussion, managers began to confront their patterns — both individually and as a team — and agreed to eliminate or modify certain reports and reviews. They also agreed to continue holding regular meetings to recalibrate their information appetite.

The message here is that with every promotion, managers need to learn a little more about how to lead using an “instrument panel” instead of direct observation. In doing this, managers need to work together to standardize the cockpits — so that the instruments and information not only make sense to them, but don’t become overwhelming for everyone else.

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Ron_ashkenas
Ron Ashkenas is a senior partner with Schaffer Consulting, which specializes in the development and practice of organizational and cultural change. He is the author of Simply Effective and the co-author of The Boundaryless Organization and The GE Work-Out.

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