Classic: The Micromanager

I confess I find it difficult to fully understand this Extreme Leadership type.  While wanting to be in control of “everything” is a fairly common human reaction, Micromanager behavior is so opposed to successful leadership – at least partially because it is incredibly limiting to an organization – that I’m surprised it exists at anything but the lowest levels of management.  Yet if you look around organizations, and you can find the Micromanager distributed throughout the managerial ladder.

The term “Micromanager” is thrown around somewhat loosely, and sometimes misapplied.  It’s helpful to take a look at what the Micromanager DOES, and explore what might be making him or her tick...

The Micromanager wants to be in control of everything going on in her domain – typically with little discrimination between the trivial and the most significant.  A Micromanager might be manipulating the work on an acquisition in the morning, and overruling the selection of dinner napkins in the afternoon.  The Micromanager's basic action is one of OVERRIDING, and an absence of real DELEGATION.

Micromanagers over-ride the judgment and decisions of almost anyone, and  this behavior tends to span almost everything under their command.  Their style tends to be aggressive to the point of domineering (a bully), but I've seen some Micromanagers who operate with a softer touch as well.  Just because a manager is smiling and speaking calmly doesn't mean she’s not a Micromanager.

In my experience, Micromanagers seem to be most common in the lower managerial rungs inside large organizations.  This is because a Micromanager tends to run out of bandwidth when her span of control becomes too large.

And yet there are exceptions to this rule.

One CEO I worked with was a horrible micromanager, constantly criticizing and overriding the decisions of his subordinates.  The environment was frustrating and demeaning for the managers that worked under him, leading to a fairly high turnover rate within the senior management team.  The board remained blissfully unaware of this leader’s extreme managerial style, leaving him free to wreak havoc across the organization on a daily basis.

Micromanagers tend to drive off strong-minded subordinates.  What person with a brain and a little backbone tolerates constant second guessing of their decisions?  The subordinates that remain under a Micromanager tend to fall in one of three categories – sycophantic toadies, natural followers (who are happy to have the responsibility of decision making lifted from their shoulders,) or those stuck in the organization for a personal reason and forced to grind it out despite the difficult behavior of their leader.  The folks in this last category will likely be driven to distraction by the Micromanager, but those in the first two are normally completely at home in this environment.

Micromanagers negatively impact their organization in several ways.  One of these I've already mentioned – the driving off of talent.  Micromanagers also slow decisions, acting as the choke point in virtually every process going on within their span of control.  If a Micromanager was willing to provide general direction and let people make their own calls (delegate), then a lot more work would occur in the company/division/department and it would happen a lot faster.

Perhaps the most subtle impact, however, occurs as subordinates learn to ask "What does the boss want?" rather than "What's right for the business?"  I've noted a tendency for subordinates to become preoccupied with “boss trivia” and “boss divining” as they manipulate every process and decision in a vain attempt to give the Micromanager exactly what he wants.  This can quickly become an exercise akin to arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.  When such behavior is evident, it does not bode well for overall business performance.

This is the cover of my latest novel, EMPOWERED.  Click the image for more details.

This is the cover of my latest novel, EMPOWERED.  Click the image for more details.

Why does the Micromanager behave this way?  What want does Micromanaging satisfying?  I'm no psychologist, but somewhere in all this there must be a deeply seated need to be right.  As a corollary, I suspect the Micromanager is convinced of her own superior abilities, and sees others as less capable.  There's probably plenty of insecurity lurking at the bottom of this emotional pool.

Most nominally successful Micromanagers learn to effectively disguise the more flagrant aspects of their behavior -- at a minimum; they find ways to hide it from those above them on the managerial ladder.  A Micromanager might be described by their unwitting boss as “details oriented,” “on top of their responsibilities,” or “confident.”

It often requires a mass exodus of subordinates (or the "right" person quitting) to bring this extreme behaviors to the attention of the Micromanager’s superiors.  Heaven help you if the Micromanager is the top officer of the company.  Barring an attention grabbing event, this extreme leadership type can survive in large organizations for a long time while remaining relatively undisturbed.

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To the right is the cover for DELIVERABLES.  This novel features a senior manager approached by government officials to spy on his employer, concerned about how a "deal" the company is negotiating might put critical technical secrets into the hands of enemies of the United States.  Of course, things are not exactly as it seems....

My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.