Today a client wanted to talk about micromanaging. This is a very conscientious CEO of a young startup company, his second as a founder. In fact, he didn’t recall that when he came to me years ago, for startup coaching, he had the same concern. Was he striking the right balance between providing direction and showing confidence in his team, or was he meddling and thereby not only reducing his own productivity as CEO but signaling a disempowering lack of faith in his team?
A single example, such as the one my client gave me, is not reason for concern. If micromanagement really exists, it will crop up over and over, and you will have a large sample size of complaints! (My client’s recent 360-degree reviews had also unearthed no hint of excessive meddling).
Micromanagement is a Symptom of Unmanaged Anxiety
Where does micromanaging come from? It’s a symptom of unmanaged anxiety. That anxiety may create or simply exacerbate an existing lack of confidence or trust in the work of the person being micromanaged. The message being, daily, “I’m not confident you can succeed the first time you try this, so I’m going to help you.” Or rescue you. And in the end, disempower you and take away your sense of mastery as a person.
You see the same thing in inexperienced parents, who intrude, meddle, or are otherwise “co-dependent” in not allowing their children the prospect of the temporary failures that, when overcome, lead to both psychological resilience and mastery. (These may be the same parents who, contra Dweck, mistakenly praise outcomes rather than process and effort. In doing so, they train their children that outcomes (“Good job!”) and relatively fixed traits (e.g., intelligence – “You’re so smart!”) are the important thing, and that if you don’t achieve the desired outcome immediately, it is time to quit – for you are clearly not intelligent enough, and you have failed).
One major problem caused by micromanagement is the serious consequences it has on the personal or professional growth of the micromanagee.
Intrusive, micromanaging parents are unable to tolerate the anxiety and other bad feelings that come up when they imagine their child “failing”. And so their micromanagement is emotionally reactive.
The first thing we can say about micromanagement is that it is less likely to happen if we are aware of our own anxieties. So we must continually practice awareness and ask ourselves the question, “How much of my desire to interfere comes from my anxiety — usually without solid evidence — that this person cannot or will not do the job perfectly the first time?” And then ask yourself, “Am I willing to eliminate this person’s chance to discover the utterly empowering fact of having been challenged with setbacks that he’s eventually overcome by force of his own persistence, creativity, and psychological resilience?”
How else can a manager reduce his anxiety and increase his confidence? By ensuring he’s done the best job he can in his recruiting, for one. You don’t want to be anxious about an employee’s abilities in the areas for which she was hired.
A manager should also collaborate closely with the employee to ensure project direction has been made clear, that the employee does possess the necessary technical skills, and, last but not least, that the employee knows she has the confidence of the manager. Tell the employee that you will check in occasionally, but the reason is not lack of confidence, but a need to know the status of things. And that your conversations should not be considered evidence of lack of confidence but as brainstorming and collaboration.
“One is never so bold as when one is sure of being loved,” Freud explained. If you want bold employees, the kind who are “action-oriented” and “take initiative,” then you need to help build that up in them by allowing them to fail, alone, in the knowledge that they are respected and appreciated and approved of (even loved!), and you need to let them overcome, alone, without being rescued before they can achieve the breakthrough that makes them feel like heroes. A sense of autonomy and mastery are crucial to both high job satisfaction for an employee and high-level creative outcomes for the employer.