The Micromanagement Trap: A Tale of Three Managers

Recently, my sister got a promotion 🎉
She works in the Lake District in a Youth Hostel, and with new responsibilities, come new challenges - in this case, training others in the variety of tasks essential for the smooth operation of the hostel. Completing these tasks efficiently is a non-trivial activity.
The hostel where she works has several rooms fitted with bunk beds and she has assured me that she’s seen dozens of different ways that people change the sheets to prepare the room - from using a footstool to get up to the top bunk, to pulling the light mattress down to change it. Beyond the optimisation of individual tasks, the order in which those tasks are completed matters - is it better to change the sheets in every room and then return to do the next task or complete all tasks for each room one by one? And all this doesn’t account for how best to coordinate multiple people working together.
During our discussion on the best way to change the sheets on a bunk bed, she made a remark that resonated with me: despite my years in the tech sector, my role often transcends technical expertise.
 
She said to me,
“I know the most effective way to do all these things, but I understand not everyone has the same abilities as me. I don’t want to force them to do it ‘my way’ when that might not work best for them. I don’t want to become a micromanager.”
 
In this article, I want to share a management mental model that can help you avoid falling into the micromanagement trap. I’ve mapped my response to what my sister said onto three possible manager archetypes - the avoidant, anxious, and secure managers, each bringing a lesson to help you manage better.
 
It’s important to note that these are observations I’ve made of different management styles, but are not necessarily managers who I’ve had in the past!

The Anxious Manager

First, let’s address the micromanager!
Your manager is very attentive to the results of your work, they know what “good” looks like to them, however, they do not trust you to produce the level of quality they expect. This results in frequent check-ins to see your progress, during which, they may request micro-adjustments to your output.
While anxious managers may think micro-adjustments clarify their quality standards, in reality, these only guide the specific task at hand, offering little insight into future expectations.
Often, this leads to a feeling that the anxious manager “just wants things done their way”, leading to resentment of the manager, who makes us do “pointless exercises”.
When an anxious manager suggests these micro-adjustments to our work, they address the symptoms created by the root cause of the issue - that there has been no alignment between the manager and worker on what good quality looks like. Workers must know exactly why they are doing what they are doing and why X is better than Y.
When workers understand the goal of their work - why they are doing it - changes seem less out-of-the-blue and the manager’s assumptions can be challenged in a reasonable discussion. Otherwise, the manager becomes an unquestionable authority, preventing the worker from growing or working independently to produce even better quality.
A manager can be anxious when they:
  • Have high stakes in the work outputs but don’t trust the workers to produce the “correct” output.
  • Don’t vividly understand the why themselves. Perhaps they were promoted to manager before mastering the job of the people they are managing, or maybe it’s been so long since they’ve been in the field that they’re out of experience. If they are not competent in the role of those they manage, they may be insecure about delving into the details of the job.
  • Concentrate on process over outcomes. They know what worked well for them when they did it, so they expect it to work well for others without taking into account that the same thing might not work for someone else, or that better methods of working can be found.
  • Don’t have the awareness to step back and communicate the broader “why” behind any micro-adjustments they suggest.
  • Don’t have the time for training or don’t recognise that the micro-adjustments they suggest to your work stem from a lack of training - the worker hasn’t been given everything they need to succeed in the task, so why should we expect them to? Often, this occurs when a manager is overwhelmed, unable to address underlying issues but still expects high-quality results, insisting, “Just get it done this time, I don’t have time to explain”.
Here, I am advocating for a culture where all workers demand their managers to give them buy-in to their work by discussing good quality and understanding why given qualities are important in the outputs. This way we get everyone in the organisation to participate in critical thinking about ways of work; this alignment of expectations averts micromanagement.
If you're being micromanaged, consider asking for the broader goals or reasons behind tasks - “why do you care so much about how I change the sheets on this bunk bed?”, “Well, last month Sarah hurt herself when she was using the footstool like that to change the top bunk, I want to make sure you’re doing it safely”.
However, asking your manager to explain the why is especially difficult (and can create conflict) if your manager is overworked - in this case, you must explain that your true intention is to take up less of their time by getting your work right the first time. Spending a little time now will save a lot of time for both parties later.
Unfortunately, perhaps as a reaction to some feedback, a common (well-intentioned) response from anxious managers to avoid micromanaging is to turn to the avoidant management style…

The Avoidant Manager

You find that they are largely absent in the day-to-day activities of your job and mostly check in at the end of a task to inspect the output leaving you completely autonomous to decide how you get the job done.
At first, this sounds better than the anxious manager, however, you are less supported to progress and improve your work methods. There’s also a bigger risk of being told, “this is all wrong” at the end of a big project, which can be frustrating. Adopting this approach won't make you an effective manager, even if it spares your direct reports from daily annoyances.
Additionally, when an avoidant manager is inattentive to the quality of your output - when they don’t hold you to high standards - it can leave you apathetic towards doing a good job as it signals that the output of your work is not important. This leads to a culture where employees try to minimise their effort while maximising the returns from their job - working against their employer.
A manager can be avoidant when they:
  • don’t have any stake in the output of work and don’t mind if the workers don’t produce the correct quality standards.
  • want to avoid micromanaging and so restrain themselves from interfering with your work.
  • “trust” their direct reports to find the best way of working, but this neglects to share their experience and support which can leave direct reports in a position where they can’t progress.
  • “don’t have the time” to pay attention to work outcomes. This can be due to being overburdened with firefighting other issues.
As managerial roles become more senior, the nature of contact evolves, for instance, a CEO engaging in strategic conversations across all company levels may need more time for their direct reports. Even so, this should not make the CEO hold their direct reports any less accountable for producing good results and they should still ensure their direct reports are prepared to succeed.
If an avoidant manager is in an environment where they get held accountable for producing good results, and if their direct reports produce insufficient quality, they might try to improve their results by turning to the anxious management style - straight back to micromanagement.
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So, is there a way out of the micromanagement trap?

The Secure Manager

Micromanagement is not at all related to the absolute quantity of time managers spend with their direct reports, but instead about the quality of that time. Micromanagement stems from excessive exertion of control by a manager on their direct report’s work without convincing them that these changes are required.
Instead, the secure manager communicates the importance of the work by paying close attention to its outcomes. When something is done well, they identify which parts make it good and why. When something is not done to their expected standard, they sit with the worker to discover the cause of the misalignment and ensure they are both bought into understanding the required changes. This incentivises the worker to do a good job and shows they are valued for it.
These managers react securely to challenges to their positions and will openly consider ideas about how work can be done differently to get better results. They are focused more on outputs and can see the bigger picture so they don’t focus on enforcing a particular process unless it produces good results.
As these managers spend the appropriate amount of time working with their direct reports, this builds trust between the two parties; the manager feels more secure that the quality of work will meet their standards, and the employee is secure in knowing that their manager is there to help them grow and progress, not just to quality control every single piece of work they produce.
When managers genuinely invest in their direct reports' development, they build sufficient trust to collaborate closely without resorting to micromanagement. As they have spent time clarifying the goal of the work and the why behind each process, the time together is spent more meaningfully rather than nitpicking the specifics of the latest piece of work.
The attributes which characterise a secure manager are:
  • A clear understanding of the role they manage and the humility to learn better ways of working with their direct reports, knowing that one process might not work well in all circumstances.
  • High standards, setting an example for their direct reports and pulling them up out of their comfort zone so they can progress. They are not afraid to sit with their direct report and get stuck into the details - this shows respect for the direct report.
  • Take the time to set expectations of work outcomes and why it’s important and invest time to sit with the direct report and train them how to do the job well. This way, the direct report avoids extremely delayed feedback on their work which can be frustrating and wasteful.
 
This mental model is designed to deepen your understanding of the causes of micromanagement and provide strategies to avoid its pitfalls. Spend enough good quality time with your direct reports: set clear expectations, pay close attention to the results, invest in making them autonomous by sitting and learning together, and show respect by holding them to high standards so they can grow and progress.
 
Be the secure manager - don’t micromanage!