Is Micromanagement the Ultimate Workplace Evil?

The word “micromanagement” makes us cringe. In our mind we see a supervisor leaning over an employee’s shoulder, reviewing and signing every little piece of paper that an employee touched, or worse – making an employee write multiple daily reports about what he had done. Wikipedia describes “micromanagement” as “a management style where a manager closely observes or controls the work of his or her subordinates or employees. Micromanagement is generally used as a negative term” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Micromanagement).

Yes, absolutely – micromanagement of employees who are demonstrating good skills, efficiency, and critical thinking in a sustained organizational environment may be demoralizing, deflating, and counterproductive. This approach also creates resentment in an employee toward supervisors, peers and the company. A micromanager himself is also less effective. Rather than allocating time to the “big picture” tasks that fulfill the organization’s vision, a micromanager spends his time and energy reviewing the details of work, questioning an employee, or reading countless reports. Micromanagement creates a vicious cycle in the supervisory-supervisee relationship – the more an employee is watched, the less energetic and productive he becomes, and in turn, in a micromanager places even a more powerful “microscope” over an employee.

Yet, “micromanagement” is not always the end of all evil, and in fact might be a necessary management strategy. When I hear a manager or an organization leader stating “I have never micromanaged my employees, and I would never do that under any circumstances”, I wonder about their leadership effectiveness. There are some situations in organizational and business life when micromanagement is necessary for an employee’s development or organizational sustainability. Micromanagement in those situations may be the most effective management approach.

New employee. Though a hire may have skills and abilities in a specific industry, each company also has its own expectations, performance standards and procedures. Therefore a close observation of how is a newcomer doing, what support and further information she needs will set up not only an employee, but also a manager for success.
Change in employee’s performance. When an employee’s performance suffers because of personal reasons, perhaps an employee is going through a divorce, medical treatment or other crisis, a closer observation and more frequent reporting to a manager on deliverables, will help an employee focus and motivate him to deliver within timeframes.
An organizational change. When an organization is applying many procedural, task, or IT system changes, it may negatively affect employee performance, confusing them about the changes and new expectations. A closer observation, higher direction, and a temporary higher control by a manager will prevent performance pitfalls, and will keep employees on “track” until they gain new skills and can start performing more independently.

Very importantly, if a leader has to micromanage employees, she should do so with respect. Explain to an employee why you will be looking more closely at his/her work and what kind of results/ skills/ deliverables you would like to see from him so that you can “back off”. Also, emphasize that this approach will also allow you to support him better – it is especially relevant when “on-boarding” new employees. Micromanagement will be only effective if it stems from an underlying need to support employees or guide them through an organizational change rather than from a self-serving need by a manager to have a constant control.

Thus, is micromanagement the ultimate workplace evil? It may be if it is applied constantly, with all employees and regardless of an organizational situation. However, micromanagement is an effective management approach when applied at the right times with the right people.

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