February 8, 2021
Micromanagement seriously hampers the motivation and productivity of your employees. Luckily, if you have accurate data about how your managers collaborate with their team, you are in a better position to turn your micromanagers into empowering leaders.
As anyone who has ever been micromanaged can testify, this behavior is one the most annoying practices in the workplace. What can be worse than a superior who is constantly monitoring what you do, how you do it, when and with whom? Negative feelings aside, the problem with micromanagement is that it costs businesses money. According to a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, people who believe they are being watched perform at a lower level, costing the company lost productivity. This is corroborated by Accountemps survey, wherein over 50% of those questioned complained that micromanagement reduced their efficiency.
The damage to the company does not end there: the same survey also found that micromanaged people become demoralized, in effect leading to a higher risk of attrition and its associated cost. Managers need to instill trust in their employees. A reluctance to let them work independently leads to a heavier workload for the manager, increasing the risk of burnout. The pressure to work overtime is also felt by the employees themselves. In the end, there is no time left for strategic tasks - the manager might not even be capable of them.
Is micromanagement ever warranted? Sources claim that in specific situations, it is a useful approach: when there’s a new or struggling team member, when the company is undergoing a transformation, or if the manager possesses unique skills or expertise. On the other side of the coin, micromanagement is a better alternative to undermanagement, when managers display a lack of involvement and engagement with employees. But overall, micromanagement is a behaviour to be avoided.
As companies increasingly switch to remote work arrangements, you would expect micromanagement to decrease. If managers cannot hover behind their employees’ backs all the time, it is a little more difficult to micromanage. However, the opposite is true: managers who cannot see their employees in person every day become even more tempted to micromanage because they feel even less in control.
A survey by Ultimate Software shows that workers’ performance while working from home is a top concern for managers, even though remote employees report high levels of productivity. To track this performance, tech-savvy micromanagers have more tools at their disposal than ever before. They can attend stand-ups of one half of their team on Zoom while checking on the other half on Slack, and monitoring whether they produce output in Google Docs - all from the comfort of their home.
Work from home is not the only workplace transformation affected. Agile can also be undermined by micromanagement. Under agile, managers are no longer supposed to allocate work but are instead present to help self-organizing teams succeed. However, the old structures reign supreme. Managers who feel less powerful and more out of touch with their employees return to their old habits, resulting in “agile micromanagement”.
Whether embedded in traditional structures or surviving in transformed ones, micromanagement persists. The question is, how can a company identify it?
On the Time is Limited platform, we look into how micromanagement shows up in communication and collaboration between the manager and their team. The first source of data we use is meetings: while micromanagers may not always be the ones to schedule them, they tend to attend most if not all of their team meetings even though their presence isn’t actually required. Here lies the problem. It is a sign that managers cannot delegate and need to have control over every aspect of what their team does.
The view below shows the extent of this problem for our example company. At the beginning of the year, direct superiors and managers were present in 70% of all meetings. As the company shifted to WFH and was driven by growth, micromanagement decreased. Managers could no longer be present in every meeting, and were discouraged from doing so to make time for focus on other tasks, e.g. company expansion and managing an unstable business environment.
To make the company’s task easier, we track these changes on a monthly basis in our Alert view. An alert is launched every time a team exhibits a change related to micromanagement. We highlight whether managers are making positive developments (and should be praised for doing so in order to continue), which teams have managers that are micromanaging more (and should be coached or offered support), and whose behavior remains the same, either as a hardcore micromanager or an empowering leader (these teams end up in our Get Inspired category).
In our example, we see that while Sales is showing improvement, micromanagement in Facility Management worsened and demands attention. Human Resources can serve as a role model for other departments.
In a previous blog post, we discussed the importance of 1:1 meetings. Here we take note that micromanagers can abuse this meeting format if they see it simply as another opportunity to check on the employee and assign new work to them. 1:1 meetings should be an opportunity to discuss growth, long-term goals and job satisfaction. Content aside, too many 1:1 meetings may also signal that there’s a potential problem - maybe the manager’s span of control is too tight.
Another source of identifying micromanagement is email. Micromanagers often display their lack of trust by insisting on being copied on every email and reserving the right to make decisions on everything, impacting their team’s responsiveness. In the example below, it is evident that this form of micromanagement spiked for some teams during WFH. It is important to note that this behavior can also be influenced by not just micromanagement but employee tenure - new hires who are being onboarded might be required to copy their manager on their emails (as mentioned above, in this situation some degree of micromanagement can be allowed).
Micromanagers do not only rely on being copied - they often insist that all cross-departmental communication needs to flow through them. This trend spiked in June 2020 for our example company, as seen below. Emails sent to the superior increased sharply, while the number of peer emails exchanged remained similar. In less micromanaged companies, we would expect most of the communication to take place via peer channels.
As mentioned earlier, micromanagers also tend to overload the team. This is easily measured by an increase in communication after working hours. We see that our example company struggled with this, especially in the holiday season and again when the COVID-19 pandemic started. Since then, this practice has been on the decline, but it serves as proof that managers became more demanding.
So we have the data on micromanagement - but what can you do about it? First and foremost, make sure that you aren’t taking away the ability to manage team progress (also remotely) from your managers. Establish various techniques and provide your managers with tools - but also apply clear guidelines regarding their use. For example, implementing Slack without communicating that employees are not expected to be available 24/7 simply reinforces micromanagement. It offers the manager yet another venue to exercise their control.
The same goes for 1:1 meetings. Managers should stick to their original purpose (and consider asking for feedback on their management style), and checking-in on people should be left for formal check-ins. As 1:1s are vital for building mutual trust and helping employees learn and grow, they dissuade managers from exerting too much control. By trusting team members, it is easier for managers to delegate and give their team more decision making privileges. Another useful technique is to rely on documentation in daily work that is accessible and transparent to everyone, both peers and superiors. That way the emphasis is on managers to check on progress, while employees can focus on work.
The manager should also let the team know how he or she prefers to communicate and when they are available so that a consensus can be reached. This includes highlighting the time when a manager works on strategic issues or team development, which is where they should be spending most of their energy anyway. Hopefully, this will soon be evident in the data as well. Teams can then focus on what they do best, while their superiors serve less as micromanagers and more as empowering leaders.