Why We Micromanage (Even if We Don’t Want to)

May 2, 2022

Micromanagement. We have all experienced it – and if you are a leader, you have mostly likely done it. Yet no one ever says that great leaders are micromanagers. If it isn’t effective and we don’t like it done to us, why do we micromanage?

The Pressures to Micromanage

Not all the items on this list will affect or afflict all leaders in the same way, but all are among the reasons why we take over, step in, or “try to help.”

  • We are trying to exert some control. Yes, some people have a greater need for control than others, but leaders are held responsible for things they don’t personally do. Leadership success is more about influence and less about control. As individual contributors, we had more control. As we transition to leading successfully, we must make this mental transition.

  • We micromanage things we know well. Much of micromanagement happens as leaders focus too much on the tasks they know well. It makes sense that we would rather focus on what we know (and perhaps got us promoted) than the unknown roles of leadership. Why would we want to give up what we know?

  • We micromanage things we are good at. There are things we were good at in the past. Things we have done hundreds of times and could do in our sleep. Why would we want to give up these things, especially if someone on the team is struggling with them?

  • We micromanage highly visible things. Because as leaders we often don’t have control – we may try to take more on specific projects that are visible or especially important. In these cases, there likely is a role for us, but taking the reins from those who have been assigned those tasks cheats them of their development, shows them you don’t trust them, and keeps you from other important work.

  • We value short term results. Because we know the work and are good at it, we will be more efficient at it. We micromanage when we convince ourselves that speed is more important than allowing others to learn, grow, and have higher commitment and accountability for their work.

  • We like the tangible. It is always gratifying to see our results. If we are writing the report, solving the problem, handling the Customer complaint, we see a result immediately. Much of the work of a leader doesn’t have that tangible, immediate reward. Sometimes, we micromanage because we want to feel like we accomplished something.

  • We really do want to help. There is nothing wrong with helping in a pinch, when there is a backlog, or when someone is on vacation, but you’ve probably experienced someone “trying to help” that felt like they were taking over. Be careful your desire to help is desired by the team and not misunderstood. A good rule of thumb is to offer help when they request it, and not before.

  • We confuse showing with coaching. Coaching is an important part of the job of leader. But too often, leaders do the work, and assume people are learning through observation. Demonstration can be a powerful part of coaching but should be used sparingly. People learn by doing, not by solely watching. And if they aren’t learning by watching, they are feeling micromanaged.

Few of these are bad things. They are understandable, and doing them doesn’t make us a bad leader or a bad human being – unless they are how we always work. While this may not be a complete list of why people micromanage, it includes the biggest and most common reasons. When we see ourselves in this list, it should help us better understand why we might micromanage, help us overcome that habit, and importantly, reduce our guilt or feelings of inadequacy when we do.

The Big Truth

Micromanagement is in the eye of the beholder. A leader can lead/manage two people in exactly the same way, and while one loves the approach, the other feels micromanaged. This means that to succeed in this area, we must balance the pressures on this list and be flexible in our approach to leading and coaching each person on our team. It also means that despite our best efforts and intentions, there will be moments that we are seen as micromanaging. We (and our team) can live with moments of micromanaging. And when we understand why we micromanage, it will be moments, not our standard approach to leading our team.

By Kevin Eikenberry