Micromanagement – The Morale Killer

By Martin Haworth
Martin Haworth

I saw a quote from Steve Jobs recently that set me thinking. Just what is it about micromanagement that is such a powerful demotivator? So powerful that it leads to increased absenteeism; decreased employee retention; stifled innovation, creativity, development and even clogged up leadership pipelines?

The first thing to appreciate and the root cause of this whole issue, is that micromanagement is a symptom of a currently inadequate leader (for an alternative view, see my other article Micromanagement Works—Shock, Horror!) Apart from being very supportive at the start of an employee taking on a job, getting too close to the work someone else should be doing indicates a leader who is failing to lead.

A leader who invests too much time leaning over the shoulder of one of his or her team is spending less time leading, their required role. This is an indication of a leader who is promoted from an individual contributor role without either wanting it or being adequately prepared for it. It might, therefore, be a symptom of even more senior leadership inadequacies within an organisation. Often leaders mask this by saying that there’s ‘no-one else’ because of staff shortage; inadequate recruiting options and many more.

But why does micromanagement have such an impact on an employees’ morale?

In Dan Pink’s excellent book ‘Drive’, he shares research evidence across industries and nationalities that individuals need three things to be motivated, particularly where a role is anything more than a merely manual activity - where reward is purely based on the physical effort made.

In all other cases, employees need: -

  • Autonomy - the opportunity to work in their own way
  • Mastery - the opportunity to get better
  • Purpose - the link to why what they are doing is important

Micromanagement is the antithesis of all three of these.

So when employees are prevented by over-attentive leaders from making their own decisions; working by themselves and understanding - preferably selecting - their own sense of purpose about what they are doing, four things happen: -

  1. They feel that they aren’t trusted. Trust is an underlying two-way requirement for every leader to have with their people. Without trust, employees will be wary of commitment; openness; idea-sharing and in any way appearing anything but a rule-follower.
  2. They feel undervalued. They aren’t able to contribute fully, but are merely expected to comply with instructions, for which they have no input. Their talents are not being used, and they feel frustrated. They have no challenge.
  3. They have to wait. For when leaders micromanage, employees cannot comfortably act on their initiative. There is someone else who is necessary for their work to be completed adequately. Moreover, that person is stretched because of all the input they are having to make.
  4. They become anxious. Micromanagement - by definition - involves a hands-on involvement in a subordinate’s work. Employees begin to that feel they cannot act by themselves, yet they know there is work to be done. Despite their being scrutinised for performance outcomes they now have less control over.

When these four things happen regularly and consistently, employees begin to wonder what they are doing there. They get bored; they are already anxious; they feel worthless; they feel criticised by the implication that comes from continually being corrected and told what to do.

Leaders who micromanage do so for two reasons.

Firstly, because they fear that their employees will not deliver the outcome the leader is measured on. They do not trust the employees in their teams to achieve what they need to. So the leader works too closely with them to instruct them step-by-step in precisely what they should do. Even though the employee might have better ideas, they are often overruled.

A subset of this is when the leader feels that the employees’ outputs will not be (the leader's version of) ‘perfect’ enough. The leader has certain expectations of the employee that must be achieved, even when they are not necessarily the best – or even inefficient, as ‘perfect’ often is. But in the eyes of the micromanaging leader, they are the only standard that is acceptable.

Secondly and perhaps most worryingly, the micromanaging leader prefers to be hands-on. Sometimes, leaders are selected for the wrong reasons. ‘There’s no-one else,’ or ‘You’ve been here the longest,’ or ‘Go on, you can do it.’ Yet often they revert back to what they do best: the individual contributor’s activity where they shone enough to be promoted to lead others. A ‘people’ skill wholly different from the role they had.

Solutions for Leaders who Micromanage

Firstly, don’t take a leadership role unless you can do it, or evolve into it with provided training, support or mentoring. If you haven’t had these and are struggling, ask for them.

Secondly, if you find yourself meddling too much in the work of your team, make an effort to let go. Just try it for a while. Often, an inability to let go comes from being unclear in expectations (the ‘what’) and so it becomes vital to closely oversee the work of others who they should not need to (the ‘how’). Clients I’ve worked with who have complained of overwork or lack of time, with a bit of effort find that it’s because they are doing too much of someone’s job that they don’t need to, but with clear expectations of outcome, those people will deliver. Trust me.

Thirdly, do your own job. By focusing on leadership activities such as development, planning, strategy, coaching and supporting (vaguely rather than intimately), there is less time to interfere with others work.

Of course, to a new leader, this is harder than falling back on what you know, but that’s why it’s a promotion; a development role; more responsibility.

Martin Haworth is a coach, trainer and writer (of things that sometimes just pop up for him!). As a manager, he actually remembers the moment when he realised that micromanagement is not a sustainable leadership role! He lives in Gloucester, England and travels extensively as a Leadership Trainer and Coach with TNM Coaching.