This article appeared in September 2017, in Romanian, in BIZ Magazine
“The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.”Theodore Roosevelt
Micromanagement is a counterproductive phenomenon. And, unfortunately, very common. We all know that, but maybe some numbers could help. A study made by FranklinCovey[i] on 11,000 employees in the United States mentions micromanagement as being one of the main obstacles to productivity. According to another study[ii], 79% of employees say they have encountered micromanagement at some point in their careers. Those studies are from the USA, but I think that the figures are similar here.
This phenomenon, through which a manager closely controls the activity of his subordinates, is extremely harmful because it undermines productivity, destroys employee confidence and erases autonomy from the delicate cocktail that generates motivation. The teams which experience micromanagement have a high workforce turnover, low levels of job satisfaction and show resistance to innovation.
The main problem in preventing or combating micromanagement is that, often, the manager in question doesn’t even realize that he is doing something wrong. The study cited above[iii] shows that 91% of managers are unaware that members of their team have resigned due to micromanagement-based leadership style. T
hat’s why I think that any manager needs to screen his behavior and, if he realizes that he has micromanagement tendencies, he needs to educate himself to give his team more autonomy and literally mind his own business. A small test of 5 questions through which we can do a self-diagnose can be found at the end of this article.
Why do managers micromanage?
But where does the phenomenon come from? The specialized literature explains micromanagement through multiple causes. Some are cultural (organizational culture or national culture), others are psychological and are related to the manager himself (for example, insecurity and fear of failure that generates the need for excessive control).
There are also systemic causes, when the processes in the organization (job description, delegation) have flaws. But, as Buddhism teaches us, an effect always has a multitude of causes. I will try to outline here how two mental phenomena can explain some aspects of how micromanagement works. The two phenomena are the Dunning-Kruger effect (cognitive bias) and the Pygmalion effect.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is very nice and says that when we don’t know how to do something, we also lack the tools to realize our own incompetence. Or, more directly: an incompetent cannot know that he is incompetent precisely because he is incompetent.
I know that often the executives who do micromanagement are actually good from a professional point of view and the exaggerated need of control is just a result of their personality.
There are also many cases of professionally incompetent bosses and, in a classic cognitive dissonance, their micromanagerial style helps them filter messages regarding their own efficiency: they take undue credit for the positive results and blame the subordinates for the negative ones, having, in the end, a great impression about themselves. For the organization, in the absence of objective criteria for measuring individual activity, this behavior makes it difficult to demonstrate the incompetence of that manager.
The funniest case where the Dunning-Kruger effect applies to micromanagers (well, it would be funny if it weren’t both sad and common) is when a manager hires a good professional, with a suitable salary, for a very specialized position (and which he neither knows nor should know how to do it) and then stress him over about how to actually do the job.
If Dunning-Kruger can explain the behavior of some micromanagers, the Pygmalion effect shows why teams that encounter this leadership style perform poorly. The Pygmalion effect is the scientific name given to self-fulfilling prophecy and says that positive expectations positively influence performance, and negative ones negatively influence it.
We will look at the second part, but it is interesting to mention the famous experiment by which the positive aspect of this effect was documented[iv] by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson in 1968: the two psychologists went to an elementary school in San Francisco at the beginning of the school year, asked all students to take a test called “Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition”, and then presented the results to the professors. Teachers found that approximately 20% of students are in a phase of accelerated cognitive development („blooming”, „growth spurters”).
The students in question were clearly nominated, but teachers were asked to behave the same with everyone over the next year and to keep the student’s names secret. After 8 months, tests showed that the nominated children had an increase in school performance by 15% higher than the control group in the first grade and by 10% higher in the second grade.
And now comes the surprise: teachers finally found out that the Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition doesn’t exist, that the students were randomly selected and that the only thing which increased the student’s performance was the fact that teachers were expecting it and treated them as such. The more expectations you have, the better people will perform.
Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. When a boss treats his subordinates as incompetents, their productivity will decrease. When a manager doesn’t trust his subordinates, sooner or later they will give him reasons to justify his distrust. And so, a feedback loop is created through which the manager will see his micromanagerial style justified and will increase the control over the team.
Obviously, I don’t know how to prevent or combat micromanagement in a company. But I think I should adopt the attitude described in the Pygmalion effect and trust that the solution will come from the managers themselves who have such tendencies, as soon as they realize that their leadership style is harmful.
As I promised, I conclude with a self-diagnostic test:
Do you want to be Cc’ed in all emails?
Do you want to know at all times where each subordinate is and what they are working on?
Do you want to countersign all the documents?
Are you always dissatisfied with the deliverables and feel that you would have solved the task differently?
… and even:
Do you feel like your team members are avoiding you?
If the answer to all or almost all of the above questions (inspired by an article in HBR[v]) is positive, you are likely to have micromanagerial tendencies. And the first step to healing is to know that. Best of luck!
[ii] Study made for and quoted in the book My Way or the Highway: The Micromanagement Survival Guide de Harry E. Chambers
[iv] Pygmalion in the classroom: teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development by Rosenthal, R, and L. Jacobsen