People hate being micromanaged.
In fact, a study published in Journal of Experimental Psychology found that people who believe they are being watched perform at a lower level. When a person is hyper-controlled, they often become resentful, and those who don’t leave the situation often mentally check out.
Micromanaging is a bad habit, so why do some bosses use this management style? “Managers micromanage because of a need for control,” says D. Scott DeRue, associate dean and professor of management at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. “Decades of studies in psychology have established that people have a deep need for a sense of control in life and business. The irony is that micromanaging provides the manager with a sense of control, but at the same time robs the employee of it. It is no surprise that the number one reason employees leave their companies is ineffective managers.”
Jennifer Selby Long, founder of the Selby Group, LLC, an executive and leadership consultant, says fear is another factor for micromanaging employees: “Unfortunately, most companies throw people into management positions with very little training,” she says. “It’s no wonder they’re afraid; they go from being the person who produces results to the person who has to depend on others to perform. As a result, they try to control the situation by holding on tightly.”
While employees dislike it and managers can get into trouble for doing it, micromanaging does have its uses. DeRue and Long offer five situations when a manager might want to be hyper-involved:
If an organization is in a turnaround, all employees must work together to move in the same direction. If there are layoffs, some employees will be covering tasks they don’t normally do, and managers will need to work more closely with staff members. Micromanaging is part of turning a company around, but it’s not a long-term solution.
“In this situation, the most important thing to do on a day-to-day basis is to communicate what progress is happening toward immediate tactical needs and to determine what your employees need from you to move forward,” says Long. “It’s also important to show employees how what they’re doing fits into the big picture to save the company.”
While micromanaging during a time of crisis could be justified, DeRue cautions that it could be a symptom of a bigger problem. “Why is the employee not able to handle that task on his or her own?” he asks. “Perhaps the manager has not developed his or her talent effectively.”
If an employee is assigned a new task, a manager who is experienced at the task should micromanage the employee until he or she is competent, says Long.
“The key in this situation is to set a performance standard and a timeline for developing the skills,” she says. “While employees might appreciate high direction when a task in brand new to them, they will resent it if you don’t eventually let go.”
Long says too often employees are given new tasks with not enough training: “Competence would come much faster if the employee got more of the boss’s time in the beginning.”
If you reinterpret the definition and consider collaboration as an element, there is evidence that micromanaging can work, says DeRue. He gives the example of a software development firm in which all employees work in pairs using a single computer to code and do quality assurance.
“The company intentionally pairs more senior coders with more junior coders to facilitate learning between the two,” he says. “It is a form of micromanaging when the more senior member is instructing the more junior member, literally working on a single computer, but it is culturally accepted and coded by employees as a form of learning and collaboration.”
If an employee is sending a lot of detailed emails about his or her work and asking a lot of questions, this person is asking for help, says Long.
“This is a clue that a manager should pay attention to,” she says. “Some employees have a natural style that leans toward a great deal of structure. These employees are looking for micromanagement.”
In this situation, Long says no more than a month of micromanagement should build the employee’s confidence. If the questions are coming from a higher up individual, such as a vice president, Long says the person may be in over their head; consider whether or not the person is qualified for the position.
If a company is moving into a new market, the decision to micromanage employees will depend on the skill and competency of the team.
“If there are a lot of people involved with no experience and just a handful of managers with experience, it’s time to manage this situation more closely,” says Long. “You’ll need a fair amount of day-to-day communication until everyone is up to speed.”