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Stress Is Making You Micromanage, Which Is Making Everything Worse

Ask yourself these four questions to break the vicious cycle.

Stress Is Making You Micromanage, Which Is Making Everything Worse
[Photo: Nik Shuliahin via Unsplash]

Are you a micromanager? You will probably say no. Maybe you self-deprecatingly call yourself a “control freak.” Or just “hands-on.” You just “care too much.”

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And it’s true: You do feel a certain need for a sense of control over your work. You are responsible, after all–perhaps more responsible than some of your coworkers or direct reports. You’re afraid of mistakes and believe that if something needs to be done well, you’d better do it yourself. But this isn’t just because you’re an “independent self-starter” who holds their work to a high standard. It might be that, too, but it’s probably also because you’re feeling stressed.

Your Stress-Driven Micromanaging Hurts You And Everyone Else

Take a moment to think about it, and you may start to notice all those signs of your conscientiousness as indicators of something a little less healthy. Maybe you get frustrated by employees not following your instructions. Or you feel anxious about missing out on information, so you attend every important meeting, even when you’re slammed. You even ask your team to reschedule if you can’t make it, rather than trusting them to represent you. And you want to be copied on emails all the time.

Work-related stress is a likely culprit. When you feel overwhelmed, you worry that you don’t have a good handle on things–so what do you do? You tighten your grip on everything. The first step to loosening it up (and reducing your own stress in the process) is simply recognizing the impact that your micromanaging is having. Think back over the past few months, and ask yourself these four questions:

1. Am I killing my team’s creativity? All innovative ideas start as something new, untested, and relatively crazy. If your employees don’t feel they have the freedom to test out new things, they’ll give up being creative. If there’s been a recent project or brainstorm where you felt the solutions and ideas were sub-par, you might be to blame.

2. Am I tamping down performance, or causing people to leave? Micromanaging tells an employee that you don’t trust their judgment. One 2011 study found that people who believe they’re being watched perform at lower levels as a result. As you offload your own stress onto your employees by micromanaging them, they may even start looking for the door. Rumor will get out that you’re a micromanager and people won’t want to join your team.

3. Am I harming my team members’ health? This is no exaggeration. We know that lack of autonomy at work causes stress–after all, that’s likely a key factor for your micromanaging habit in the first place. But last year researchers at the Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business identified potentially serious health-related ramifications, too–including links to mortality. Examining workers over a seven-year period, the researchers found that people in demanding jobs who had little control over their work were 15.4% more likely to die compared with those in less demanding jobs. Meanwhile, people in demanding roles who did have a high degree of control over their work saw a 34% decrease in the likelihood of death.

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The study’s lead author Erik Gonzalez-Mule put it this way: “Stressful jobs have clear negative consequences for employee health when paired with low freedom in decision making.” On the other hand, he continued, “Stressful jobs can be beneficial to employee health if also paired with freedom in decision making.”

4. Am I doing what I was hired to do? This is as simple as reminding yourself of your job description. Letting your team get on with their stuff will free up time for you to do what you’re supposed to–and feel less stressed about your workload in the process. Set up the vision for the team. Manage your stakeholders. And then step back. Don’t worry–your team will come to you if they need you.

There are a few reasons these signs can be so hard to spot while you’re stressed. For one thing, micromanagers constantly get reinforcement that what they’re doing is right. You can improve anybody’s work if you try. You could give Steve Jobs a couple of tips after his presentations. It’s not hard to find flaws, even if someone is the best in the world at what they do–and particularly when you’re looking for them in the first place (thanks, confirmation bias!). Second, micromanagers get the satisfaction that they’re contributing. They don’t realize that the benefit is hugely offset by all the costs outlined above.

Third, micromanagers come to believe that their employees won’t do a good job if they aren’t micromanaged. And soon this belief becomes a reality. First, good employees start to leave your team, then the ones who stay become disengaged, and finally the perception becomes the reality. As a result, micromanagers set their employees up to fail, leaving others in- and outside the organization to want to engage only with the micromanager–further reinforcing the idea that the team members themselves aren’t good enough.

How To Curb Your Micromanaging Habit (And De-Stress In The Process)

So how do you stop being a micromanager? Start, of course, with those four questions above. But if you find that doesn’t cut it, try anonymous 360-degree feedback surveys to encourage your team to speak about your micromanagement tendencies. This can also help you learn how your bad habits affect them–not just in terms of executing their work, but also in adding stress.

Next, identify your fears. What’s the underlying anxiety that’s causing you stress? Is it fear of failure? Is it other people? An executive coach may be able to help you increase your self-awareness in this area, but so can building a solid team. You won’t be able to delegate if you don’t trust your team’s competence. Hire good people and invest in their development, and chances are your worries about things not going right will start to diminish.

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Finally, step back and articulate your vision and the results you want your team to drive. Look away from the details of the work for a moment to reconsider its purpose in the first place. That can help you learn to stop dictating your team members’ “how” as long as they deliver on the “what” and understand the “why.”

Rather than you setting the approach, lay down the ownership and engagement guidelines for you and your team: What are the tasks and relationships where you won’t be involved? When should the team come to you? Then resist the urge to interfere unless they ask for your help or notice something unethical or dangerous. Done good enough by your team is better than done perfectly (does that even exist?) by you.

Don’t be responsible for harming your employees’ health and your company’s performance. If you can learn to stop micromanaging, you’ll feel a lot less stressed at work–and so will your team members.


Caterina Kostoula is an executive coach and global business leader at Google. You can download Caterina’s free balance and self-care tool kit for reducing work-related stress and follow her on MediumTwitter, and LinkedIn.