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Why some bosses micromanage

Updated: October 1, 2010 - 3:37 pm

Posted: September 24, 2010

by lakeshia artis

lakeshia.artis@insidebiz.com

A micromanager, according to Wiktionary, is defined as someone who manages, directs or controls a person, group or system to an unnecessary level of detail or precision.

Genevieve Roberts, co-founder and partner of Titan Group LLC, a human resources consulting firm based in Richmond, rounds out the description.

"To me, a micromanager is someone who is very hands-on with employees and very directive in terms of telling them what to do and not to do. They are constantly following up with the person to see if they've completed their task or not. Sometimes the employees feel like they're constantly looking over their shoulder."

Inadequacies and shortcomings in their own work performance are some of the reasons people in managerial positions tend to display micromanagement qualities.

"These people are generally obsessed about their work," said Carvel Taylor, licensed clinical social worker and addiction counselor for Hampton Roads Behavioral Health in Norfolk. "They are worried that they will be criticized if they're not doing it perfectly. And anybody that reports to them is an extension of themselves.

"They tend to strive toward perfection in their own work and they will project that onto their employees," Taylor said. "They are not freeing up their employees to be creative or give their own suggestions."

Employees who are micromanaged tend to feel stifled in the workplace, and their confidence levels start to decline due to the scrutiny of their employer.

"If the manager is constantly checking in and following up, it can lower the self esteem of the employees," Roberts said. "It makes them feel like they're underperforming or incapable of completing a task because their manager doesn't trust them to get it done."

Micromanaging not only has a negative emotional impact on employees but their productivity starts to suffer when they're more focused on their manager than their assigned tasks.

"Employees see them as dictators and begin to act out against them in subtle ways," Taylor said. "The whole unit becomes less productive because they are acting out against a controlling manager. Employees are spending a lot of time trying to get around them when they could be working."

The Best Employers in Canada Study by Hewitt Associates LLC focuses on employee engagement and measures the factors that drive engagement such as speaking positively about the organization, having an intense desire to be part of the organization and exerting extra effort in doing their best and contributing to the group's success.

A micromanaged office environment can have a negative impact on the factors that drive employee success rates.

"During our focus groups we've learned about the value differences with younger workers," said Todd Mathers, principal at Hewitt Associates.

"We find that folks in this generation have a strong desire to contribute and be creative in the work they're doing. They're finding that they're not getting a lot of support from their immediate manager to do that."

The generational difference between younger employees and older managers can cause conflict in the workplace.

"I think there are some differences in how the two generations approach work and what they find satisfying and engaging," he said. "Some of the old management styles don't engage these younger individuals. They want to work in a more collaborative way and want more input. If they are working for a manager who is task-driven and not interested in creating an environment that will help them do that, it can be very disengaging."

Mathers recommends employees ask questions to gage a potential employer's managerial style during interviews.

"It's kind of like buying a house," Mathers said. "You have to check it out to make sure it's the right fit for you. Think about moving into a new role in the same way. Learn what effective leadership looks like to you and get a handle on whether or not the manager will be an effective leader for you."

Depending on the situation, micromanagement is not always a bad thing and in some cases, necessary.

"If the employee is new to the role and organization and has less experience, then I think the manager needs to be more directive and hands-on," Roberts said. "As they move up the learning curve, the manager needs to back off and be more supportive and less directive.

"It's a delicate dance that managers need to figure out," she said. "The employee also needs to learn how to demonstrate that they can do the task."

Micromanagement can be a touchy subject, especially with the person manifesting the behavior.

"Basically, go to your boss and say I know you're concerned about how I'm doing my job - I would do a better job if we could touch base once a day or once every few hours," said Marina London LCSW, CEAP, spokeswoman for the Employee Assistance Professionals Association in Richmond. "You have to set limits. If they say it's their duty to check up on you, you can say that when they do, it prevents you from doing your best on a job."

Taylor, who counsels a number of individuals referred through employee assistance programs, warns that employees' attempts to change micromanagers can be fruitless.

"Companies are not democracies," Taylor said. "They are essentially benign dictatorships and management has power over the employees. The people who are micromanagers are not really effective in the long run but it's hard to catch them. It looks to the upper management above them that they are doing a good job."

In some cases, the results favor the employees. London recalls her consultation with a company that was receiving complaints from employees about their manager.

"We coached senior executives on how to talk to him," London said. "The manager was perceived as abusive, and lots of people were complaining about this. His approach with the employees had to change and he refused. He ended up being terminated. This is an unusual outcome but it does happen."

Employees may have to make a decision about whether they can work in such an environment.

"There are limited choices," Roberts said. "Look around the organization to see if you can transfer to another department. It's easier to find another job in the same company. If you've exhausted all those avenues, you need to evaluate how bad the situation is. Should you quit and find another job? That's your last resort." nibb

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