Micromanagement is the tactic of leaders who lack credibility and influence. They either disregard or completely fail at fostering loyalty, urgency, and purpose in their business units. However, as they are still responsible for operational outcomes by nature of their role and scope, they work to reduce variance and error by attempting to control every process and detail. This squeezing effect might marginally work for a season and lead to some immediate results, but if perpetual, it will always erode an organization.

Micromanagement stifles energy and the casualties are innovation, ownership, and critical thinking. Rather than driving toward success, the organization’s staff members begin to fear the consequence of failure — and failure itself becomes redefined from substantial issues like letting down customers and failing to adapt to market conditions, to the more trivial (i.e. not filling out a form correctly or answering an email timely).

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As time passes, associates then learn that there are actually few consequences to failure, as micromanagers are typically cowards by nature and aren’t able to dispense even promised consequences with any measure of consistency. Fear then turns to apathy, and apathy, which is the deadliest cancer to any organization, leads to failure. Failure then incites panic in the micromanager who continues to add initiative after initiative, policy after policy, layer after layer, nail after nail into the coffin of the organization until a forced cultural shift occurs. From time to time, this shift involves the replacement of the micromanager with a more insightful and competent leader. More often the consequences are much worse, with jobs lost and the doors to the business closed.

As the micromanager generally lacks courage, the subordinate they fear the most isn’t the line worker or the “grunt.” These are frequently subjects of frustration or annoyance, but they seldom pose a legitimate threat to this individual. The dangerous associate is the one who has passion and potential. This is the intelligent knowledge worker whose light still shines in spite of the culture, not because of it, and their success brands them as a liability — not to the company itself, but to the micromanager’s esteem, position, and fragile superiority. Remember, there is pathology behind micromanagement and it has its genesis in insecurity.

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Any individual, especially a subordinate, who demonstrates competency and integrity while producing exceptional results will pose a clear threat to the insecure leader. Rather than providing encouragement and support to the all-stars, they will work to “put them in their place” by withholding support or passive-aggressively working to suppress their results and progress. The irony is that everyone loses when this phenomenon occurs. The competent subordinate, feeling suppressed, either gives in to apathy and falls well short of their potential, or they find some other organization with which their gifts will be more appreciated. The micromanager also loses, because they fail to leverage the full potential of their employee and sacrifice the results they could have delivered, whether the employee stays or goes. Most tragically, the customer—whether they are a patient, student, supplier, etc.—is the greatest casualty of micromanagement, as they are provided a good or service that falls well short of what it should have been.

Admittedly, there are times when a leader must adopt a practice of aggressive follow-up when their staff members are new to the organization or are adopting a new practice, initiative, or system. This type of follow-up is necessary during times of confusion and uncertainty. However, this is very different than micromanaging, as the leader is not only working to drive the right action, but is simultaneously working to build the competency, confidence, and independence of his or her workforce.

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After trust and consistency are achieved, the intensity behind direct process management deescalates and is replaced with an increased emphasis on organizational health as a whole (i.e. right personnel doing the right things for the right reasons). As the health of the organization surges forward, the need to micromanage rapidly decreases. This is when genuine breakthrough is experienced as true “synergy” emerges and becomes a force multiplier, regarding the realized and perceived potential of the organization — as long as the leader maintains his or her effective leadership approach and philosophy.

This is “high road” leadership where credibility and influence form the foundation for truly great work and a motivated workforce. Unfortunately, the high road is the most “treacherous” road, requiring the leader to dive headfirst into the dark waters of humility and attentiveness to the people who work with and around them — two characteristics that seem incompatible with those who feel they gain the corner office only by self-promotion and outpacing their internal competitors. This is why truly great leaders seem to be rare and micromanagers are in abundant supply. The weak self-confidence and the unbalanced self-interest of the micromanager provides a roadblock that keeps them from graduating to credible leadership. Unfortunately, this is often a decision rooted in ignorance rather than a conscious choice, as many simply don’t know that a different path even exists. This brings about the old axiom, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail." Unless the micromanager undergoes some kind of conversion experience, this will continue to be their primary approach.

Time must be spent in support of those who work under the thumb of micromanagement, given that this involves a massive cross section of excellent employees across all industries. There are no easy answers, as both of the options mentioned above (give into apathy or find another job) have negative consequences that impact us both professionally and personally. The first attempt should always be to hold onto the possibility of navigating within the layers in order to make the work meaningful. Be ever mindful of the real beneficiaries of your efforts, the customers, and keep your eyes always upon them. At the same time, double your efforts to gain the influence and credibility of those around you, including the micromanagers, as this is the only way that you will be able to function with any semblance of freedom. While the chances of these efforts rehabilitating the culture from the middle is highly unlikely, it can certainly do much to make the grass under your own feet green.

In the event that this is not possible and the rigidity cannot be transcended, the choice must be made to move on. Better to change jobs than to let your energy be depleted by apathy.