Are you unintentionally micromanaging your team?

If your good relationship with your team has deteriorated recently, and you can't figure out why, you may be micromanaging your team. Here are the signs you should look out for and what you can do to mend fences.

There was a time, not so long ago, when you got together with your team and ideas flowed like New Year’s champagne. You could toss out a problem and get back half a dozen possible solutions. Progress reports were no strain to obtain, and everyone felt at ease.

But lately, things seem different: As far as you can tell, you’re managing things as you always have—better, in fact—but your team has less to say, conversations atrophy quickly, and your perception that you have everything under control seems to exist in a vacuum. Could it be that you’ve been micromanaging your team and don’t realize it?

Seasoned IT managers know that micromanaging is a strategy you should avoid. But there are often periods when you may slip into micromanagement without realizing it. Here are some indicators to watch for and some safeguards you can apply to avoid falling into the micromanagement trap.

Boss, you’ve changed…
If your reports aren’t speaking as freely as they once did, it could be because they perceive that you’re not listening. And if the change in the atmosphere hasn’t been apparent to you, it could be that your mind is elsewhere. Here’s an internal check that can help bring a possible micromanagement impulse to light:

You are suddenly a fountain of ideas. Have you felt as though you have a really good handle on your projects lately, right down to the smallest detail? That in itself is a danger sign; the smallest details aren’t your turf. A sudden surge of creativity from you, in nuts-and-bolts matters, may be drowning out your team's creativity.

Dialog with your team members now seems awkward. Often, as managers, we dismiss a drop-off in communication with a team member as the team member’s issue. But it’s just as likely that the problem is on the other side. If your team members aren’t speaking as openly with you as they normally do, you may be projecting an image they’re not used to seeing. Perhaps they feel threatened, perhaps they feel resentful. Whatever the problem, it can be solved only if you turn your attention to it. Begin paying attention to the content of your exchanges with team members.

Solutions are not being offered. This could be your most important indicator of a micromanagement impulse. If your team members are normally forthcoming with input, and have become less so, it could be that you’ve been doing too much of the talking. Is this the case? The only way to know for certain is to listen to yourself more closely.

Send a new message
If, after taking stock, you wonder if maybe you have been giving in to the overdirection impulse, here are some things you can change to send a firm message back to your team members that you’re listening and that you’re happy to let them do their jobs their way:

Start with a question. The next time you discuss a project issue with a team member, begin your discussion of the problem with a question. Whether you are seeking an update or requesting a point of view, let the team member talk. And just listen.

State the problem, then shut up. If you’re communicating that something needs to be done or needs changing or needs attention, tell the team member what that thing is, then let the team member talk. Don’t offer a solution. Don’t put forth a procedure. Don’t even issue an instruction. Just state the problem, inferring by your manner that the team member now owns the problem, and let the team member start gaming out a plan.

Don’t answer an answer with an answer. When a team member offers input, leave it at that. Prompt for more if you think it necessary, but let the team member do the work. That’s the team member’s job. Your job is to listen. If the solution the team member suggests doesn’t quite get the job done, prompt for more detail or a revised approach—but limit yourself to prompting.

Be careful how you say things! It could be the case that you aren’t actually micromanaging, but seem to be. How can this be? Perhaps you’ve slipped into stating suggestions in a way that may be ambiguous, so that your suggestions sound like instructions. This is simple to correct: When making a suggestion, begin with “Here’s a suggestion,” and end with “but you handle it as you see fit.”

My experience with a micromanager
I was once the project manager of a design team and worked under a program manager who was older and considerably more experienced than I was—but who also had a pretty rigid viewpoint and gruff manner. I handled the team, he handled the program plan, and I reported to him. The hierarchy was top-down, traditional management style, and the age brackets matched the hierarchy; that is, I was older than my charges by a decade and younger than my superior by almost two decades.

Our program manager made it a habit to intrude not only upon my work but also on the work of my team, wandering around, peering over shoulders, and telling everyone the proper way to do things. I don’t need to elaborate on how annoying this was to all concerned. What I found curious, however, was that I knew he knew better, his rigid opinions aside. He himself couldn’t stand to be second-guessed—and ironically, the advice he was dishing out was completely innocuous. He surely knew that his attempts at interjecting "better ways" weren’t going to accomplish much. It occurred to me that something else might be going on.

I kept my eye on this before speaking up, and it rapidly dawned on me: He wasn’t really trying to tell people how to do their jobs; he was trying to feel more connected. I discovered that he’d been through a recent divorce. The solution was not to confront him (and cause much mutual embarrassment). Instead, the solution was to find some way of increasing our mutual comfort zones without compromising anyone’s authority. The answer turned out to be his love of great jazz artists. We began to make this a daily side topic, and he brought several great albums in for me to check out. This didn’t buy him anything with my team (all in their twenties and not a jazz fan among them), but it made my relationship with him much better, and he stopped pestering my team as well as me. Our entire work experience became far more enjoyable and productive.

This isn’t to suggest that any manager who slips into micromanaging is necessarily socially needy—it's simply to present the possibility that sometimes we as managers interject ourselves into the work of others for peripheral reasons. If you’ve been micromanaging your team, is it possible you may be pursuing some goal other than directing your reports? If so, take the time to examine your motivation and perhaps consult a peer manager for a second opinion.

Everybody needs to win
It’s not enough to force yourself to stop overdirecting your team members. If you’ve been doing it, there’s a reason and you need to get to the bottom of it. They’ll feel better if you back off, but if you’ve been experiencing doubts about project progress or about specific team members or (frankly) the quality of your plan or direction, then backing off won’t fix what’s wrong.

You need to feel solid about your collective effort. If your tendency to micromanage is about the work or specific team members, by all means, stop micromanaging, but find some way to address the real problem. If the project feels wrong, take some time to deeply assess the work performed thus far. If the micromanaging is about a team member, review that individual’s progress and resolve to discuss it with the person. And if you have doubts about the job you’re doing, seek out a peer manager whose opinion you trust and express your doubts. Whatever the problem, face it and deal with it, and your impulse to overdirect will be replaced by a real sense of progress. Get squared away with your team, but handle your own side of things as well.


Are you a micromanager?
Do you have the tendency to slip into micromanagement? How do you restrain the tendency to micromanage your team? Post your thoughts in the discussion board.


About Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson is a 20-year IT veteran with extensive experience in business intelligence and systems integration. An enterprise architect with a background in social psychology, he frequently consults and lectures on analytics, business intelligence...

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