In business management, micromanagement is a management style whereby a manager closely observes and/or controls and/or reminds the work of his/her subordinates or employees.
Micromanagement is generally considered to have a negative connotation, mainly because it shows a lack of freedom in the workplace.
Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines micromanagement as “manage[ment] especially with excessive control or attention on details”. Dictionary.com defines micromanagement as “manage[ment] or control with excessive attention to minor details”. The online dictionary Encarta defined micromanagement as “atten[tion] to small details in management: control [of] a person or a situation by paying extreme attention to small details”.
The notion of micromanagement can extend to any social context where one person takes a bully approach in the level of control and influence over the members of a group. Often, this excessive obsession with the most minute of details causes a direct management failure in the ability to focus on the major details.
Rather than giving general instructions on smaller tasks and then devoting time to supervising larger concerns, the micromanager monitors and assesses every step of a business process and avoids delegation of decisions. Micromanagers are usually irritated when a subordinate makes decisions without consulting them, even if the decisions are within the subordinate’s level of authority.
Micromanagement also frequently involves requests for unnecessary and overly detailed reports (“reportomania”). A micromanager tends to require constant and detailed performance feedback and to focus excessively on procedural trivia (often in detail greater than they can actually process) rather than on overall performance, quality and results. This focus on “low-level” trivia often delays decisions, clouds overall goals and objectives, restricts the flow of information between employees, and guides the various aspects of a project in different and often opposed directions. Many micromanagers accept such inefficiencies as less important than their retention of control or of the appearance of control.
It is common for micromanagers, especially those who exhibit narcissistic tendencies and/or micromanage deliberately and for strategic reasons, to delegate work to subordinates and then micromanage those subordinates’ performance, enabling the micromanagers in question to both take credit for positive results and shift the blame for negative results to their subordinates. These micromanagers thereby delegate accountability for failure but not the authority to take alternative actions that would have led to success or at least to the mitigation of that failure.
The most extreme cases of micromanagement constitute a management pathology closely related to workplace bullying and narcissistic behavior. Micromanagement resembles addiction in that although most micromanagers are behaviorally dependent on control over others, both as a lifestyle and as a means of maintaining that lifestyle, many of them fail to recognize and acknowledge their dependence even when everyone around them observes it. Some severe cases of micromanagement arise from other underlying mental health conditions such as obsessive–compulsive personality disorder. (Renee Kowalski)
Although micromanagement is often easily recognized by employees, micromanagers rarely view themselves as such. In a form of denial similar to that found in addictive behavior, micromanagers will often rebut allegations of micromanagement by offering a competing characterization of their management style such as “structured”, “organized”, or “perfectionistic”.
Compared with mismanagement
Micromanagement can be distinguished from the mere tendency of a manager to perform duties assigned to a subordinate. When a manager can perform a worker’s job more efficiently than the worker can, the result is merely suboptimal management: although the company suffers lost opportunities because such managers would serve the company even better by doing their own job (see comparative advantage). In micromanagement, the manager not only tells a subordinate what to do but dictates that the job be done a certain way regardless of whether that way is the most effective or efficient one.
The most frequent motivations for micromanagement, such as detail-orientedness, emotional insecurity, and doubts regarding employees’ competence, are internal and related to the personality of the manager. Since manager-employee relationships include a difference in power and often in age, workplace psychologists have used models based on transference theory to draw analogies between micromanagement relationships and dysfunctional parent-child relationships, e.g., that both often feature the frequent imposition of double binds and/or a tendency by the authority figure to exhibit hypercriticality. However, external factors such as organizational culture, severe or increased time or performance pressure, severe demands of the regulatory environment, and instability of managerial position (either specific to a micromanager’s position or throughout an organization) may also play a role.
In many cases of micromanagement, managers select and implement processes and procedures not for business reasons but rather to enable themselves to feel useful and valuable and/or create the appearance of being so. A frequent cause of such micromanagement patterns is a manager’s perception or fear that they lack the competence and creative capability necessary for their position in the larger corporate structure. In reaction to this fear, the manager creates a “fiefdom” within which the manager selects performance standards not on the basis of their relevance to the corporation’s interest but rather on the basis of the ability of the manager’s division to satisfy them.
Such motivations for micromanagement often intensify, at both the individual-manager and the organization-wide level, during times of economic hardship. In some cases, managers may have proper goals in mind but place disproportionate emphasis on the role of their division and/or on their own personal role in the furtherance of those goals. In others, managers throughout an organization may engage in behavior that, while protective of their division’s interests or their personal interests, harms the organization as a whole.
Micromanagement can also stem from a breakdown in the fundamentals of delegation. When a task or project is delegated in an unclear way, or where there is a lack of trust between the manager and the person doing the work, micromanagement naturally ensues. Clearer delegation, with a well defined goal, clear vision of the constraints and dependencies, and effective oversight, can help prevent micromanagement.
Less frequently, micromanagement is a tactic consciously chosen for the purpose of eliminating unwanted employees: A micromanager may set unreachable standards later invoked as grounds for termination of those employees. These standards may be either specific to certain employees or generally applicable but selectively enforced only against particular employees. Alternatively, the micromanager may attempt by this or other means to create a stressful workplace in which the undesired employees no longer desire to participate. When such stress is severe or pervasive enough, its creation may be regarded as constructive discharge (also known in the United Kingdom as “constructive dismissal” and in the United States as “constructive termination”).
Regardless of a micromanager’s motive for their conduct, its potential effects include:
Creation of ex post resentment in both vertical (manager-subordinate) and horizontal (subordinate-subordinate) relationships
Damage to ex ante trust in both vertical and horizontal relationships
Interference with existing teamwork and inhibition of future teamwork in both vertical relationships (e.g., via malicious compliance) and horizontal relationships (e.g., exploitation of moral hazard created by poorly proportioned effort-reward structures).
Because a pattern of micromanagement suggests to employees that a manager does not trust their work or judgment, it is a major factor in triggering employee disengagement, often to the point of promoting a dysfunctional and hostile work environment in which one or more managers, or even management generally, are labeled “control freaks.” Disengaged employees invest time, but not effort or creativity, in the work in which they are assigned. The effects of this phenomenon are worse in situations where work is passed from one specialized employee to another. In such a situation, apathy among upstream employees affects not only their own productivity but also that of their downstream colleagues.
Severe forms of micromanagement can completely eliminate trust, stifle opportunities for learning and development of interpersonal skills, and even provoke anti-social behavior. Micromanagers of this severity often rely on inducing fear in the employees to achieve more control and can severely affect self-esteem of employees as well as their mental and physical health. Occasionally, and especially when their micromanagement involves the suppression of constructive criticism that could otherwise lead to internal reform, severe micromanagers affect subordinates’ mental and/or physical health to such an extreme that the subordinates’ only way to change their workplace environment is to change employers or even leave the workplace despite lacking alternative job prospects (see constructive discharge, supra).
Finally, the detrimental effects of micromanagement can extend beyond the company itself, especially when the behavior becomes severe enough to force out skilled employees valuable to competitors. Current employees may complain about micromanagement in social settings or to friend-colleagues (e.g., classmates and/or former co-workers) affiliated with other firms in a field. Outside observers such as consultants, clients, interviewees, or visitors may notice the behavior and recount it in conversation with friends and/or colleagues. Most harmfully to the company, forced-out employees, especially those whose advanced skills have made them attractive to other companies and gained them immediate respect, may have few reservations about speaking frankly when answering questions about why they changed employers; they may even deliberately badmouth their former employer. The resulting damage to the company’s reputation may create or increase insecurity among management, prompting further micromanagement among managers who use it to cope with insecurity; such a feedback effect creates and perpetuates a vicious cycle. It may follow the forced-out employee to the new job and create an environment of new micromanagement.
Ofer Abarbanel is a 25 year securities lending broker and expert who has advised many Israeli regulators, among them the Israel Tax Authority, with respect to stock loans, repurchase agreements and credit derivatives.