“Dear Elizabeth: Help! I think I’m a micromanager. My team is frustrated and demoralized, and I think I’m the cause. We’re a busy software team and we juggle multiple projects. I need to know what’s going on so I can report to clients, but perhaps I am getting too involved.
How can I get past this?”
What an interesting question!
First, all credit to you for recognizing that something is going wrong. It’s too easy to assume that everyone else is the problem. It takes a huge level of self-awareness to know that it might be something you are doing. So well done for being brave enough to look at your behavior critically, and with a view to improving your management skills.
Before we dive into what you can do about this problem, let’s just confirm that micromanagement really is the issue.
Are You Really a Micromanager?
Here are some signs that you are micromanaging your team.
- You’re a bottleneck. Decisions need to come through you and information flows through you. (This is okay some of the time. But when you’re busy, no one else can get on with their work because they are waiting on you for the next step.)
- You care deeply about the detail and the client experience. Tasks are subject to scrutiny, along with the people doing the tasks, and you spend a lot of time correcting your colleagues’ work.
- You ask to be invited to meetings, just in case something comes up.
- You want to be copied in on ALL the emails.
Another sad measure of being a micromanager is that your team has a high turnover. For some reason, you just can’t hold on to your development staff (but you know the reason, right?). Your team engagement scores are low in the annual staff survey, as well.
It’s a sorry state of affairs, but life doesn’t have to be like this.
Micromanagement is Bad for Morale
There is nothing wrong with needing to know the details. Especially if you report to clients: you have to know the full story so you’re telling them what’s important.
However, micromanagers apply the same level of inspection to all tasks, regardless of whether they need to or not. There may be tasks where you have to get into the weeds and understand an issue. There will definitely be tasks where a high-level status update from a team member will give you enough for your purposes.
Sticking yourself into everything is a morale killer. Your team needs to breathe. They need some space to do their work they way they know best. Unless they are all incompetent and genuinely need you to hover at their shoulder, your management style will suffocate them.
Micromanagement is Bad for Business
You are paid too much to do the detail. Trust me, the small stuff should be someone else’s problem. You are there to support and guide. You provide the client relationship interface.
You can back up your team, protect them from the politics, and make sure they have the resources they need to do their work. There are hundreds of things that are a better use for your time rather than meddling in someone else’s code.
Benefits of Stepping Back
You are in a management job for a reason. You’re probably far better at your job that you realize—if you were actually doing your job. Perhaps you were given this team leadership position because of your ability to connect strategy to projects, or your ability to see the big picture?
You can’t do that if you spend all your time in the detail (or in other people’s detail).
The big benefit of stepping away from the detail is that you win time back. It’s not just better for your team; it’s better for you and the business. You can spend time focusing on the stuff you are supposed to be doing: the strategy, the leadership, creating a vision for your team.
With the extra time, you can be more productivity, and you’ll have more capacity to take on the important work of the team.
Develop Your Team
Micromanagers typically get into the detail and want ultimate visibility on deliverables. They often dictate how work should be done, instead of letting the person doing the job find the best way to complete the task.
When you let people take responsibility for the ‘how’ of a task, they can use the working style that suits them best. They can develop their skills in organizing, processing data and leadership. They can stretch their wings a little bit and be creative. In other words, by stepping back, you are helping your employees build their skills and develop a style of their own that lets their strengths shine.
What to Do Next
By now you’ll be able to tell if you’re a micromanager or not, so let’s assume that your intuition is right. You do need to take steps to switch up your behavior before your team mutinies.
Here are some practical things to do.
Stop believing your inner voice.
You say: “I can do it faster.” Let’s be honest, it’s not your job to do it at all.
Isn’t this really an excuse around quality? You’re worried that they won’t do it to your standards. Everyone is different. In most cases, if it’s 80 percent good enough, it’s good enough.
Take a look at your To Do list. What tasks on there are you holding on to because you think you should do them or be involved?
Be painfully honest with yourself. What can be handed off to someone else? This is a hard exercise to do, so you could do it in a team setting. Talk about what’s on your list and discuss as a group who is best placed to pick up that work. Then let them do it.
The more you delegate, the easier it becomes.
Work on trust.
Generally, micromanagers need to know the detail because they don’t trust that it is getting done. That might be the case in some situations, for example, when a team member is new or inexperienced. But if your team are certified, experienced software engineers, they should be people you can trust.
If you feel like it would help your relationship, talk to them about how you can work together on creating a more trusting environment. Perhaps team ground rules would help, or a team code of conduct.
Create a culture where emails are responded to within 24 hours, if they come from one of the immediate team. That’s just an example, but you can think of other things that would help you all work together to a set of stated behaviors.
Don’t dictate the how.
You can still set the targets and tell people what needs to be done. But don’t dictate how they should go about it. Let them work that out for themselves (assuming they have the experience to do so – less experienced staff will need more process support).
Review their proposed approach and resist criticizing it! Their way might not be the same as your way, but ultimately as long as the job gets done, on most tasks it doesn’t matter how you get there.
I meant it about being self-aware. If you’ve made it to the end of the article, I can see that you are serious about changing your behavior and making a difference to your team’s morale. Take small steps, keep reviewing what is working for you and over time you’ll win your team back. Good luck!
Elizabeth Harrin is a project manager, author of several books, and a mentor. Find her online at her blog, A Girl’s Guide to Project Management