When is Micro-Management a Good Thing?

Written by: N Nayab • Edited by: Wendy Finn
Micro management is a management by excessive control and attention to detail, where the manager maintains a constant observation on, and closely controls the work of, subordinates. Although generally a negative connotation, and doing more harm than good, micro management has its uses at times.

The Ill-Effects of Micro Management
A manager who adopts micro management concentrates decision making, and rarely delegates. They get things done from others by giving precise and specific instructions, rather than general instructions, and expect employees to follow up and report on every single matter, without taking any decisions or initiatives on their own. They expect detailed reports and following procedures to the letter, giving high-priority to the process (or the “how”) and the results (or the “what”). This usually results in not seeing the forest for the trees, and may lead to mismanagement.

Regardless of the reasons why people micro manage, and involve themselves too deeply, it sends the message of not considering the workers as capable or trustworthy. The work gets delayed as the team waits on the superior’s decision for every trivial thing, including decisions that the front line worker can make better. The result invariably is disillusionment and frustration, leading to a loss of morale, low productivity, and high turnover among the workforce.
General Causes
Reasons why people micro manage include their deep sense of emotional insecurity, and self-doubts on their competence. Such people fear that if given leeway, their subordinates would do a better job and make them redundant. They invariably take credit for things that go right, and pass the buck on subordinates not following instructions properly when things go wrong.

Another common reason is psychological, with the manager considering the subordinate (perhaps much younger in age and competence), not able to do a proper job. The transference theory of psychoanalysis draws analogies between micro management relationships and dysfunctional parent-child relationships, with the authority exhibiting hyper critical traits in both cases.

At times the reason may be the corporate culture. Many conservative organizations, usually small ones, have no systems and procedures in place and everything depends on the owner’s whims and fancies, and the manager has no choice but to apply the same whim’s and fancies onto the workers.
The ill-effects of micro management notwithstanding, it can find uses in many situations and circumstances. Such a management style works when the nature of work is hyper-critical and precise, and adherence to the set rules and procedures is of utmost importance. In such situations, the risks of non compliance might be fatal. For instance, a security background check might require following set procedures, and an employee undertaking the check applying subjective judgments. They may also take the initiative to try a different route that does not meet legal requirements, which can have serious implications. In such cases, where the procedure is as important as the result, subordinates need a constant vigil to ensure due compliance with the procedure.

Micro management finds use in certain general circumstances for a limited period, such as when a new employee lacks in sufficient skills, competencies, or experience. In such cases, managers would do well to closely monitor them until they learn the ropes and gain confidence. Similarly, new managers may tend to deeply involve themselves in a minute level of operations for a limited period, to get an understanding of what actually takes place, and gain an opportunity to involve with subordinates deeply to assess their strengths and weaknesses. The approach may also be useful during times of crisis, when the need of the hour is powerful directives, and resolving the issue requires strong leadership. Allowing autonomy at such stages may do more harm than good. As a rule of thumb, this style finds use whenever an autocratic style of leadership becomes relevant.

At times, a subordinate might demonstrate moral or ethical turpitude, and the manager, in an effort to ensure integrity, might closely monitor them, to give an opportunity to make amends before taking punitive action. Conversely, this approach finds use as a tactic for eliminating unwanted staff. The management may set unreachable standards, and then selectively invoke failure to achieve such standards as grounds for termination, or force them to quit on their own, burdened by the stressful work environment. The court may however regard such actions as constructive discharge should such employees challenge such dismissals in court.

In short, micro management works, but only when applied judiciously and with restraint, and preferably with the workforce made aware of its necessity. Managers would do well to implement it as a tool for exceptional circumstances rather than as their default operating style.

Leadership Perspectives. “Intelligent Micromanagement .” Volume 2, Issue 4. December 2008. Retrieved from http://www.pgspartners.com/images/intelligent_micromanagement.pdf on May 20, 2011.

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