Not following through with promises, scapegoating and manipulation through spying and secrecy are …ways of telling people they are not worthy of respect, and they injure their self-esteem. [Canfield & Miller, 1996].
Managerial paranoia has resulted in a hybrid of police state and business office, characterized by an invasive degree of supervision and an obsessive need for conformance. “Command and control” (which has been so common throughout corporate history) is a process whereby managers demand compliance from their employees and then closely scrutinize the process. Always scanning the corporate horizon for hints of disturbance, micromanagers perceive that their task is to quickly quash any signs of independence and to restore equilibrium. The modern employee is the current day version of the oppressed – he/she is goaded, unnecessarily prodded, continuously monitored, and earmarked as good, fair, or poor, all in the name of a paycheck. The implication of micromanagement is that workers cannot be trusted to: (a) finish a task on time; (b) finish a task at all; or (c) finish a task to specification (Barnard, 2008; Lubit, 2004) [from Gilbert, Carr-Ruffino, Ivancevich & Konopaske, in press].
In the classic parent-child relationship the adult worker becomes an adolescent who deciphers ways in which to beat or break the system. Youngblood (2000) describes this phenomenon in Life at the Edge of Chaos: “It is ineffective to motivate emotionally mature people as if they were juveniles.” Coens and Jenkins (2002) add: “It sends a condescending message to employees: “People are children who need to be directed and controlled in an atmosphere much like a traditional elementary school. Undercurrents of this system are insidious and powerful: they suppress the human spirit.” Employees so cornered find ways to “go around the boss” to avoid the mental genuflection before a circumspect all-watchful eye. Tightly guarded environments breed covert rebellion, and they encourage the very behavior that management is trying to eradicate. On the flip side, employees engage in fevered cya, robbing the company of their valuable contributions through an avalanche of reputation-preserving activity.
The presumption is that things will fall apart unless micromanagers intervene. As a leader, your job is to support, coach, encourage, and uplift, not to police, birddog, or to engage in hovercraft of those whom you’re suspicious. Micromanagement is a bossy, overbearing, egocentric manner of relating to other people in which managers believe their charges will underperform unless they’re closely monitored.
The “father knows best” mentality has no place in modern work environments; moreover, asking for a detailed accounting of employee activities is inappropriate in a culture where people are overworked. Experienced, seasoned professionals expect to operate with some degree of independence. Below are some ways you can avoid the micromanagement trap:
- Assume that employees are responsible adults who can successfully perform their tasks (and then some) without your peeping into their business. Why not offer to assist instead? Engage in other development that derives from loving intention, as opposed to the long arm of inappropriate management.
- Don’t use e-mail to “zap” your employees. If workers anticipate that what you have sent is unpleasant, what have you produced other than a working populace that is stressed, anxious, tense, and apprehensive? Excessive supervision only serves to annoy its recipients. Moreover, keeping people at arm’s length results in a less than quality product, and in an isolationism that is mirrored throughout the department. If what you wish is mental enslavement of your workforce, then continually probing into workers’ projects is the route to obtain it. Don’t try to undermine people’s confidence by repeatedly and officiously sticking your thumb into their pie. “Snoopification” is an attempt to police people’s behavior in order to catch them doing something wrong, and to keep them in a psychological cubby of dependence. Bosses who take over without regard to your feelings attempt a mental coup to affect future behavior.
- Consider the end result of your actions; will they benefit the whole, resulting in a ripple effect of pay it forward? To what extent do employees feel like peers, rather than pinned underneath your thumb? If the only sense of power or importance you as a manager derive is from putting other people down, then you need to reprioritize your behavioral repertoire. Graciousness is not the noblesse oblige of magnanimity, but rather a spirit that wishes to bless what it sees.
- Promote a relaxed environment. People do their best work when they feel happy – not when they’re anticipating the heavy end of the hickory stick. At Google, whose motto is “do not harm,” its internal customers are its first ministry. Employees are given free reign in an attempt to spur creativity and to spawn new inventions. Conversely, in an atmosphere of micromanagement people feel uncomfortable proceeding forth unless they have permission; these unfortunate workers spend more time anticipating the boss’s reaction than in accomplishing their prescribed tasks.
- Celebrate employees’ competence instead of eroding their self regard. Acknowledge workers’ gifts, and not what you consider their presumed imperfections.
- Have a scheduled meeting instead of a surprise invasion. Instead of surreptitiously snooping into your employees’ affairs (whether through electronic or other means), why not approach them as a peer who would like to see the finished product? Confounding people with unexpected feedback mid-project is neither helpful nor respectful.
Barnard, J. W. (2008), Narcissism, over-optimism, fear, anger, and depression: The interior lives of corporate leaders, University of Cincinnati Law Review, 77, 405-430.
Canfield, J., & Miller, J. (1996). Heart at work (p. 232). New York, NY: McGraw Hill, Inc.
Coens, T., & Jenkins, M. (2002). Abolishing performance appraisals: Why they backfire and what to do instead. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Gilbert, J., Carr-Ruffino, N., Ivancevich, J. M., & Konopaske, R. Toxic versus Cooperative Behaviors at Work: The Role of Organizational Culture and Leadership in Creating Community-centered Organizations. International Journal of Leadership Studies, in press.
Lubit, Roy (2004). Coping with toxic managers, subordinates, and other difficult people. Financial Times Prentice Hall, Pearson Education.
Youngblood, M. D. (2000) Life at the edge of chaos: Creating the quantum organization. Dallas, TX: Perceval Publishing.