Illustration of employee pushing back against giant pointing hand of micromanagement
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Most of us will encounter a micromanager (or two, or three) at some point in our careers. Not just encounter, but become all too familiar with the stress of having someone constantly looking over our shoulder, second guessing our work, insisting there’s a better way, tweaking and nitpicking until all the motivation is sucked out of the room.

Micromanagers are the helicopter parents of the working world, and their effectiveness (much like helicopter parenting) has long since been cast in doubt.

So how has micromanagement survived for so long? And, perhaps more importantly, how much longer will we have to put up with it?

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A Brief History of Leadership (Not Management)

A good first step to solving any problem is identifying the problem itself. Though micromanagement does have the word “manage” in it, it’s the neglect of leadership that makes it frustrating.

Management and leadership are not the same thing, though they’re both important skills for any manager.

According to Harvard Business School professor John Kotter, management is about operations—planning, budgeting, staffing, and problem solving. These are situations with a high level of certainty. Leadership, however, is about driving change through creation and innovation—establishing a vision, aligning people, and spurring motivation. These all come with a high level of uncertainty.

While it may be somewhat romantic to think history’s greatest leaders came into the world with something indefinable that intrinsically tilted them toward greatness, the old adage that “leaders are born, not made” has not withstood the test of time—or research.

Until about the 1940s, popular opinion was based on trait theories, which supported the belief that good leaders are born to lead. But after running themselves around in circles for a few decades trying to identify the traits that summed up natural leaders, researchers faced facts: there were no such traits that guaranteed quality leadership.

Next came the study of behavioral theory, which stipulated that leadership could be developed through specific actions. After years of study, no universal set of behaviors could be identified to manufacture a strong leader. In short, leaders weren’t born… but they weren’t wholly made, either.

Which leads us to today’s best guess: contingency theories. These view leadership as a product of situation and context. That is, a good leader is the product of the actions he or she takes to match the circumstances at hand.

Somehow micromanagers have withstood every bend in the leadership theory road—so far. Many persevere with the excuse that a heavier hand is simply their style. But that doesn’t mesh with what we know, either. Excuses for micromanagement are wearing thin.

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Good Managers Know Their Leadership Styles

Beyond inherent traits, behaviors, and circumstances, there are, of course, leadership styles. At roughly either end of the spectrum sit empowerment and command-and-control. The former is just what it sounds like—setting goals and allowing employees to pursue them with autonomy. The latter, however, is what many micromanagers mistake for their tight-fisted hold on employee action.

While it may seem outdated, command-and-control does have certain benefits in particular situations. As a top-down style with a clear division of authority, it can provide needed support to new or struggling team members.

Just as we’re all bound to work with a micromanager at least once in our careers, we’re also sure to meet someone who’s simply in over their head. Maybe it’s a coworker who was unceremoniously shoved into a role outside of their specialty; a big picture thinker who’s not good with detailed forms or processes; or even a more seasoned colleague who’s great at face-to-face sales, but can’t keep up with Industry 4.0. A wise manager would identify these as individuals who might need a heavier hand.

But that same manager would understand that such a style isn’t necessary once those who needed it get the hang of things. They’d also know that, say, an up-and-comer who’s eager to take on new challenges would flourish with an empowerment approach.

And that’s the secret: just as it takes varied situations and experience to make a successful leader, it takes a mix of styles to make a good manager. Future managers will need to know that more than ever. They’ll also need to be on guard against insecurities that tempt them toward micromanagement.

Micromanagers Must Resist Fear…and Courage

A big complication to the micromanagement problem is that most micromanagers would not characterize themselves as such. (But most employees have had one, so you do the math.) A few of these offenders may merely be ignorant to good leadership behavior or copying a poor example. But according to Forbes, the root cause of micromanagement is fear. In particular, fear (conscious or subconscious) of having one’s competency challenged (directly or indirectly).

When you’re in charge of a team, it’s natural to want to prove yourself. Just like the people they’re “managing,” micromanagers have their own skills, their own experience, and their own best practices—and fear that no one will notice. So they make excuses, and even when they know (on a fundamental level) that their people are capable, they live in “Yeah, but…” limbo.

Yeah, Employee A has a good sense of organization, but we’re already using the Excel sheet I made, and everyone is used to it. I just need to show him how to use my system.

Yeah, Employee B has a lot of experience, but we don’t have time to retrain the whole team with a new method and terminology. It’s better that she adjusts to my method.

Micromanagement is a tough vortex to break free of. After all, when we know we’re afraid, we try to have courage. This is why (well, one of the reasons why) micromanagers seem to have inflated egos. They puff up their prowess and look over our shoulders to prove they’re not afraid.

But remember, the first step to solving a problem is defining it. While setting ego aside is a huge (and significant) step, in the world of leadership, the opposite of fear isn’t courage.

Raegan Moya-Jones describes how she came to this revelation as an entrepreneur in What It Takes: How I built a $100-Million Business Against the Odds. “It’s still hard for me to watch someone else try to fix our problems when I could just do it myself,” she says. “I had to teach myself to be OK with that. And the only way it happens is when you trust the people on your team.”

When it comes to leadership and management, the opposite of fear isn’t courage. It’s trust.

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Micromanagement Is about to Get Very Expensive

So we know that leadership is something that can be developed. We also know that a good manager customizes his or her leadership style to each team member for the best results. We even know that micromanagement is harmful to work ethic (among other things). And yet, sweeping corporate pressure to reexamine leadership style is a rare initiative.

But the times, they are a-changin’.

There’s a reason everyone is calling these coronatimes the “new reality.” The world has been turned upside down, and working policy along with it. From the hip and disruptive Slack to the more traditional Hitachi, companies worldwide have declared remote work the standard policy for the foreseeable future. We’re seeing a transformation of not only the way we work, but the way we let others work.

The New York Times and NPR are already reporting surveillance technologies like Hubstaff that are giving micromanagers their fix. However, enabling destructive helicopter habits may be a short-lived trend. In a world of universal remote work, power could easily shift to employees.

The future of work post-COVID-19 will create more employment options beyond working from anywhere. Without a designated workspace, company perks like short commutes, free snacks, and even company daycare will become meaningless. Perks will need to evolve to keep employees interested—and frustrations will need to be dealt with.

Company culture will be more important than ever.

As far back as 2002, studies showed that micromanagement was listed among the top three reasons people resign. And maybe it was easy for companies to let them go in a world where a gig in the big city was something job hunters wanted. But in the new business landscape, those who perform well will become more valuable than ever. Companies will have to put in the extra effort to keep them.

Or, to put it another way, companies will need to nix the policies (like micromanagement) and poor performers (like micromanagers) driving valuable talent away.

If there’s nothing holding valuable employees in place but loyalty, managers who show true leadership will become the greatest commodities of all.

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