Early in my career, I’d often come home in tears, beyond frustrated because I didn’t think my manager trusted me. She took over my meetings and insisted on reading (and therefore, nitpicking) painstakingly constructed emails before I was allowed to hit “send.” I felt undervalued and incompetent, inciting a steady stream of anxiety any time I interacted with my boss.
So, you’d think that when I became a boss that I’d be extra mindful to trust my team, give them lots of freedom to grow, and maker sure no one had cause to call me a micro-manager. Alas, I didn’t anticipate having my own boss to “manage up” and pressure to hit specific goals. It didn’t cross my mind that I was causing my team anxiety every time I took away a task to “do it myself” or excluded them from meetings. It was a real “AHA” moment when one of my direct reports finally confronted me with a harsh truth—my team felt like they were suffocating under my leadership. Talk about coming home in tears …
I was a micro-manager.
If you recognize yourself here, it’s OK and it’s not too late. After that team member called me out, I loosened the reins. And the positive changes amazed me. Anxiety is contagious so once I relaxed, so did my team. In fact, their creativity flourished and their willingness to take on new assignments soared. Why? They finally felt empowered to take control, take risks, and most importantly, do their jobs without fear of being wrong.
And I’m still working on it.
I would say that I’m a recovering micro-manager because every once in a while I’ll still slip—but with zero intention of insulting anyone’s abilities. In my defense, when you’re leading a team, you do bear the responsibility of making sure the work you produce makes everyone shine.
To be a true mentor or leader, helping others develop and grow, you need to give them a clear understanding of the desired results, provide guidance if needed, and then let them take responsibility for getting it done. “Will [your employees] make mistakes? Absolutely. But will they learn from each mistake and continually get better? You bet they will,” says Todd Davis, FranklinCovey’s chief people officer and author of Get Better: 15 Proven Practices to Build Effective Relationships at Work.
You can be hands-off and still be a good manager. And you can offer constructive criticism and advice without inciting fear or doubt. “The alternative is to micro-manage your team, basically telling them every step of the way what to do and how to do it. Will a mistake be made with THAT method? Maybe not. Will they learn anything of value? No. The only thing they will learn is to do what they’re told … nothing more and nothing less,” says Davis. “People aspire to greatness. They want to be part of something that matters, to make a difference. In my 30 years of observing and coaching others, I’ve yet to meet anyone who enjoyed being micro-managed. It’s a guaranteed morale killer.”
If you think you might be a micro-manager, here’s what you need to know:
Micro-managers create unnecessary tension
The message that micro-managing sends is, “You aren’t capable.”
“A micro manager is unintentionally sending a message that they don’t trust the people they’re managing and that only they, the manager, is capable of making decisions or doing anything right,” says Davis. “That’s not being a leader or a manager. That’s being an authoritarian.”
And hold their own careers back
No one wants to work for a micro-manager and therefore, micro-managers continually lose good people from their team. “Micro-managers are continually exhausted. I mean, it’s tough work being the only person in the world who knows everything!” says Davis. “Micro-managers are typically never promoted because we’re measured by our results and the results their teams get are mediocre at best. No one on the team is learning anything and growing. There’s no creativity, so they’re stagnant.”
So, how do you change?
1. Start evaluating your time
At the end of a day or a week, look back on all that your team produced and evaluate how much of that you were involved in. “Ask yourself the following,” says Davis, “Was it everything? If so, to what level of detail? If you hadn’t been in all week, would anything have been accomplished? Does your team feel they have the freedom to move forward when you aren’t there?”
2. Don’t be afraid of feedback
“The best way to get better at ANYTHING—including a tendency to micro-manage—is to solicit honest open feedback. It takes maturity to do this but the best leaders have loads of maturity. Make it safe for others to tell you the truth,” says Davis.
If you ask, “Hey, do you think I’m a micro-manager?” your employee is going to say “no.” Instead, try, “I’m continually working on improving in my leadership role. Would you be willing to think through the things you believe I do well as a leader and the things I could improve? Please know I’m really sincere in trying to improve so your candid feedback would be greatly appreciated.”
3. Get to know your team
Spend some time with your direct reports and really ask what they want in life, what skills they’re working on, and what excites them about the job. “If you know what they desire, you’ll be better able to make sure you are giving them opportunities to develop and find fulfillment in their career,” says Jennifer Davis, certified leadership coach. “Trust is also gained once we know people on a more personal level, and the trust will go both ways. Once you get to know them better, you may feel more comfortable delegating.”
4. Connect with other leaders
You’re not alone—many leaders have similar challenges and you can learn from each other. “Seek out and schedule informal meetings, chats, or lunches with leaders you respect,” suggests Jennifer Davis. “It’s not a sign of weakness to admit you are struggling and could use some advice in a certain area. We’re all human and we all have areas for growth. Meeting with others in your position can give you new strategies for areas where you’re stuck.”
5. Practice delegating at home
For most of us, the issues that show up in our professional lives are the same ones that arise at home. If you tend toward perfectionism at work, take a simple task at home that you’d normally want to be done YOURSELF and purposefully delegate it to someone who won’t do it as well as you.
“You like the lawn to be mowed in a certain way or the kitchen floor to be clean enough to eat off of. Let your 10-year-old do it. Mentor him, guide him, but let him do it. And see what happens,” suggests Jennifer Davis. “Neuroscience has taught us that sustainable change occurs when we step out of our comfort zone and do things differently!”