Of all the words that employees sometimes use to describe their supervisor, being called a “micromanager” is one of the worst. That term describes a style of interacting with your team based on control, distrust, and superiority. But like anyone who has an addiction, we should be most concerned about the people who are the most confident they don’t have a problem. If you’re convinced you couldn’t possibly be a micromanager, keep reading.
The difference between leading and managing is that leaders are engaged with the people who are working whereas managers try to control the process. Management isn’t always bad. There are many aspects of the professional and personal world that can be managed. You can organize files, marshall resources, and design efficient systems. But you can’t manage people as if they were interchangeable and disposable. Or rather, you can try, but everyone will suffer.
An unhealthy emphasis on control is the first warning sign of a micromanager. Most of us have influence on our immediate environment, but that’s really about it. Some people, however, feel the need to specify not just what should be done, but how it should be accomplished.
There is an enormous distance between having a vision and having to tell people every last detail of the only way you can imagine achieving that vision. There’s a difference between setting a course and actually taking control of the sails, or picking a destination and grabbing the wheel. People who are “control freaks” can’t let go. They need to make sure everything is done their way—and if they had the time, they would do it themselves.
Although many micromanagers would deny it, the desire to control everything is rooted in distrust. If you won’t let people complete tasks without supervision, that means you don’t trust them to do it right. A lack of faith in others is like a cancer in an organization. When your colleagues start to realize that you have no confidence in them, they will in turn lose confidence in you. They won’t bother to have initiative and will operate from a place of fear rather than a place of freedom.
Trust, as the expression says, is earned rather than given. If you want employees to trust you the most direct path is to show that you trust them. That is more than just letting them work without dictating every aspect of what they accomplish. It’s more than stepping out of the office for a few hours. Genuine trust means communicating to employees that you want them to occasionally take risks with the understanding they will make mistakes, because you are confident they will fix whatever problems arise.
Ultimately, the source of genuine distrust is a feeling of superiority. When we think we are better than other people we have a reason not to trust them, and therefore a reason to attempt to control their behavior. Most businesses do have a reporting hierarchy. Your boss has a boss, who in turn has a boss, and so on. But just because some people have bigger paychecks and nicer offices does not mean they are fundamentally better people.
We sometimes confuse the structure of businesses—which have executives that provide guidance to vice presidents, VPs who talk to middle managers, and middle managers who work with front-line staff—with a sense of our own identity. But in reality, everyone is important. Everyone matters. Micromanagement is an way of expressing that some people simply aren’t as worthwhile as others. And if you feel that way about your colleagues, why are you working with them?
You are in danger of being a micromanager. We all are. At one time or another, all of us feel like we need to take control, that we can’t trust others, or that we are the only one who knows how to get it done. The secret is to let go. Step back. Let other people take the reins. You don’t have to run the show. Sometimes you get to be in the audience. Sometimes what’s best is to point the spotlight at someone else. Because what matters is not what we get when we pull the strings, but what happens when we let people perform on their own.