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Manager, Heal Thyself

Debbie is a regional manager for a Fortune 500 company in the defense industry. She manages a staff of 15 people whose responsibilities include monitoring the internal quality efforts in both the manufacturing and administrative areas of the organization. Within Debbie’s region, the company has four manufacturing plants (out of 12 nationwide), more than 30 major and intermediate suppliers, and four military installations for which she and her continuous-improvement staff are responsible. Staff members travel extensively within an eight-state region.

Debbie holds a 90-minute staff meeting at 8:30 a.m. every Monday morning. The purpose of these meetings is to establish expectations for the coming week, review any concerns, emphasize Debbie’s priorities, and identify weekly plans for the internal support staff.

However, before the 8:30 meeting, Debbie is involved in an 8 a.m. meeting in another part of the building, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, for her to actually begin her staff meeting on time. Regardless of whether she is there or not, the entire staff is expected to assemble promptly and wait for her. No activity can begin in her absence, and those who aren’t waiting for the meeting to start on her arrival are chastised.

Debbie also allows external interruptions that prolong the meetings. Staff members have tracked the number of times Debbie either is called out of their meetings or takes a cell phone call. (The mean is five times; the record is 12.) By the time the meeting is finally concluded, and the staff members travel to their first site visit, which may be three states away, the entire morning is wasted.

Debbie also requires a weekly summary meeting at 3 p.m. every Friday afternoon. The purpose of this meeting is to summarize the week’s activities, identify potential problem areas, and provide Debbie with ongoing data to meet her various reporting requirements. These meetings have never concluded before 5:30 p.m. To make the afternoon meeting, traveling staff members must often cut site visits short.

Unfortunately, the meeting madness doesn’t end there. Debbie frequently calls midweek emergency teleconference meetings. While only a portion of the staff may actually have involvement with the issue of the moment, Debbie insists that everyone must be involved. Significant costs are incurred, critical amounts of productive time are wasted, and a drastic toll is taken on the potential for her group to be effective. At times these midweek meetings are deemed to be so important that she requires those traveling to come back to the office.

Additionally, the employees who attend Debbie’s meetings have learned not to raise questions or make any recommendations. They fear that her response will be “That’s an excellent point. Let’s schedule a meeting to pursue that further.”

Debbie’s behavior is classic micromanagement. Once a micromanager is in power, there is little his or her staff can do to change the behavior. The best hope is for micromanagers to recognize their destructive behaviors and make a concerted effort to change. Just being conscious of the issue is a positive step.

Though many of the key traits of micromanagers are well known—controlling workflow, an inability to delegate, a sense of entitlement—others may not be so obvious. For example, managers must be wary of withholding support, clinging to past experiences, seeking to control subordinates’ time, misusing meetings, and perpetuating crises.

Lack of support. People who micromanage often vocalize their personal disagreement with many of the policies, procedures, strategies, and plans they are required to implement. When something comes down from on high, they are quick to criticize the action. Their criticism and disagreement do not go to the decision makers but instead are directed toward their peers or subordinates.

They openly share their perception that they would do it differently and much better. Micromanagers are quick to spread the poison. They make statements such as: “This is what we are being told to do, but I think it’s wrong,” or “This is the stupidest thing we’ve ever done. My idea would have been much better.”

Obviously, if someone is asked to implement something that is illegal, unethical, or immoral, it is appropriate and necessary to show opposition. However, barring those extremes, the inability to follow direction results in a continuation of opposition based on opinion. Micromanagers expect others to suck it up, stifle their disagreement, and move on, yet they do not do so themselves.

Micromanagers have a penchant for positioning themselves to be able to say “I told you so.” If something does not go exactly as planned or result in the perfect outcome, they are quick to point out that their idea was better or they could have done it more successfully. In extreme circumstances, micromanagers will withhold support or engage in malicious compliance to create a less than perfect outcome so that their predictions will be correct.

By continuing to demonstrate and vocalize their disagreement with ongoing initiatives, micromanagers encourage the people around them, or those they directly influence, to do the same. This approach not only positions others to appear oppositional within their area of influence, it also spreads the poison of conspiracy.

Historical focus. People who micromanage follow behavioral patterns. What they have previously experienced dictates the present and the future. This historical focus demonstrates itself in a number of ways, including the style of problem solving and the perpetuation of existing relationships.

When micromanagers address problems or crises, their initial response is to revisit the way they have always dealt with similar issues in the past. Though it seems logical to learn from past experiences, problems develop when those experiences become the dominant influence over current actions. The same mistakes are repeated and the same problems have to be addressed over and over.

Micromanagers place high value on their past historical relationships. When micromanagers change jobs, they will bring past associates with them, if at all possible. Many people have been in the painful situation of being denied mobility or advancement when their new boss brings in past associates from the outside, rather than promoting from within. Ongoing relationships are very important; however, there must be a balance between these and new ones.

Influence of time. The manipulation of time is perhaps the most intense and frustrating of the micromanagement behaviors. People feel that their manager and peers rob them of control over their own time. In a 2004 survey conducted by the author, 61 percent of current managers and 59 percent of nonmanagers have experienced this behavior in the people to whom they report. Forty percent and 44 percent, respectively, have experienced it from peers, team members, or others. For many, the biggest impediment to doing their jobs well is the continual interruptions from their boss or others.

The control and manipulation of time provokes reactions of intense resentment in top-quality performers and resigned complacency for others. People know that they will not be given enough time to do their job to the best of their ability, so they resign themselves to meeting only minimum standards of acceptability, and quality performers consistently feel overburdened. Micromanagement of time breeds negativity and mediocrity.

Micromanagers feel compelled to control the time allo­cations of others. This behavior results in people having constantly to create cover stories or embellish reports of how they have spent their time. The control and manipulation of time can invite dishonesty in others. One practitioner mandated that attendees at a professional association meeting should have a minimum of 25 quality conversations with others, including ten in-depth conversations of 25 minutes or more.

The micromanager appears to lack confidence that others are capable of assessing their own workload and making good decisions on how their time should be allocated. People’s own perceptions of priority and project momentum are disregarded.

Obviously, crises do occur. Priorities and deadlines do shift. However, micromanagers do not differentiate between legitimate situations and their impulses of the moment.

People find themselves being pulled from tasks in response to the micromanager’s pet project of the moment. In reality, the vast majority of a micromanager’s interruptions are not “oxygen to dying people,” although they are presented with that intensity.

It is very difficult to understand true priorities when everything appears to be an emergency. People are not only frustrated by the interruptions, they resent the fact that they will ultimately be held accountable for the tasks they have been unable to complete because of the priority shift.

Misuse of meetings. As illustrated in the opening example, micromanagers use meetings as their personal stage. Micromanagers will call a 30-minute meeting and allow it to run for four hours. Those in attendance who have other activities or commitments planned for after the meeting have to reschedule or cancel, negatively affecting others who may be depending on them. Excessive time spent in meetings is time taken away from critical tasks and responsibilities. While meetings are a necessary part of workplace life, people resent their time being used unproductively.

People who micromanage spend a significant amount of meeting time telling others what to do. They discourage questions and allow discussion only in support of their position. They quickly choke off any comments that are interpreted as negative, oppositional, or resistant. Unfortunately, meetings are not used to expand knowledge or clarify priorities and tasks; they serve only to create confusion and resentment.

Micromanagers are regularly late to their own meetings. Just like Debbie, they expect everyone else to be punctual, while not holding themselves to the same standard. Too frequently, people sit idle waiting for the person who called the meeting to show up and conduct the meeting. Besides wasting time, the negative impact on morale and attitude is huge. Making people wait is disrespectful and unproductive, and it sends a message of extreme arrogance.

Micromanagers consistently allow themselves to be distracted during meetings, leaving others waiting. Examples include placing phone calls, encouraging others to call them out of meetings, and responding to a summons from higher ups without dismissing the group.

In one company, the manager would frequently stall a meeting saying, “The vice president wants to meet with me. I’m sure this will be brief. Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be back as quickly as I can.” Of course, he rarely was.

Perpetual crisis. Thriving on crisis, micromanagers are most happy when they can declare an emergency and really take over. They pride themselves on being able to handle crises. Crisis is the thief of time, eliminating opportunities for thoughtful discussion, interaction, and planning.

Although many crisis situations are unavoidable, others are the result of the micromanager’s crisis-creating behavior. Being submerged in day-to-day intricacies and minutiae, micromanagers do not spend an appropriate amount of time in planning or prioritization. They focus so intently on today and the activity of the moment, they do not look at tomorrow or beyond. Consequently, the entire department is in a state of perpetual crisis.

People who work for and with micromanagers live in this perpetual crisis environment. People exist in a pressure cooker of urgency, which robs them of the opportunity to do their jobs at a planned, performance-enhancing pace. Mediocre employees find this acceptable, but it will drive top-performing people out of the organization.

Ultimately this behavior may catch up with some micro­managers, as senior executives notice the low productivity of their departments. In Debbie’s case, for example, she was eventually questioned by the vice president of quality about customer complaints and the lagging productivity of her region. Debbie was truly puzzled and contacted management consultants to find out what to do to “fix her people.”

The problem was not with her people, of course. The enemy of productivity was within. To all the Debbies (and Dons) out there—and you know who you are—we say: Manager, heal thyself.

Harry E. Chambers, a performance improvement specialist, is president of Trinity Solutions, Inc., in Atlanta. This article is an excerpt from his book Highway: The Micromanagement Survival Guide published by Berrett-Kohler Publishers in San Francisco. To purchase the book, call 800/929-2929 or visit the publisher’s Web site