When Does Micromanagement Become Harassment

March 8, 2014

Micromanage 2Two words that get used a lot these days are micromanagement and harassment. The two concepts come from different sources, but they converge in the extreme case.

This article dissects the two concepts and provides some guidance for managers who, despite their good intentions, often end up doing more harm than good.

Harassment is the abusive behavior toward another person that has its roots in a desire to annoy or hurt the other individual in some way. The practice is normally intentional, although it is possible for a person to harass other people without being aware it is happening.

Except in the rare extreme cases, the manifestation of harassment exists first in the opinion of the person who is being harassed. If I will not let you get to me no matter what you do, then you are not going to be successful at harassing me.

In fact, I may get a perverse pleasure out of thwarting your attempts to bother me: a kind of reverse harassment.

On the other hand, you may be such a sensitive individual that the mere thought of any person walking into the room sends you into a flight of panic: a kind of self harassment called paranoia.

We are all aware of the destructive nature of harassment that evokes anything from mild discomfort all the way to suicide. The distress is always amplified if the person being harassed believes he or she cannot escape and has to endure continual suffering.

Micromanagement doesn’t stem from sinister motives. To the contrary, it is normally the desire of a manager, or person in charge of getting things done, who wants things to go well but is horribly misguided in the best way to accomplish the task. It reminds me of my favorite Star Trek Quote when Mr. Spock says, “It is curious how often you humans manage to obtain that which you do not want.” (TOH Charlie Green).

The micromanager is not trying to annoy the victim (usually) but only trying to get things done according to his or her warped definition of how to accomplish the objective. In the process, of course, the victim has to endure the constant meddling that feels very much like harassment.

We are all aware of the antidote for micromanagement, which is for the manager to set the objective and some broad guidelines and then back off to let the individual figure out the details on how to get the job done.

Unfortunately, a little concept called “trust” is missing, so the manager does not believe the individual is capable of getting the job done without constant supervision. It is the lack of trust that is the root cause of most micromanagement.

We deal with the manifestations of micromanagement to some degree in most work settings. It is only the most extreme high trust environments where managers are willing to actually stand by and let subordinates do things wrong in order to learn what does not work.

They would rather intervene and at least suggest that holding the soldering iron by the pointed end might not be the best method. I use that extreme case because the motive of the manager in this case is to prevent the employee from doing bodily harm. What could be more noble than that?

Often what feels like micromanagement to the employee is done for the benefit of the employee.

The grey area between good intentions and oppressive hovering is playing out in the workplace every hour of every day. Managers find their own equilibrium, and employees either complain (or not) behind the break room doors.

The extreme case, where managers tell people how to do their work for the sport of always getting it done their way, crosses the line into harassment. Even if the conscious objective is to get the job done right, the spirit with which the manager directs every movement is debilitating.

To break the cycle of micromanagement and/or harassment, the manager needs to recognize that there is a better way to get results. If he or she continues to believe the muscle approach is the best way to get compliance, then grudging compliance is what will happen.

The problem is that in today’s competitive environment, mere compliance is a formula for extinction.

Any organization needs full engagement of the people in it to survive long term. So the first step is some education on how numerous organizations are reaping the benefits of full engagement.

Once that point is made it is necessary to have the obstinate manager take a good long look in the mirror.

Numerous studies have shown that the benefit of an improved culture is higher engagement and productivity. As a consultant, I would ask the micromanager if he or she would enjoy seeing something like a 100% improvement in productivity.

It is quite possible, but only once the manager recognizes the real enemy of better performance is the one staring back in the mirror. If a leader does not desire a vast improvement in performance, then there is not likely to be a cure for the micromanagement.

The antidote for micromanagement is to create a culture of higher trust. In this environment, the manager would be less likely to be overly directive. Also, in a culture of high trust, if the manager is pushing too much the employee would feel encouraged to politely ask that person to give a little breathing room.

No harassing behavior is required on either side, and the job gets done efficiently and correctly. Everybody wins, and nobody gets hurt. It all depends on the level of trust the leader is capable of creating in the organization.

The word create is the key concept here, because trust does not happen unless leaders enable it with their behaviors (and even words).


Death by Micromanagement

May 27, 2012

Everybody hates to be micromanaged. So why do so many managers do it? We know that overbearing, but well intended, managers micromanage all the time in an attempt to optimize performance. I will identify the cure for this habitual dilemma in this article.

The problem is that by micromanaging people, the manager is severely limiting performance rather than optimizing it, so the manager is operating at cross purposes to his stated goal. Unwittingly, the manager is removing incentive for effort and creativity on the part of the employee. We are so familiar with this problem simply because it is rampant in our organizations (Bielaszka-DuVernay, Harvard Business Review, June 23, 2008). Let us contrast micromanagement versus trust to give some insight on how the latter leads to greatly enhanced performance.

To micromanage someone implies a lack of trust. The manager is not confident the employee can or will do a job correctly, so the employee is besieged with “helpful” instructions from the manager on exactly how to perform tasks. At first, the intrusion is simply irritating to the employee, who has her own ideas on how to do the job. After a while, it degenerates into an opportunity to check out mentally and join the legion of disenchanted workers doing what they are told and collecting a paycheck. This leaves the employee’s power on the door step of the organization every day.

Another drawback is that employees will try to avoid a manager who tends to micromanage, simply to reduce the aggravation. This leads to a circular decline, where the manager has less and less information, so he tries even harder to intervene and direct activities. This makes people want to avoid him even more.

To trust an employee is to think enough of the person to treat him or her as a thinking person who can have good ideas if given a goal and some broad operating parameters. In an environment of trust, employees have the freedom to explore, innovate, create, stretch, and yes, sometimes make mistakes. These mistakes can be thought of as waste, but enlightened leaders think of them simply as learning opportunities.

Here are nine ideas that can help leaders and managers reduce the tendency to micromanage, thus unleashing a greater portion of the power available to the organization.

1. Set clear goals and make sure your employees have the basic skills and tools to do the job.
2. Be clear on the broad constraints within which the employee must operate. In other words do not let the employee try to conquer the world with a tuna-fish can.
3. Express trust in the employee and encourage creativity and risk taking as long as the risks are well-considered and safe.
4. Reject the temptation to step in if the employee seems to struggle, rather make yourself available if there are any questions or requests for help.
5. Provide the resources the employee needs to accomplish the tasks.
6. Do not totally overload the employee with so many duties and projects that she cannot succeed at any of them.
7. Express praise and gratitude for positive baby steps along the way.
8. Give the employee time and space to try different approaches without having to explain why she is doing every step.
9. If problems occur, consider them as learning experiences and ask the employee to describe how she will do things differently next time.

These nine ideas are all simple, but they are nearly impossible for a micromanager to accomplish without constant effort. The concept of trusting employees does involve some risk, but the rewards of having people working up to their full potential rather than just complying is well worth that risk. You will see better, faster, and more robust solutions if you trust people and let their natural talents surface in an environment of less micromanagement.


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