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There are good managers, and there are micromanagers, but there are no good micromanagers. You can lead, trust and inspire, or you can question, dictate and undermine -- but not both. That's not to say that there's never a time to micromanage some people or some aspects of a project, but in general, if you micromanage, you aren't delegating and giving people the freedom and protection they need to succeed.


It's a matter of trust, really. When you micromanage someone, you're telling them: "My way is the only acceptable way. I do not trust your experience, skills, or knowledge, so I will make sure that you have no room to think, innovate, make mistakes, or use initiative." This may make you feel in control, but what happens is that you end up having to do everything yourself because no one else will ever do everything exactly your way. They can't; the employee is not the same person as a micromanager, so they always going to deviate.

This infuriates a micromanager because their insecurities mean they need to feel like they are in control. So they will come down on others even harder; "it's not right, because it's not my way". Sometimes it's better, sometimes it's worse, usually, it's just different -- but if you want it done your way, then you do it. If you can’t just tell others what to do and give them the freedom do it their way, then the employees feel victimized (or like they're always failing). They get stroked one day, and flogged the next; because they accidentally deviated from some secret detail that shouldn’t matter to anyone, but does to their manager. How is that going to build trust? If your people don’t trust you then they won’t follow you, or will only follow because they have to instead of because they want to. There goes their motivation.

This is not to say that there can be no procedural guidelines for a task. But are they guidelines or straight-jackets? Telling someone where to go is a guideline; telling them exactly how they must get there, is a straightjacket that eliminates any chance for that person to work within their skills and abilities. At that point, others are either looking for a new job, or, they're going to resign themselves to the fact that what they really are is an extra pair of hands, and only do what they are told, when they are told and exactly how they are told. Nothing more. This functionally demotes a human to a job of a not-too-smart robot, and throws away most of their value. Basically, you go from having a valuable, experienced and capable employee to having a mindless, unmotivated, clock-watching drone. Cause and effect. They've been taught and told that any initiative will be punished, and results are not as important as following directions blindly; so they do what’s easiest and gets the most reward.

More cause and effect

So what happens? The end result is that the micromanager's workload goes up because drones take a lot more work to manage than thinking employees. And the micromanager ends up having to spoon-feed the employees every part of the assignment, and getting results is like pulling teeth. Why? Because that's what the micromanager said what they wanted (by deed), and that's what they get; so congratulations, they've achieved their goals.

If you tell people that the only path to success is to follow; then you are breeding followers and sheep.

Last I checked, sheep were further down the food chain than humans, and a lot less valuable life forms. The companies productivity reflects that mindless bleating. This is not theoretical, by the way. Any time you start hearing "But that's the way we've always done it.", even when the thing in question is painfully, obviously the wrong way, well, you're working with sheep.

Micromanaging is simply insecurity and fear translated into a lack of trust in anyone other than the manager. It's cancerous to an organization because it means that whatever that manager is in charge of is quite literally going to be non-functional without that person there all the time. They created an artificial bottleneck where people can't make decisions without the micromanager. All paths must go through one person, who gets so overworked, that they don’t get what they need to be done, done; and then projects stall because no one else is going to do anything without prior written approval.

The micromanager is now 'indispensable', because no one can do what they do. But they achieved security (in that no one else knows what they do or how to do it), by sacrificing productivity, job satisfaction, quality (since one person can never know it all), and so on. But at least, no one else can ever take over for them, so their position is secure. A good manager hires good people, trusts and inspires them, then gets the shit out of the way so they can get their jobs done. Not makes work for all their people trying to channel their ass-hatted boss.

The worst thing about micromanagement is that this cancer is often infectious. Others are taught that is the way to behave and treat those under them like mindless sheep and to also punish initiative. Why? Because if those people under you have some initiative they might deviate a little from the exact mandates of those above you; and thus get you in trouble. So it spreads. My way (or my bosses way) or else I’ll get reamed and thus you’ll get reamed, and the cancer metastasizes.

Those that don't think that way, are driven out. Those that do, seek out that kind of organization. Which is ridiculously funny when you read the articles bemoaning the lack of company loyalty. Well, no kidding. You treat your people like dirt, you cast them aside at the first chance, and you wonder why they leave at the first offer letter? They are reflecting the values of the companies they work for.


The problem is that a lot of management training teaches resource management instead of leadership, or control instead of how to delegate and mentor. It all deals with business cases, and processes, and project management, and legalities. But let's face it; resources are easy. You have X amount, and you have to make sure they are used in an efficient manner. I write stupid computer programs that can do resource management without human involvement; it is that easy. There’s even a joke by programmers to resource managers; leave me alone or I’ll replace you with a very small shell-script (simple program). Some managers don’t get the joke.

The same training often makes the fatal mistake of avoiding leadership as though it's a dirty word. This is why a lot of managers, fresh out of school, or fresh in control, act like sick and twisted little pointy-haired Dilbert-Manager clones; and then companies wonder why their productivity sucks - and many blame the workers for doing exactly what they are rewarded for doing, or punished for not doing.

But that is what being a manager is really about; leadership. What gets a project done on time is not resource management. It is not a thing that works overtime to fix a dead network. A computer isn't going to realize that there's a different and potentially better way to get work done. A switch isn't going to have an 'aha' moment. Resources don't do much of anything by themselves. People do. So you don’t want to manage resources, you want to lead people towards a common goal, and trust them to get you there. (And help them track/communicate where they are, and what they need to do it).


Being a good manager is hard; in some ways, it's harder than doing the work. The hardest part is accepting that you are not the master of your own fate; the people under you are. It is tough to hand over your fate to someone else; even frightening. But the answer isn't going to be to control everything they do and dictate their every action. That's going to make your life harder and screw you over in the end. That's where the trust comes in. You trust them to do work, they trust you to help them get what they need to get their work done. Teamwork. Giving up control, trust, and leadership; if you can't do them, then you can't manage effectively.

Like it or not, when you're in charge, you're a leader. You don't have a choice about that. You only have a choice about what kind of leader you're going to be. Are you going t be one that looks for diversity of thought and ideas, that inspires their people to think outside the box and push to get things done? Or are you going to turn them into mindless drones that are looking for the liferaft as soon as there's an opportunity to get out from under your iron thumb?

Written 2003.05.23