micromanaging: not always a dirty word

Most managers dread being called micromanagers – “micromanagement” has become the dirty word of the workplace.

But there are times when managing closely (see how much more flattering that sounds than “micromanaging”?) makes sense. In those situations, managers do themselves and their staff members a disservice if they shy away from being hands-on out of fear of being called a micromanager.

Here are four situations that require managers’ close supervision, and where you should plan to get much more hands-on than you normally would.

1. When a staff member is new to the work. When you have an employee who’s new to your organization or new to a particular type of work, it makes sense to work with her more closely than you would otherwise. You want to invest time in getting aligned about what success will look like and the plan to get them, and often in coaching the person and helping to build their skills. Of course, how much of this you need to do will vary depending on the person and the work. You would presumably spend more time setting up for success a junior assistant planning her first conference than you would an experienced event planner who’s new to your organization and mainly needs guidance on the particular preferences of your attendees. In both cases though, you should tell people, “I’m going to work closely with you for a while to get you acclimated and then will move further back and give you more room and autonomy once you’re settled into the role.”

2. When a project is very high-stakes. When a project is high-profile or absolutely crucial to the team’s success, you should check in earlier and more frequently, and put additional time into providing input and getting aligned with the staff members carrying out the work. With extremely important work, you don’t want to be course-correcting late in the game or have people learning on the fly.

3. When you’re experimenting with a new direction you’ve never tried before. When you’re moving into unchartered territory, that may mean figuring things out as you go. You want to be a part of those conversations, so that you have the opportunity to weigh in, provide guidance, spot opportunities and potential challenges, and generally help steer your ship.

4. When you need very specific results. Most of the time, it’s great to give people leeway for creativity and innovation; that’s often how you end up getting better results than you thought you could. But there are some cases where you simply need something very specific, and you know that deviating from one particular path won’t get you there (for example, if you need a presentation prepared for a board member who has very rigid length and format requirements). When there’s not much wiggle room, it makes sense to be transparent about that and explain why you’ll be closely involved in the process.

5. When you’re not getting the results you’re looking for. When a person or program isn’t producing the results you want, it makes sense to get more closely involved so that you can understand what’s happening, provide more guidance, and assess what changes need to be made (which could be instituting different processes, rethinking a strategy, giving clearer feedback, or letting someone go).

And one more thing. Keep in mind that it’s under any circumstances, it’s not micromanaging to clearly explain what a work product or outcome should look like, or to ask that work be done correctly, or to expect people to incorporate your feedback into their work in the future. That’s managing.


I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 42 comments… read them below }

  1. Malissa*

    Yes to #1! And the time to do it is when the person is new. Rather than deciding to do this after you’ve left them floundering for 6 months on their own. It will save a lot of grief.

  2. CaliCali*

    I guess I define micromanagement differently than managing closely. Micromanagement, to me, is doing things like demanding I email my boss the exact time I’m signed into work (in a non-clock-in type of environment), checking in with me an excessive amount of times when I’ve already given regular status of my progress on a project, not TRUSTING my answers when I give them, frequent looking over my shoulder, etc. Basically, knitpicking and building a culture of doubt about the way in which I do my work. I have received CLOSE management when the time called for it, and it never bothered me, but micromanagement (which I’ve largely avoided) makes me feel demeaned.

    1. Cath in Canada*

      Yeah, when I think of micromanaging I think of a previous employer requiring three levels of signatures to fix a typo on the website… Just let me fix it!

    2. Allison*

      Basically this. I feel micromanaged when someone acts like they don’t trust me to do my work without looking over my shoulder and dictating every detail of my work, and I get the sense that they don’t see me as an intelligent adult who’s competent at her job.

      That said, if you feel someone needs to be closely managed, you should tell them there’s an issue. Don’t start managing closely and then, when asked why you feel it’s necessary, tell the person their work is fiiiiiine, and you just want them to be even *better* – it’s a load of crap and you both know it. Just be honest when there’s a problem.

    3. T3k*

      Yeah, when I think of micromanaging, I think of one who watches your every move, and if you’re late by a minute they go nuts. I did a trial run at this one place for an internship, and I knew it was a bad sign when the owner’s open cubicle was set so he could see the whole break area from his seat (and was only about 10 feet away from him). And it’s not like he couldn’t use another cubicle, as there were others on the other side of the office and they had recently bought the store area next door, so there was room there too. Even in the other building, it felt very tense and people couldn’t goof around in case he popped in. Needless to say, I decided the place wasn’t right for me and found another place.

    4. Anonsie*

      I agree, I feel like the difference between “micromanagement” and “managing closely” is whether or not it is contextually a good idea or not. I don’t think they’re synonyms, I think micromanaging specifically refers to when it’s done poorly and has bad results.

    5. JM in England*

      One thing I’ve always wanted to say to micromanagers is “If I wanted something that sits on my shoulder, I’d buy a parrot!” :-)

    6. Pill Helmet*

      Yeah. I think of micromanaging quite differently also. In last job my manager managed me to the point of telling me exactly how to write an email or how to enter something into the calendar, and other really simplistic things that I very clearly could do on my own.

  3. Ad Astra*

    I think many managers are so afraid of micromanaging that they forget Allison’s final point, which is that it’s not micromanaging to clearly explain you expectations and what success looks like.

    I’m at a point in my career where I’m not sure if all my managers have been too hands-off, or if I’m just someone who needs to be closely managed.

    1. _ism_*

      I think her final point also helps us define what micromanaging *is* or at least what micromanaging results from.

      In my experience, particularly with my current boss, micromanagers are micromanaging (in the nitpicky, doubt-inducing way) because they *haven’t* communicated goals and a clear picture of success. They know what the goals are, but they don’t tell you, and then start hovering when you fail to meet the (unstated secret extra) goals.

      1. Laurel Gray*

        From previous experience, I have noticed that a micromanager tends to have insecurities about their own role as a manager. Sometimes they don’t even know or understand the goals of their department. My worst manager ever was a micromanager who would sit in meetings with the CFO and throw the peons of her department under the bus when it was her job to catch the mistakes pointed out. Micromanaging was easier that learning the processes and accurately looking over the work and reports before allowing them to be submitted. Her micromanaging didn’t even improve the department, just made us all loathe her. Picture a fruit fly hovering over a trash can all day after you tossed your grapefruit peel from breakfast, that was her.

        1. _ism_*

          I can definitely see that in the management here. This company only develops work processes and specifies roles and documents policies/standards when there’s a customer auditing us. They’ll panic for three days and write a bunch of stuff up for the auditor, but I don’t think they really follow what they write up, they don’t distribute or inform empoloyees, or see any need to really build & use this kind of information. We don’t have very many documented goals in any official capacity, at least none that I have access to.

        2. Mockingjay*

          “Micromanaging was easier that learning the processes.”

          This. Or learning the systems and the project. My last supervisor had no background whatsoever in our field. The project was implementing a new database. Some offsite project members were going to need VPN to access the new system, so she tasked me to write a quick SOP on how to do this. No big deal, write a few steps, grab screenshots, and done.

          This SOP was apparently far more important than I realized, because she sent me emails twice a day on how I should write this document. In total, I got 84 pages of instructions (I printed them out and counted) on how to write what ended up as 2 pages. [Click the VPN Client icon. Type password. Click OK. You are now connected.]

          What I think she really wanted was a training manual on the system itself (for herself), which was unnecessary as the system came with a 1-week instructor, wikis, awesome online videos explaining basic features, and demo modules to play with. As a manager, she really didn’t need to use the system. She just needed to trust that the rest of us knew what we are doing (I have used this system for 8 years) and let us work.

    2. zora*

      oh yeah, this is a good way to put it. I think managers should learn about when it is a good thing to manage closely. I think micromanaging is by definition a bad word, because I would define ‘micromanaging’ as managing closely in such a way that it becomes counterproductive and detrimental. I think the most important thing is pointing out the difference between those two things.

      1. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

        I have noticed I tend to get “managed closely” when I haven’t communicated my path to goal and project benchmarks.

        If I give my boss a clear project outline, she is very hands-off, but if I don’t communicate upfront, it starts to feel like she is micromanaging me. I’m used to being completely on my own (not always in a good way), so learning this about her working style was helpful.

  4. Cath in Canada*

    My PhD supervisor was really, really good at #1. He realised when I first joined the lab that I did need a lot of help, and he worked very closely with me for the first few months, gradually backing away as I gained skills and confidence. He gave more experienced new lab members a bit more space from the start, too. Overall he was always just slightly more involved than I (and others) really wanted, but it was very good for those of us who were still training!

    My postdoc supervisor was the opposite – very hands off, but always available if you needed her. A couple of her students struggled a bit in their first year or so, but for those of us with more confidence and experience, it was a fantastic atmosphere. I’m so glad that I encountered these two mentors in the order I did – if I’d had my postdoc supervisor as a student I would have flailed for a while, and if I’d had my PhD supervisor as a postdoc he’d have driven me to distraction at times! :)

  5. Workfromhome*

    Except for #1 When a staff member is new to the work. (which really isn’t micromanaging its training and all new people need training) I disagree with all the rest.

    Closer management is not the solution. Hiring competent people,giving clear direction and expectations and trusting them to do the work is the best solution. If you are not getting the outcomes you want its most likely management has failed at one of those 3 things.

    2. When a project is very high-stakes.
    If you can’t trust your people to accomplish high stakes projects you don’t have the right people. Sticking your nose into work when the pressure is high results in additional pressure and poor results. Not only do your people have the pressure of a high stakes project but they have the boss slowing them down by looking over their shoulder or second guessing their expertise.

    3. When you’re experimenting with a new direction you’ve never tried before – Nothing kills creativity more than having the boss looking over your shoulder. If its a new direction people need to be free to try new things FAIL and then learn what works. People are not free to fail if they are being micromanaged. You have to let people fail sometimes .

    4. When you need very specific results. If you need specific results lay them out from the start. if you are concerned about not getting specific results you simply are not making the expectations clear enough. If you need to watch over employees to make sure they use the right font then you probably didn’t do a good enough job at the start of the project letting them know that that font was mandatory.

    5. When you’re not getting the results you’re looking for. – This is the worst one of all. If you are not getting the right result you have either failed to hire the right person who is capable of delivering them or you have not been clear enough about what the result needs to be. Its like the famous “project” George was assigned in Seinfeld. Don’t be surprised if you give vague instructions that you don’t get what you expected.

    Don’t solve this by involving yourself during the project to tell people they are not working towards the right result. Tell them up front what the outcome needs to be . If they are capable they will deliver it .

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Totally disagree with you on #2, 3, and 4 (obviously) — that’s just totally contrary to my experience. It’s not about looking over someone’s shoulder — it’s about being hands-on in talking through the outcomes you’re looking for, the path to get there, and checking in as the work unfolds to be a resource, provide input, ask tough questions, course-correct when necessary, etc. (In other words, manage. Just more closely than you would when the work isn’t as challenging.)

      On #5, I agree, but that’s why I say in the post under #5 that you need assess what changes need to be made, which could be giving clearer feedback or letting someone go.

      1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

        I’ll give you a live example for #2.

        A couple of weeks ago, I looked through our large inventory of various promotional teapots and was distressed at the quality that was going out the door. This is our branding. Not happy. (I might have thrown one when we nobody was looking; I’ll never tell.)

        My choices were to:

        1) yell at the people responsible and tell them to “do better!!”
        2) pull the job away from the people responsible and tell the next people to “do better!!”
        3) do something else

        I chose to do something else. I put one of my direct reports (who has the skill set and judgement) in charge of approving everything on going, and sending anything she didn’t approve back with instructions and guidance to be done, and done again until she approved it.

        This *is* “micromanaging” from at least a couple of angles.

        What happened next was she rejected the first set (I think it was about 20 different items) with notes, and then rejected a smaller set of the redos with notes, until everything was done to standard.

        The idea is, this goes on and on, until comes the time that she’s getting whole sets with no rejections. The idea is, the people working on this will learn how to do the work up to brand standards.

        There’s no magical “get better people machine” that makes the people who don’t do work to standard disappear and perfect replacements appear in their stead.

        This is a lot of work for the woman who is managing this for me. Hopefully it pays off and this won’t be necessary ongoing.

    2. GOG11*

      I’m a bit confused. The way I’m envisioning what you’re describing, you have to hire the right person in all respects of the job and just be up front with them to succeed.

      In many jobs, there isn’t a tailor-made candidate out there. They may have most of the skills and experience you’re looking for, but possibly not all, so how would you get the employee from where they are to where they need to be if not for checking in with them, coaching them, giving feedback, etc.? People need resources to operate in general, and especially to bridge whatever gaps may come up over the course of their work, not just when they’re new to the job. These gaps can be or arise due to a variety of factors, i.e., changes in the industry, shifts in job duties, candidate being a 87% match for the role instead of 100%. I view a manager as being one of those resources either directly or by being getting the employee access to other sources.

      1. Laurel Gray*

        “you have to hire the right person in all respects of the job”

        And I swear, this is exactly the reason why so many job descriptions and the requirements are so crazy and why some jobs are posted forever – there is a realistic expectation on the other end.

      2. Ad Astra*

        That’s kind of what I was thinking. Obviously, you should get rid of someone if it’s truly not working out. But most of the time as a manager you have to manage the employees you have, warts and all. If you replace every employee who doesn’t initially thrive in a completely hands-off situation, your turnover will be so high you won’t accomplish much else.

    3. Laurel Gray*

      I feel like you are describing a type of work environment that is so hands off and the scope of the work allows it to be (with possible consequences, of course). Judging by your name, I am assuming you work from home. Is this how your employer operates? What happens when a project fails? Who has to take the fall, the employee that had complete autonomy over their work or the manager that allowed this and never took a hands on approach at any stage?

    4. Elizabeth West*

      I’m going to disagree with you. :)

      2. When a project is very high-stakes.
      Overseeing an important project isn’t sticking your nose in or second-guessing. If you’re responsible for the success of a project, you don’t just throw people the material and say, “Have at it. This is crucial and we need it by X day,” and then ignore it until the due date. No, you want to monitor the process occasionally, not to an invasive degree, but so you know it’s on track. If you spot a problem, you can say, “Hey, let’s back up and regroup — I think we might need to reorient ourselves.” Imagine your team’s reaction if you didn’t do this and they had to redo a bunch of stuff at the zero hour because you couldn’t be arsed to check in. The trick here is not to hover. It’s hovering that is annoying, not checking in.

      3. When you’re experimenting with a new direction you’ve never tried before:
      No, this is called working with your team. A good manager shouldn’t avoid getting involved if they’re trying to lead the team in an unfamiliar direction, and failure on a large scale can cost the company money and time.

      4. When you need very specific results:
      I agree that expectations should be communicated clearly, but again, why wouldn’t I want to work alongside my team if we are trying to accomplish a specific goal? In the case of the Picky Board Member, I’d rather give the work a once-over before it goes to the board in case someone accidentally used the wrong font or made a typo (it happens), to put a layer of protection over my team and spare them the wrath of this person. If they made a mistake and I didn’t catch it, then it’s on me, not them. And I’d rather be the recipient of Picky Board Member’s Helvetica tirade, especially if I think the requirements are stupid. It wouldn’t be right to push that off on them.

      On 5, I agree with Alison. I can’t instigate changes unless I investigate what is going on.

      1. GOG11*

        Re #3, this is kind of what I was thinking. If you aren’t familiar with the process, how can you know exactly how things will go? How can you dictate something in enough detail for your employee to succeed when you haven’t done it before? In this case, manager and managee need to work more closely together in order to develop processes that work on both levels and that come together to yield the desired result.

    5. Thomas W*

      The thing I love so much about this post — and why I disagree with workfromhome’s response — is that it acknowledges that different situations benefit from different management styles. Alison’s post did not strike me at all as saying that micromanagement is always the right course. It simply provides examples where it can be effective, with advice on how to ensure that it is so. When something is really important to my boss, I always really appreciate when she gives me specific instructions and checks in regularly. It helps me catch things quickly, and I feel very supported.

    6. James M.*

      My understanding of AAM’s points 2,3, and 4 is that they describe circumstances where a people-manager needs to assume the role of a project manager.

      1. voyager1*

        I think a lot of people are applying their job to what workfromhome and AAM are saying. I have had jobs in my life where both AAM and workfromhome are right and wrong.

        It is so dependent on the work environment and work being done. There is no magic bullet in management.

    7. hbc*

      “…trusting them to do the work is the best solution.” Trust but verify. Haven’t you ever thought you’d explained something clearly but there was a misunderstanding? Had someone come up with a different way of doing things that you didn’t even know existed so you didn’t know you had to take it off the table? Have someone who was super reliable suddenly go off the rails for personal reasons, and be so invested in the appearance of reliability that they didn’t reach out for help?

      Yes, an ideal boss would catch these things earlier, but a check-in a couple of times a day (“Here’s the draft, still on schedule”) seems like a very small burden to cover for the fact that management isn’t perfect.

  6. ChelseaNH*

    Many years ago my company partnered with a business school on a program, and I got to learn a little about organizational behavior. One thing that stuck with me is the idea that your management style should change, based on the performance of your team. If your team is executing well, hands off. If a team is executing pretty well, have regular check ins. If a team is performing poorly, then you need to step in and give them detailed direction until such time as they improve.

    I think a lot of managers are comfortable with a particular style. Sometimes they get lucky and find themselves in a situation where that style works, and they think “this is how you manage.” But it’s not one size fits all.

    1. Scott M*

      Your management style should also change with different members of the team. Some may need only little course corrections from time to time. Others may need very specific instructions and frequent check-in’s.

      1. Connie-Lynne*

        This exactly. I run a pretty hands-off team, particularly with training. Usually I provide an overview, and detailed documentation, set up some goals, and explain how the documentation should lead to the goals.

        I was onboarding one guy and he was (a) frequently unavailable and (b) not hitting the goals. So I gave him some more detailed coaching, and some smaller goals, and scheduled a check-in. Again he missed the goals (and in fact missed the check-in, and was unavailable when I reached out to him to find out where he was). So again I coached him and reduced the goals, and set up a schedule for check-ins on each step.

        He missed the first check-in. So I emailed him asking what happened. He asked for a meeting and the first thing he said was “I feel as if I am being micromanaged.” I said, “yes, that is exactly what is happening here, because I’ve given you several chances and I am not getting the results I want.”

        I don’t think that was the response he expected.

        1. hbc*

          Nicely played. “Hey, if you don’t want to be micromanaged, you have to be successful while being macromanaged.”

    2. Kyrielle*

      I think it also depends on the environment. If the overall requirements given to your team are in flux – even if your team are rockstars – you want to touch base a lot more frequently, not to check on “how are you doing on X” but to make sure they’ve heard that focus has switched to X from Y from Z last week….

  7. Tennessee*

    on 2. When a project is very high-stakes. I would add this — not every project is high-stakes, so not every project needs micromanagement

    1. voyager1*

      I worked with a micromanager, she had no ability to prioritize. To me that is hallmark trait to a micromanager.

  8. Anonn*

    Oh man, this is close to home. I saw my boss having to do this recently with a (now former) coworker. He was promoted into our dept from another one that had a very hands-off manager. He needed a lot of guidance and it was a very important position, and he wasn’t meeting his numbers. He saw it as micro-managing, but it was really just good management. He was finally let go because he bristled so much at actually being managed.

  9. Jaydee*

    I think an important component to #3 is communicating the reasons for your close management to the team. It’s one thing if you think in your brain “this is really an important project, and I want the outcome to be X or Y but definitely not Z, so I will watch it closely and make sure it succeeds” and another to tell the team that. If you don’t tell the team, then it’s a perfect set-up for micromanagement. If you tell the team, then 1) they can learn what your priorities are, 2) they can learn what problems or risks to look out for, 3) they might have good ideas that would help get to X or avoid Y.

  10. marilyn*

    When I think “Micro Manager” I think about my most recent supervisor. She was promoted, and I took her position – but she had a VERY hard time letting go of her tasks. As a result, she wouldn’t relay all of the information to me, and often times was highly critical of what I said to her previous contacts over the phone, and through email. Even if I gave the relevant information, I would be scolded for not doing it the way she would have done it. It got to the point where she wanted me to send certain emails to her first, before she could edit and approve it. If I took a call in front of her, she would sit there and wait until I was done talking, and instead of letting me listen to person on the other end, would say things like “Ask them this, ask them that, what are they asking for? Tell them this…” One day I just put the client on hold and scolded her and told her, I NEED to be able to take a phone call. The problem continued even after I brought it to management.

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