Taking the Joy Out of Micromanagement

When I started my current job, as managing editor of a trade publication for independent optometrists, I learned about a system of reading personalities that I’ve kept in mind ever since. Developed by Florence Littauer, it’s based loosely on the Myers-Brigg Type Indicator Test, but simplifies the classification into: Powerful, Playful, Perfect, and Peaceful types.

I’m an INFJ under Myers-Briggs (the rarest of all personality types, I’ve read), but under the system developed by Littauer, I’m, more simply, a Peaceful-Playful. That means I don’t like conflict and strife, and I am able to concentrate on my work without stirring up drama, but I also like to focus on enjoyment, rather than obsessing over perfection. I don’t respond well to the Powerful personality type, especially when the person’s secondary type is Perfect. That’s the personality that gets fulfillment from managing and controlling others while demanding perfection, often raising, or altering, the bar just as Peacefuls like me get comfortable and find enjoyment.

Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that many managers (many of them just dreadful) have the Powerful-Perfect personality type. For that reason maybe, they tend to just love micromanagement. It’s nearly their raison d’etre. I thought of that after reading the latest Corner Office column in The New York Times. The editor of the column, Adam Bryant, interviewed Carter Murray, the CEO of advertising agency FCB (Foote, Cone & Belding). Murray describes what sounds like a strong distaste for micromanagement: “There is one style, which is you’re going to come work for me, and I’m going to pay you this, and I’m going to judge you. I’ll decide your bonus, and I’ll decide when you’re ready to be promoted. There is another one where you say to someone, ‘Look, I think you’re amazing, incredibly talented, and you can do even more than you think in your wildest dreams. And I’m not going to manage you to do that. You will determine that yourself. What I can promise you is I’ll create a culture where that happens.’”

The idea that you can create greater results developing employees by not managing them is revolutionary, or it could be if more companies would train their managers to give it a try. The manager (or should they be called something else?) still would be responsible for giving employees assignments, or fulfilling a goal given to their department by executives, but they would take more of a hands-off approach in the execution of the work. The employees assigned individual tasks toward the department goal would be free to complete their work any way they like, and on any timetable they desire, so long as they complete the assignment by the due date given to them. That may seem reasonable given that, at the end of the day, all that matters is that the work and department goal are fulfilled.

But some of you may be surprised. There are many managers who not only want reasonable updates on how the work is going every week (that’s probably sensible), but they want to know the details of how it’s getting done, and often want to add their own observations and commentary (and need for re-dos) before the project is complete. The manager may feel that she is saving the employee trouble in the long run by letting him know early in the process that the work needs to be altered, but it’s damaging to the employee. His creativity is stifled, and his ability to work through challenges on his own—figuring out for himself during the process what’s working and what isn’t—is hampered. A better approach may be to give the employee freedom to do the work as he sees fit, after carefully describing the desired results, and then the manager letting him know that she’s available if the employee needs help, or wants feedback as he works on the project.

The micromanagement style of leadership reminds me of my paternal grandmother standing next to my mother at the stove, with my grandmother’s nose nearly in the pot my mother was stirring. “What are you cooking?” she would ask my mother, peering into the pot and standing there, as my mother explained. She sometimes would remain standing there for more than a few minutes asking questions. It drove my mother crazy! It was the cooking equivalent of a back-seat driver.

Are some of your company’s managers standing with their noses in the pots your employees are stirring? That could be a question on the next employee survey you roll out—a question on how satisfied employees are with the level of supervision they are receiving. You could ask the question in an open-ended way, but you also could give them options to choose from in describing their boss’ management style. One option to choose from could be “micro-manager.” Be sure to include descriptions with the labels you give each style of management. If your employees are honest (and unafraid to tell the truth on their survey), many will describe their boss as a micro-manager. What will your company do then, in response? Is it possible to hire people who are “Powerful,” but able to resist micro-managing out of enjoyment rather than out of necessity?

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