Micromanagement and why it may be dangerous for your business

You maybe already believe that micromanagement is dangerous for you, your staff and your business. And it certainly is. But maybe not for the reasons you think.

When we think about the pitfalls of micromanagement in the workplace, we are immediately reminded of the virtually unbearable pressures it places on employees.  The continuous scrutiny, the endless documentation, the stagnation of creativity and the inevitable drift towards a blame culture.  Nobody likes being micromanaged and in reality, few enjoy doing the micromanaging either.  

The result is almost always disengaged and demotivated employees, hounded by burnt-out managers.  This in itself should be enough to discourage any of us from micromanaging nevertheless, it persists and in some sectors, it thrives.  So why is this?

In the field of Root Cause Analysis we ask business leaders to look beyond the symptoms and step back through the hidden chain of causality.  Only by discovering what these causes are, and how they are related, can we uncover and apply solutions that make a significant difference.

So, when it comes to micromanagement the questions we should be asking are firstly, ‘What is causing us to micromanagement?’ and secondly ‘what are the impacts of managing this way?’ Neither are easy to answer but if we consider how human beings typically view most of their problems it helps us to solve this conundrum.

Initially, we need to think about how most of us try to make sense of the world.  Humans are natural storytellers, we know that, and in all cultures these stories are populated by heroes and villains. The most compelling stories, those that capture our attention and survive the ages, are almost always action-packed.  

The way we communicate in the workplace and how we make sense of complex problems is no different.  Like in any good story we focus on the actions that took place and who took them.  For most of us, and this includes many businesses, we try to make sense of ever greater complexity by telling better and longer stories.  In fact, we often redefine these ‘simple narratives’ as ‘grand analysis’.  Don’t believe me?  Turn on your radio or television and see how long it is before a news anchor or sports reporter hands over to a well-known pundit and eagerly ask them for their analysis. What they’ll receive in return is a set of personal opinions, focussing on who did what and who motivated them to do it.

In reality, however, individuals are usually just a very small part of any problem. But they are usually the most obvious part of the problem.  In most circumstances people are usually the final part of the chain of causality to present and are hard to ignore, giving the illusion that they are primarily or even solely responsible. Thereby cementing the explanation of ‘Human Error’.  And how do we typically respond to this fallacy?  We attempt to drive these errors out via ever tighter management and monitoring of our employees.  

If, as managers, we do fall into this trap, we not only end up with disengaged and demotivated staff, we also become blind to the bigger picture.  We fail to recognise that the error was almost certainly a result of the interaction between the four sources of any workplace activity; the people involved, the tools they used, the instructions they followed and the environment in which the activity took place, both physical and cultural. 

For example, in a busy customer contact centre, it’s not uncommon for an agent to give the wrong information to a client.  If, as a result, we think the answer is merely to focus on the individuals how will we ever discover if the underlying reasons for the error were in fact, a combination of ancient software, damaged headsets, badly updated scripts, too many products, rushed onboarding, inexperienced supervisors, faulty air conditioning and contradictory KPIs.  And more significantly, if we do focus more and more of our energy onto the individuals, are those underlying reasons likely to improve or degrade further as time goes on?  How would we reveal the common cause or predict trends?

Doubtless, micromanagement can feel like affirmative action from managers.  Managers feel like ‘they are getting things done’, it’s immediate and it’s reactive.  But it’s also superficial and it’s never-ending.  In fact, it’s worse than that. Micromanagement is the architect of its own failure because not only is it unsustainable, it’s also contributing to its own necessity.  Put another way, micromanagement doesn’t reduce human error, it increases it.  

When micromanagement becomes embedded, individuals will not only buckle under the pressure, the very conditions that are critical to supporting them are relegated to mere irrelevances. Therefore, it’s perhaps no surprise that micromanagement always results in failure.  Maybe the only surprise is that so few organisations realise this until it is far, far too late.