Micromanagement: Leadership Style or Pathology

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
Aliens post

Micromanagement. The term screams negativity, but is the practice inherently pathological or a misunderstood approach to organizational leadership? For answers to this question, The High Calling asked three leadership experts to weigh in.

“Micromanagement is, by definition, a pathology,” said L. Gregory Jones, senior strategist for leadership education and professor of theology at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina.

Jones notes, however, that the tendency to micromanage can emerge from passion for an organization and its goals. “Wise leaders know how to hold both the broad vision and the execution together. People with vision but no execution may have great ideas, but nothing really happens, and people who have great execution but no vision often get stuck in ruts of continually doing the same thing while failing to adapt to changing circumstances,” says Jones. “What we need is not ‘micromanagers,’ who end up getting into other people’s business too often and in the wrong ways, but rather integrative leaders who can move smoothly back and forth between the big picture and the details that are necessary to ensure effective execution.”

“Different kinds of management are needed in different contexts,” echoed Mark Roberts, senior

advisor and theologian-in-residence for the Foundations for Laity Renewal. For example, Roberts says new employees need more oversight and direction than experienced employees who are experts in their fields. Micromanagement is problematic when a leader is either too involved or too distant, he says. Leaders micromanage because:

  • They need to be in control, have problems trusting people, or are extreme perfectionists.
  • They hired the wrong people for a job, but aren't willing to make prudent staff changes.
  • They aren’t good at clarifying goals and strategies.
  • They were once responsible for the details and haven’t adjusted to their new leadership roles.
  • They get a sense of worth from getting tangible things done and/or have unmet emotional needs.
  • They don't enjoy building a team or leading others and/or simply aren’t good managers.

However, some managers are accused of micromanaging when they are simply holding their people accountable, according to Roberts.

Leadership consultant Jodi Caroll expounds on this perspective. She says the term micro-management “was coined decades ago by employees who felt overly controlled by their managers.” It is now used in a “derogatory fashion to insult a boss who is breathing down your neck.” Autocratic leadership is highly desirable in crisis situations when quick decisions are necessary, says Carroll.

Additionally, each of us has a preferred way of being managed (some appreciate more direction; others less), and culture shapes our perspective on management style. Americans, in particular, may be more sensitive to being controlled than workers in other countries, she says. Generally, hierarchical cultures that value efficiency and market cultures that value innovative products “tend to lean more on performance metrics that demand higher levels of employee supervision.” Clan cultures that value relationships and tradition and “adhocracies” that value spontaneity and flexibility, on the other hand, “tend to be more relaxed in the supervision of their employees.”

The key to taming micromanagement tendencies may be found in the approach Geoffrey James wrote about in an April Inc. article about extraordinary bosses. “Management is service, not control,” wrote James. “Average bosses want employees to do exactly what they’re told. They’re hyper-aware of anything that smacks of insubordination and create environments where individual initiative is squelched by the ‘wait and see what the boss says’ mentality. Extraordinary bosses set a general direction and then commit themselves to obtaining the resources that their employees need to get the job done. They push decision making downward, allowing teams to form their own rules and intervening only in emergencies.”

It seems to me that whatever employees' preferred management styles or cultural norms tell them is appropriate, being empowered by a boss to do the job gives them the freedom to rise to challenges—as well as inspiring devotion and fostering team loyalty.

What do you think?

Is micromanagement evidence of pathology or just another leadership style?

Image by JD Hancock. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Christine A. Scheller.