What causes people to micro-manage others?
Some people by their nature do not trust others; others micro-manage because the organization they work for does not accept failure; others micro-manage because they have novice teams that are yet to master the trade; others micro-manage because they are obsessed with the operational more than strategic details and therefore end up occupying space on the team’s operating-ground as that is where they find individual comfort, etc.
All the above answers are considered correct – and it has to be said that micro-management has many drivers: it may depend on the individual characteristics of the micro-manager and the micro-managed, the situation at the company specifically the operating environment and culture of the organization, competence of both the micro-manager and micro-managed, the level of risk tolerance and acceptable margin of error in the company value chain, etc
At the Effectiveness lab, we look at the underlying causes of micro-management as a much deeper issue than the above answers. There are two variables at play, moving in the opposite direction of each other at any one time, that ultimately create the state or not of micro-management.
- The authority index rating of the expert
- Trust of the other party (micro-manager) in the expert
The authority and influence of the expert:
Apparently, an expert is a person who brings comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area. To be considered the expert in an area of work, you should have clocked 10,000 hours of work doing what you are considered expert in – this theory is based on a 1993 paper written by Anders Ericsson, a Professor at the University of Colorado, called The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.
The power and influence of the expert on their senior micro-manager are dynamics that drive the extent to which senior managers micro-manage others. If the would be micro-manager rates the expert high on the expert-index, they are likely to control their natural tendency to meddle in the expert’s work.
Even in cases where micro-management is innate to the senior manager, and are likely to meddle whatever the case, a high rating of the expert on the expert index makes it much easier to push back the micro manager compared to instances where experts rank low on the expert-index.
The assumption is that if an expert ranks high on the expert-index, a senior manager with a tendency to micro-manage will let them do their work without much meddling – and will accept push-backs
Can innate micro-managers avoid the temptation to meddle? After all, it is part and parcel of their DNA.
Well, we discuss next the trust factor of the micro-manager and how that influences their urge to meddle in the work of the expert
The micro-manager and the trust factor:
In blog series 1, we defined the micro-management as a pattern of over-involvement in operational details. It means needlessly slowing down the pace of progress, growth or improvement without adding any value. That is, the added oversight or approval step consistently fails to result in 1) avoidance of a mistake, 2) an improved strategy or action plan, 3) better execution or 4) a better outcome. Thus, the cost of the delay in making a decision is not offset by any gain. Ultimately, it is a lack of trust of one party in another to make sound decisions or effectively execute.
The micro-manager is, therefore, the foe of the so-called expert. They meddle in the expert’s work, unnecessarily slow down decision making, negatively impact their motivation to work, etc
However, it’s important to go beyond character and understand why micro-managers do what they do. The saying that ’the buck stops with the boss’ may be part of the answer – perhaps all the micro-manager is doing is to play safe since they are accountable should things go wrong.
Micro-managers can’t tell their bosses when things go wrong that ‘the expert is to blame.’ Bosses aren’t stupid; they will want to hold the so-called micro-manager accountable and may fire them long before they fire the expert.
Simply put, in micro-managing, the micro-manager is protecting their job
It looks like the expert is right in not wanting to be micro-managed as they are expert in their field and don’t need someone breathing down their neck. At the same time, the micro-manager is accountable to their boss, and they have to protect themselves, by monitoring very closely what is happening on the ground
The onus is on the expert to play the ‘political’ and ‘technical’ dimensions of the game right in order to solve the above stalemate.
For as long as the micro-manager is insecure, they will meddle in the work of the expert. It is the work of the expert to apply a combination of political savviness and technical authority (high rating on the expert-index), to neutralize the worries of the micro-manager.
We go to the former USA Treasury Secretary Alan Greenspan for lessons on how to solve the expert/micro-manager stalemate. In a political system where organs of the State and powerful bosses can meddle and make the work of the expert managing the USA treasury so difficult, Greenspan did an excellent job at neutralizing his would be micro-managers.
The clues to solving the problem:
- Be the very best at what you do – you have to rank high on the expert-index. That is where technical power and authority is derived.
- Get the right allies and use them to bolster and protect your authority – for example, Alan Greenspan used the media so well, and the media, in turn, protected him. Politicians that wanted his authority undermined were aware of the dangers of taking on a media that was pro-Greenspan
- There are two parts to this equation: the technical and the political – experts should play politics with their technical teams (so they can cover them when exposed to the vices of the micro-managers) and the political teams (read micro-managers) are serviced with technical mumbo-jumbo; after all, in the eyes of the micro-managers, the expert’s authority comes from the expert’s excellent mastery of their trade. Ultimately, this balance will neutralize the micro-manager
So, like in any other situation where you are dealing with power and individual egos, politics has a role to play in smoothing dysfunction.
Experts that don’t want to suffer the pains of micro-management have to play their organization’s political games right. So the photo caption in this blog series of the many umbrellas may serve the interests of the expert better, in their effort to avoid micro-management.
Political savvy is a key competency at work!