How To Stop Micro-Managing Others


The Three-Headed Monster: Part 3

We started this series of posts by suggesting that there are three primary barriers that hold us captive and prevent us from being a more strategic player. We affectionately characterized these barriers as the three-headed monster that can stalk managers and hinder their work to be more proactive, forward-looking, strategic change activists.

The Third Head

The third head of this monster that we will explore is very deceptive. It is deceptive because it lives deep inside all of us. It is our need to control the events and people around us. It is the need to over manage the present at the expense of the future. Yes, let’s just say it: it is the tendency many managers have to micro-manage their people. Not many managers own up and admit that they are micro-managers. It takes a lot of self-awareness and maturity to accept that it is difficult to let go, to empower others, to tolerate some risk, and to trust others.

Most managers really want to do what is best for their team and the organization. Unfortunately, far too many managers get obsessed with control and turn into perfectionists in an imperfect world. This makes it hard on others who have ideas, or people who want to learn, to grow, and yes—sometimes fail. When these compulsive tendencies go too far, managers quickly lose sight of the long game and they forget that “what got them here won’t get them there.”

We know that in a competitive world, it is not easy to let go of control. Control gives us a sense of power over the world we work in. Power can be both a good thing and a bad thing. But power and control can also be very intoxicating. It can go to our heads and inflate our egos and sense of self-importance when left unchecked. It can be fun being the “puppet master of the events and people around us.” It can also cause us to be cautious of others and not trust them.

Given: it is normal for people to want control. Control helps us reduce the fear of the unknown; it can give us a sense of certainty in an uncertain world. It can help reduce feelings of vulnerability and exposure when you hold tight and make sure things are done your way.

The danger is that managers can get so preoccupied controlling the immediate world around them that they have little time to look around corners, look over the horizon, or detect weak signals or harbingers of the future. This is a dangerous situation given how fast the business landscape changes and the velocity of business in general.

The cartoon strip character Pogo once said, “I have met the enemy and he is us.” That describes perfectly this third head of the monster. The good news is that it is within us. It is not some external threat. It is our choice. We can tame this beast if we want to. The bad news is that it is not easy. Here are a few ideas to help you keep your need to control within some reasonable bounds:

1. Slow down a little and coach yourself. Have an inner discussion and hash it out the next time a project or task is calling you to micro-manage. Refrain from the urge to jump in and solve the dilemma. Put the monkey on the back of people who are capable.

2. Come clean with the people on your team. Let them know you intend to back off more and let go of some activities. Set the expectation for them to step up and lead more. Ask them to coach you and share feedback when you revert back to the old you. Don’t get defensive if they call you out on this. It will be a little shocking at first but reinforce their efforts when they have the courage to recognize your micro-managing patterns and behaviors before you do.

3. Make a specific list of things you get too involved in. I did this recently with a manager that I was coaching. I will call him Dan. When Dan saw the list, he could easily pick out tasks, responsibilities, and issues that he cared about and could see the things that he needed to let go of and empower others to be more responsible for. When he combined this with the first and second recommendation, he made quite an impact. Sometimes he reverts back to the old Dan, but now he can see it and talk about it openly with me and his team.

4. Be patient. Change is not like flipping a light switch. Take small steps and celebrate progress on your transition away from the addicting effects that come from control and power. Be humble and recognize that a lot of the power is a mirage and that our real contribution lies in focusing on the future and what lies ahead—not on keeping track of all the details. Everyone around you will be grateful that you are looking out for the long-term success of the business, and they will appreciate an opportunity to contribute more and not be subservient to your decisions on all the issues and challenges that come up.

I hope you will give this some thought, reflect on the different parts of the three-headed monster, and discover new ways to contain it and ensure the long-term, sustained success of your team and the business.

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About the Author

Steven Stowell, Ph.D.

Dr. Steven J. Stowell is the Founder and President of the Center for Management and Organization Effectiveness, Inc. CMOE was created in 1978 for the purpose of helping individuals and teams maximize their effectiveness and create strategic competitiveness. Steve’s special interests lie in helping leaders and organizations transform into high-performance cultures that are focused on long-term, sustained growth. Steve began his career working in the energy industry. During the past 30 years, Steve has consulted with both small and large corporations, government agencies, school systems, and non-profit organizations in 35 different countries. Steve enjoys the challenges of • Helping functional organizations define, create, and execute strategy in order to differentiate the business. • Developing and designing creative and innovative learning experiences, simulations, and keynote presentations. • Helping functions across the organization be more effective and aligned in executing long-term plans. The centerpiece of Steve’s consulting, learning, and executive coaching work is his advocacy of applied research and data collection. Steve is a highly effective presenter and facilitator and enjoys creating customized solutions, assisting senior teams, defining strategic direction from the individual level to the corporate and business-unit level, and improving teams that are faced with important challenges and issues.