In business management, micromanagement is a management style where a manager closely observes or controls the work of his or her subordinates or employees. Micromanagement generally has a negative connotation.
Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary defines micromanagement as "manage[ment] especially with excessive control or attention to details".
The notion of micromanagement can be extended to any social context where one person takes a bully approach, in the level of control and influence over the members of a group. Often, this excessive obsession with the most minute of details causes a direct management failure in the ability to focus on the major details.
Rather than giving general instructions on smaller tasks and then devoting his time to supervising larger concerns, the micromanager monitors and assesses every step of a business process and avoids delegation of decisions. Micromanagers are usually irritated when a subordinate makes decisions without consulting them, even if the decisions are totally within the subordinate's level of authority.
Micromanagement also frequently involves requests for unnecessary and overly detailed reports ("reportomania"). A micromanager tends to require constant and detailed performance feedback and tends to be excessively focused on procedural trivia (often in detail greater than he can actually process) rather than on overall performance, quality and results. This focus on "low-level" trivia often delays decisions, clouds overall goals and objectives, restricts the flow of information between employees, and guides the various aspects of a project in different and often opposed directions. Many micromanagers accept such inefficiencies because those micromanagers consider the outcome of a project less important than their retention of control or of the appearance of control.
The most extreme cases of micromanagement constitute a management pathology closely related to, e.g., workplace bullying and narcissistic behavior. Micromanagement resembles addiction in that although most micromanagers are behaviorally dependent on control over others, both as a lifestyle and as a means of maintaining that lifestyle, many of them fail to recognize and acknowledge their dependence even when everyone around them observes it. Some severe cases of micromanagement arise from other underlying mental-health conditions such as obsessive–compulsive personality disorder, although not all allegations of such conditions by subordinates and other "armchair psychologists" are accurate.
Although micromanagement is often easily recognized by employees, micromanagers rarely view themselves as such. In a form of denial similar to that found in addictive behavior, micromanagers will often rebut allegations of micromanagement by offering a competing characterization of their management style, e.g., as "structured" or "organized." Further, they tend to fancy themselves as "perfectionists".
Micromanagement can be distinguished from the mere tendency of a manager to perform duties assigned to a subordinate. When a manager can perform a worker's job more efficiently than the worker can, the result is merely suboptimal management: Although the company suffers lost opportunities because the manager would be still better at doing his own job (see comparative advantage), the worker's job is still being done well. In micromanagement, the manager not only tells a subordinate what to do but dictates how to do it despite the manager's lack of knowledge of how the task is best performed. In the usual case in which the micromanager is unwilling to assume responsibility should his less-skilled efforts fail, instead letting the micromanaged subordinate(s) "take the fall", the micromanager delegates accountability for failure but not the authority to take alternative actions that would have led to success or at least the mitigation of that failure.
The most frequent motivations for micromanagement, such as detail-orientedness, emotional insecurity, and doubts regarding employees' competence, are internal and related to the personality of the manager. Since manager-employee relationships include a difference in power and often in age, workplace psychologists have used models based on transference theory to draw analogies between micromanagement relationships and dysfunctional parent-child relationships, e.g., that both often feature the frequent imposition of double binds and/or a tendency by the authority figure to exhibit hypercriticality. However, external factors such as organizational culture, severe or increased time or performance pressure, and instability of managerial position (either specific to a micromanager's position or throughout an organization) may also play a role.
In many cases of micromanagement, managers select and implement processes and procedures not for business reasons but rather to enable themselves to feel useful and valuable and/or create the appearance of being so. A frequent cause of such micromanagement patterns is a manager's perception or fear that he lacks the competence and creative capabilities necessary for his position in the larger corporate structure. In reaction to this fear, the manager creates a "fiefdom" within which he selects performance standards not on the basis of their relevance to the corporation's interest but rather on the basis of his or her division's ability to satisfy them.
Such motivations for micromanagement often intensify, at both the individual-manager and the organization-wide level, during times of economic hardship. In some cases, managers may have proper goals in mind but place disproportionate emphasis on the role of their division and/or on their own personal role in the furtherance of those goals. In others, managers throughout an organization may engage in behavior that, while protective of their division's interests or their personal interests, harms the organization as a whole.
Less frequently, micromanagement is a tactic consciously chosen for the purpose of eliminating unwanted employees: A micromanager may set unreachable standards that he then invokes as grounds for termination of those employees; these standards may be either specific to certain employees or generally applicable but selectively enforced only against particular employees. Alternatively, the micromanager may attempt by this or other means to create a stressful workplace in which the undesired employees no longer desire to participate; when such stress is severe or pervasive enough, its creation may be regarded as constructive discharge (also known in the United Kingdom as "constructive dismissal" and in the United States as "constructive termination").
Regardless of a micromanager's motive for his or her conduct, its potential effects include:
- Creation of ex post resentment in both "vertical" (manager-subordinate) and "horizontal" (subordinate-subordinate) relationships
- Damage to ex ante trust in both vertical and horizontal relationships
- Interference with existing teamwork and inhibition of future teamwork in both vertical relationships (e.g., via malicious compliance) and horizontal relationships (e.g., exploitation of moral hazard created by poorly proportioned effort-reward structures).
Because a pattern of micromanagement suggests to employees that a manager does not trust their work or judgment, it is a major factor in triggering employee disengagement, often to the point of promoting a dysfunctional and hostile work environment in which one or more managers, or even management generally, are labeled "control freaks." Disengaged employees invest time, but not effort or creativity, in the work in which they are assigned. The effects of this phenomenon are worst in "assembly line"-type situations where work is passed from one specialized employee to another, differently specialized employee who cannot perform his or her own task until the previous employee's is complete; in such a situation, apathy among "upstream" employees affects not only their own productivity but also that of their "downstream" colleagues.
Severe forms of micromanagement can completely eliminate trust, stifle opportunities for learning and development of interpersonal skills, and even provoke anti-social behavior. Micromanagers of this severity often rely on inducing fear in the employees to achieve more control and can severely affect self-esteem of employees as well as their mental and physical health. Occasionally, and especially when their micromanagement involves the suppression of constructive criticism that could otherwise lead to internal reform, severe micromanagers affect subordinates' mental and/or physical health to such an extreme that the subordinates' only way to change their workplace environment is to change employers or even leave the workplace despite lacking alternative job prospects (see constructive discharge, supra).
Finally, the detrimental effects of micromanagement can extend beyond the "four walls" of a company, especially when the behavior becomes severe enough to force out skilled employees valuable to competitors: Current employees may complain about micromanagement in social settings or to friend-colleagues (e.g., classmates and/or former co-workers) affiliated with other firms in a field. Outside observers such as consultants, clients, interviewees, or visitors may notice the behavior and recount it in conversation with friends and/or colleagues. Most harmfully to the company, forced-out employees, especially those whose advanced skills have made them attractive to other companies and gained them immediate respect, may have few reservations about speaking frankly when answering questions about why they changed employers; they may even make affirmative efforts to "badmouth" their former employer in an attempt at venting or revenge. The resulting damage to the company's reputation may create or increase insecurity among management, prompting further micromanagement among managers who use it to cope with insecurity; such a feedback effect creates and perpetuates a vicious cycle.
Once micromanagement has become entrenched in an organization, usually through its widespread internalization by management as "standard operating procedure," efforts at eradication usually must fit the following criteria in order to be successful:
- The person in charge of eradication must be either independent (e.g., an external consultant) or representative of all divisions of the organization simultaneously (e.g., a CEO or COO) so as to forestall the factionalist and self-protective impulses that have contributed to micromanagement's entrenchment in the organization.
- The general attitude and specific actions of the person in charge must be commensurate with his or her disinterested status, i.e., independent of any particular faction and in service of the objective best interests of the organization as a whole. Such attitude and actions usually require a loosening of the reins throughout all divisions of the organization simultaneously, even (indeed, often) at the very times when individual managers feel most tempted to seize and maintain personal control (e.g., during times of organization-wide hardship when all divisions are under scrutiny as potential targets for cutbacks).
- The person in charge of eradication must be prepared to deal with a backlash, often organization-wide, from the middle and lower-level managers who have theretofore reaped the personal benefits of micromanagement (see Prisoner's dilemma and Nash equilibrium). Such preparation must include ensuring from the outset that the eradication effort's fact-finding procedures are capable of "monitoring" (detecting) and "policing" (here, offsetting in the calculation process) the near-inevitable denial from and "finger pointing" between subordinate managers who retain a vested interest in those personal benefits.
- Harry Chambers: "My Way or the Highway: The Micromanagement Survival Guide", Berrett-Koehler Publishers (2004), ISBN 978-1-57675-296-8
- Chambers, Harry (2004). My Way or the Highway. Berrett Koehler Publishers, San Francisco. Retrieved on 20 June 2008
- Small Business Resource Centre (2006). Also known as Paul.Micromanagement. Retrieved on 01 December 2009.
- http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/micromanage "Micromanage," via Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary at http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/, with common dictionary entries directly accessible at http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/[entry]
- Dictionary.com (2008). Definition of micromanage. Retrieved on 21 June 2008.
- Encarta Dictionary (2008). Definition of micromanage. Retrieved on 21 June 2008. Archived 2009-11-01.
- McConnell, Charles (2006). Micromanagement is Mismanagement. National Federation of Independent Business. Retrieved on 20 June 2008.
- Bielaszka-DuVernay, Christina (2008). Micromanage at Your Peril. Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Retrieved on 23 June 2008.