Monday, February 22, 2010

Reclaiming the Enterprise - 2 - The Micro Manager

These women and men are an illness that has infected our organisations. They are responsible for much of the bullying and distress that happens in our organisations and they have a negative impact on performance. So that we are on the same page, let's paint a picture of the micro manager:
Jane is a GM responsible for the delivery of complex technical services to customers. She has about 8 direct reports and they, between them have about 400 staff in total. Jane insists that NO decision of any importance is made unless she is present (in person or by phone/video) in the meeting where the decision is made. Jane attends around 40 meetings a week. Her day and that of her direct reports starts at 7:30am and often goes late into the night. Jane never seems to have enough time for all the meetings that she has to attend and often decisions are delayed for weeks whilst people try and find a slot in her diary.
Often her DRs make decisions without her - albeit small decisions. It almost inevitably ends in tears. Jane will hear about it and will overturn the decision. Unless she has personally discussed something she will block it in discussions with other GMs and with the CEO.
Jane is very prone to ranting and raving at people - subordinates cop it most but she will also dish it up to other GMs. There is no stopping her and she is vindictive and erratic. Jane's behaviour becomes worse if she senses any risk in a decision. At that point she becomes paranoid and obstructive. The situation has got so bad that Jane will deny that she has heard of a proposal or been part of a decision, even though 6 or 7 senior people may have been with her in the room when she made the decision. The truth is that she works such long hours and attends so many meetings that she simply can't remember what she has discussed and what has been decided. Such situations however make Jane even more aggressive.
Jane's anxiety runs out of control - all of the time. She never feels able to stay on top of "her job"; she never feels able to run fast enough. Jane's DRs are almost all recruited by her, and a sorry bunch they are. Jane only recruits people who will do what she tells them and who she feels won't challenge or threaten her.
Everyone in the company acknowledges that she is a control freak. The CEO loves her because she is just like him: obsessed with detail and never able to exert enough control. He knows that things are safe with Jane, she's just so obsessive that nothing could get past her.

Unfortunately there is not a shred of exaggeration in what I've written about "Jane". My experience is that "Jane" is less obsessive, less controlling, less micro-managing than a very large proportion of what passes for "managers" in Australia.
Let's be clear about a few things:
  • People like Jane are NOT managers;
  • People like Jane are bad for businesses, bad for themselves, and bad for employees;
  • Jane is driven by only one thing: her inability to manage her own anxiety;
Good managers do many things differently to Jane.
  • They employ top quality people - they see the quality of their team as a sign of achievement;
  • They empower those people to make decisions and to take action;
  • They support and mentor their team, they provide them with challenges and support them if they stumble;
  • They deal with performance issues in private and in a way that leads to growth and change rather than belittlement and negativity;
  • The buck always stops with them for the performance of their team;
  • Good manager have their anxiety utterly under control. They know what anxiety is and they have well developed strategies for managing it;
  • Good managers are at peace with themselves and their egos. Yes they have egos but they are settled and quietly confident of their abilities. They don't need to show off to anyone;
  • Good managers are entirely capable of leading from the front but they also know how to effectively lead by influencing and supporting others to perform. They don't need the limelight.
If you are a manager where do you fit? If you fit in the first group then you only have two ethical choices: either begin immediately to do serious work to ensure that you move from being like Jane to being like the Good Managers; or find another job that doesn't involve managing people and do that NOW.
Most likely however you are uncertain where you lie. The reason for that is that most micro managers also lack a key quality that good managers have: they have no capacity for self reflection and therefore they have no capacity to understand that they are in fact a dud and no capacity to do anything about it.
The saddest part is that when a managerial hierarchy in a company are all like Jane, then they all admire each other and none of them have any capacity to reflect on the inappropriateness of their behaviour.
Welcome to much of corporate Australia.


  1. This is exactly the life I am in now. I have been micromanaged so the life has been drained out of me. Not only has everything, from project to suggestion, I have delivered been crawled over in minutiae, goal posts have moved, expectations changed on delivery leaving me lost, bewildered and wrung out like a dishcloth.

    I used to be a vibrant happy person, with a loud and infectious laugh, now I look wan, pale and startle easily. The counselling starts tomorrow, anti-depressants next week, job search now. But who will hire me when I am so obviously in pain?

  2. Hi Maddilion, what concerns me most is that you are not alone in your experience. This is common and appalling. I think it really is the organisational illness of our times.
    Perhaps the worst part of it is that this behaviour is often seen as positive by the boss or peers of the person doing it.
    I hope that your quest for change is positive and quick for you. Please cut yourself some slack though - you didn't bring this on yourself, you are not responsible for this behaviour that's been directed at you. Do not feel compelled to perform to the expectations of this person or others like him/her.
    Best wishes.