Resisting micromanagement

Published in The Whistle (Newsletter of Whistleblowers Australia), No. 56, October 2008, pp. 13-14

Book review by Brian Martin

Some managers tell their subordinates exactly what to do and how to do it and then closely monitor details of execution. This may be necessary and sometimes it is welcome but workers often resent the intrusion. This sort of behaviour, called micromanagement, can be counterproductive because it inhibits workers from developing and exercising their own capacities. It can also bog the organisation down in unnecessary procedures. Micromanagers are commonly called control freaks.

Micromanagement might be annoying or even soul-destroying, but is it a concern for whistleblowers? Perhaps not often on its own, but there are some links. Micromanagement stymies free and open discussion in workplaces about how to accomplish tasks and thus is likely to submerge problems, allowing them to grow into significant matters that need to be exposed. Another angle is that the micromanaging style, which can shade into bullying, can be used as a form of reprisal against whistleblowers. Finally, learning how to resist micromanagement can be useful for people who want to deal with problems. By promoting a workplace where there is greater autonomy and openness, it is harder for corruption to flourish.

Micromanagement is widely re­sented by workers and there is plenty of material about the problem and how harmful it is. However, there is surprisingly little written about how to challenge it. Searching for ideas quickly leads to a book by management consultant Harry E. Chambers, My Way or the Highway: The Micromanagement Survival Guide (San Francisco: Barrett-Koehler, 2004). This is a remarkably helpful book.

Chambers begins by describing micromanagement.

Micromanagement is all about interference and disruption. It occurs when influence, involvement, and interaction begin to subtract value from people and processes. It is the perception of inappropriate interference in someone else's activities, responsibilities, decision making, and authority. It can also be any activity that creates interference with process, policies, systems, and procedures. Basically, micromanagement is the excessive, unwanted, counterproductive interference and disruption of people or things. (p. 14).

Micromanagement is certainly unwel­come. Chambers reports on a survey in which 79% of respondents said they had been micromanaged, with 37% of non-managers claiming it was happening currently. The impact is serious, with one-third saying they had changed jobs because of micromanagement and two-thirds saying it had affected their performance and an even higher proportion saying their morale had suffered.

Specific behaviours experienced included excessive requirements for approval, exertion of raw power, controlling of time, and excessive monitoring and reporting. For example, workers may be expected to attend meetings irrelevant to their jobs, to prove they are busy, or to seek approval for actions they should be trusted to undertake on their own. The essence of micromanagement is control over how things are done. For a micromanager, others have to do things "my way"- as in Frank Sinatra's song - or to take the highway, in other words leave.

Though most workers and managers report having been micromanaged with detrimental effects, hardly any believe they have micromanaged others. In short, micromanagers seldom realise they are doing it. Chambers provides a questionnaire for self-assessment plus lists of informal indicators that you might be micromanaging, such as "You ever told someone, 'You are responsible for this, but before you make any decisions, be sure to check with me'" and "Delegating authority to others is as painful as gnawing off one of your own limbs" (p. 42).

Understanding micromanagement is vital, but what is really important is dealing with it. Chambers presents what he calls four realities.

He then gets down to the nitty-gritty with CUP analysis, which involves identifying factors that you control, ones are totally beyond your control and ones you partially control. You set aside the uncontrollables and concen­trate on the partially controllable factors, developing strategies to address them. A lot of this is understanding what drives the micromanager and learning how to respond to their needs, while catering for your own needs at the same time.

Dealing with micromanagers can be broken down into three steps:

1. Preemptive anticipation

2. Preemptive anticipation

3. (You can probably figure this step out for yourself.) (p. 158)

By preemptive anticipation, Chambers means finding out what information micromanagers want and providing it in advance, before it's required. For example, he suggests writing a Monday morning update for your manager, summarising your awareness of key issues, reassuring them of your commitment to those issues and your commitment to deadlines.

Chambers has lots of other suggestions. He gives considerable attention to approvals: an excessive demand for approvals is one of the common aspects of micromanagement, sometimes required by a particular manager and sometimes built into organisational processes.

My Way or the Highway also has chapters for micromanagers to help them understand and address their own behaviours - or to help us, if we are micromanagers - and for managers of micromanagers.

Chambers' recommendations make a lot of sense. His basic approach is to understand what is happening and then work with the micromanager to find shared commitments that can be achieved without controlling behaviours. I saw parallels with the recommendations by Judith Wyatt and Chauncey Hare in their book Work Abuse, another really helpful manual (reviewed in the November 1998 issue of The Whistle ). Wyatt and Hare's approach is built on "empowered awareness" - understanding what is happening - and "strategic utilisation": setting goals, planning and preparation, evaluating alternatives and taking action. Wyatt and Hare, like Chambers, say you should figure out your own interests and the self-interests of others and align them to achieve your own goals without threatening others.

What if these approaches don't work? What if the micromanager persists in damaging behaviours despite your best efforts? Then it may be time to leave or, if there are serious problems, to figure out a way to resist or expose them.

Frequently in dealing with micro­managers there is a temptation to "go over their head" to make others aware of your problem and, hopefully, fix it for you. Be careful. When you go over the heads of micromanagers, you take a serious risk. No one ever wants people to go above them, especially the micromanager who is driven by fear, comfort, and confusion. Expect an intense, negative reaction and probable retaliation if you do. This is a strategy of last resort; by going over their head, you are probably preparing your own exit from the stage. (p. 156)

Whistleblowers know, through bitter experience, that simply speaking out about problems may only lead to reprisals - and some of the reprisals can take the form of micromanagement. Therefore it is worthwhile learning how to handle micromanaging behaviours. This can help whistleblowers to survive and, even better, may help change a workplace into a more open and supportive environment, reducing the risk that problems will arise in the first place. For these reasons, My Way or the Highway is well worth close study.

Brian Martin is editor of The Whistle.

Go to

Brian Martin's reviews

Brian Martin's publications

Brian Martin's website