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Breaking Free From Micro-Management

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The mental health impact of micro-management:

Breaking the cycle

On World Mental Health Day, I’m talking about a persistent issue I see happening in the workplace – micromanagement.

It might not be your typical ‘mental health’ topic, but be under no illusion, it has a sizeable impact upon mental health.

Whether you’re dishing it out or on the receiving end, it never feels good, nor does it lead to peak performance from any party.

If engagement, performance, wellbeing and fulfilment are in any way a priority, the micro-management cycle has to be broken. Which is easier said than done.


Micro-management – What is it?

Micromanaging or micromanagement is a negative term that refers to management style. Gartner describe it as:

“Micromanagement is a pattern of manager behavior marked by excessive supervision and control of employees’ work and processes, as well as a limited delegation of tasks or decisions to staff. Micromanagers generally avoid giving decision-making power to their employees and are typically overly obsessed with information-gathering.”

Some statistics

It’s demotivating having a micromanaging boss control every step of your daily workflow, and a survey on micromanagement conducted by Trinity Solutions showed that:

  • 79% of respondents had experienced micromanagement
  • 69% said they considered changing jobs because of micromanagement
  • 36% actually changed jobs
  • 71% said being micromanaged interfered with their job performance
  • 85% said their morale was negatively impacted

Another study found that 36% of employees have changed jobs because of a micromanager, while 69% have considered changing jobs.

To be fair, we probably don’t need the stats; we know it feels bad and has negative consequences.

If you were in any doubt as to what micromanaging can look like, let’s put that to rest now.

What are the signs?

It can show up in different ways in different people, but here are some common signs that will show up when micromanagement is present. For example:

  • No or very little delegation
  • Constant questioning and checking-in
  • Re-doing work that was fit for purpose
  • Wanting to be copied into all communications
  • Never being satisfied with the outcome
  • Don’t mentor or coach, simply tell how they want things to be
  • Don’t give freedom of independent decision-making

Excessive meddling can lead to a crisis in confidence

Those on the receiving end of micromanagement often feel belittled, intimidated, and disempowered, often resulting in diminishing motivation and commitment. The recipient doesn’t feel trusted or respected, and can lead to them questioning their own ability.

This style of management can negatively impact the confidence of those experiencing it, and unfortunately it can lead to them to onward micromanaging in response … because the only way to keep your boss happy with excessive detail is to stay in the detail yourself.

No matter which way you look at it, micromanagement tends to become ingrained in culture if it’s present at the very top of the structure.

But micromanagement is often more complex than we first think, and therefore that makes it a tricky cycle to break.

Understanding micromanagement: Its roots and impacts

An article in the Harvard Business Review commented “You may downplay your propensities by labelling yourself a “control freak” or by claiming that you just like to keep close tabs on your team, but those are poor excuses for excessive meddling.”

I don’t think leaders are micromanaging just for the sake of it… let’s face it. you don’t speak to anyone who promotes it as a good strategy. So then, why does it happen?

Personally, I also believe it has its roots in confidence. The confidence of the person who is micro-managing, that is.

Often when people are lower in their own confidence they crave more information, more insight, more visibility, more control. And that might come from, for example, being new to the role, inexperienced at the level they are operating, previous professional mistreatment, or even an underlying challenge they face with self-confidence.

So, it’s never as simple as just telling someone they’re a micromanager and they need to let go. There’s something else at play and getting to the root of that is key to really making a change.

I know people who realise they’re too far in the detail, searching for the confidence to give their team the autonomy they’re clearly craving, yet fearful of the consequences of letting go. It’s a real dilemma for them.

I also know people on the receiving end of micromanagement, frustrated as hell, and wanting things to change. They are often seeing if they can carve out the space they need before they throw in the towel.

Looking at it from all angles is helpful for insight, empathy, open communication, and ultimately finding a way forward.

The psychological effects of micromanagement

It’s all lose – lose – lose – when micromanagers are at work.

Being micromanaged can have a huge impact on someone’s mental health and personal life and the psychological effects of micromanagement can leave lasting effects even after the environment or micromanager has changed or the employee has moved on.

As already hinted at above, some of the common psychological effects of micromanagement on employees are:

  • Self-doubt
  • Loss of motivation
  • Feelings of never being enough or good enough
  • Deteriorating self-esteem and confidence

And therein lies the overall link to mental health – when all of this goes on for the long-term, the impact can be severe.

How to break free from a micromanaging habit

It all starts with awareness. If you suspect you’re a micromanager, you probably are.

Karen Dillon, author of the HBR Guide to Office Politics said ; “The first step is to develop an awareness of why you micromanage. You need to understand where this is coming from. Most likely it’s because of some insecurity—you’re afraid it will reflect badly on you if your team doesn’t do something exactly the way you would do it or you’re worried you’ll look out of touch if you’re not immersed in the details, so you overcompensate.”

Muriel Maignan Wilkins, co-author of Own the Room recommends “asking yourself: what excuses am I using to micromanage?” Common justifications include: “It will save time if I do it myself.” Or “Too much is at stake to allow this to go wrong.” She advises focusing on “the reasons why you should not micromanage”—it’s bad for your team as they don’t learn and grow—“and the benefits you’d derive if you stopped,” chiefly more time to do your own job.”

And I would agree with all of the above, but first and foremost, I’d always focus on the why. What’s driving the need to stay close to the detail? Because understanding what’s going on there provides the opportunity to create the plan for breaking free.

None of us are immune

Me included. I can look back at parts of my career and see clearly when I was in micromanagement territory. It certainly wasn’t deliberate, but it was linked to my confidence in my job and how I was being managed myself. Yet I know it had an impact on my team, and not a positive one unfortunately.

I’ve also been micromanaged and frequently remember silently asking “what are you paying me to do if you’re going to be so far in the detail?” It left me feeling unfulfilled and under-appreciated. I ended up voting with my feet and moving to another role.

Micromanagement is really common, but I think it’s important not to vilify the micromanager, despite the impact it’s having. There will be underlying reasons and helping them get support with those is the best outcome possible.

Warning! Don’t go too far

And lastly, a word of caution.

The biggest mistake a manager can make is going from micromanager to completely loosening the reins. If being a micromanager is at the top of the list of detrimental manager behaviors, being an absentee manager ranks second. Gallup reported 47% of employees received feedback from their manager “a few times a year” or less.

How I can help

Many enquiries and clients are talking to me about the impacts of micro-management – all the way from the very top of their organisation.

It should therefore come as no surprise that I help leaders explore this topic on a daily basis through my coaching work. We work through what’s happening, why, ways to address and improve, or even actions to take to move away from that culture, if things aren’t changing for the better.

And I partner with leaders in looking at their business area, key trends, issues to tackle, and how to create an inclusive culture from the top.

If you’re interested in support in any of these areas, find out more here, and book a call if you want to chat about options.

World Mental Health Day – 10th October 2023

Find out more about The Mental Health Foundation and their awareness day ‘World Mental Health Day’ here.