An open letter to micromanagers

Dear Micromanager:

Owners of thoroughbreds never stop their horses mid-race, every ten seconds, to remind the horse and jockey how to run, where the finish line is, or that it’d be good to finish first. Why? It would slow them down. Only an idiot would do this.

If you’re a manager, you must assume you have thoroughbreds working for you. Your job is to give them what they need to win their respective races, agreeing with them on goals and rewards, but then getting the hell out of the way. Until they start jumping fences or attacking other horses, you must let them run their race.

Even if you are 30% better at a task than someone who works for you, the time it takes for you to check on them every few hours, and demand approvals over trivial decisions, costs more in lost morale, passion for work, and destruction of self-respect among your staff than the 30% you think you’re adding.  No one works well if they feel they are being treated like an idiot child. Having two people involved in work that should only require one wastes everyone’s time.

Perhaps you don’t think you are managing thoroughbreds and that your horses need lots of help.

This is possible.

But if you are in fact a micromanager, you started over-managing the first day others worked for you. You have no idea what they are capable of. You’re probably treating at least one potential Seabiscuit as if he were a toy pony at the county fair.

A healthy, confident, well-adjusted manager knows their job is to do three things:

  1. Hire thoroughbreds, point them at the finish line,  and get out of their way unless they ask for help
  2. Coach, teach, encourage and position ordinary horses to maximize their potential and approximate thoroughbreds in some of their work.
  3. Fire those who can never do the work needed without your constant involvement to make room for those who can.

If you don’t do these things, the burden of failure is on you. Good managers achieve all three. Mediocre managers at least are working towards good ends. But bad managers are too distracted by their own egos, paychecks or insecurities to recognize how self-destructive they are.

An easy test of micromanagement is to let your team know you are confident in their ability to do their job and offer, if they wish, that you will be less involved in their day to day work to give them more room to perform. Tell them you are available if they need you, but otherwise you will put some of your attention elsewhere. See what happens. Hold your tongue. Don’t demand to review that email. Don’t insist on regulating who can meet with who. Take one small step backward and see what happens.

Odds are extremely good the world will not end. Your best employees will be happier and more productive, giving you new energy to invest in the rest of your work or more afternoons where you can head home early. Some of your team might surprise you, and thrive with more autonomy. And for those who fail to improve or make mistakes, you’ve lost nothing, as you can step back in where it’s actually needed.

If you are terrified of trying this and have a list of excuses why this is a bad idea, the only thing you are managing is your ego. Perhaps you’re afraid to admit your people can function quite well without your approval or input on every stupid little thing. Or it could be you are proof of the peter principle, and would be happier and more useful if you stopped managing and worked solo. A bigger paycheck is not a healthy trade for making yourself and your staff miserable.

Good managers are brave, and generous with trust in their people. They want them to mature in their judgment and grow in their skills, preferring to err on the side of trusting too much than trusting too little. They take pleasure in letting go and giving power away to their staff, accepting that when someone who works for them shines, they shine too.

But if you do not enjoy these things, and struggle to trust you staff, or can’t bear to see a decision made or reward earned without your name all over it, you should stop managing people.  You and everyone who works for you will be happier if you did.

Hugs and kisses,

Signed,

The people you are micromanaging

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Know someone who needs to read this?

Related links:

57 Responses to “An open letter to micromanagers”

  1. Tony Rudie'

    This is all true, but unfortunately managers have one other responsibility: they need to be able to report to THEIR managers on progress and problems. In order to do that, they need to know about any problems that their direct reports encounter, so that the organization can react and adapt. Managers AND reports need to work together to distinguish this from micro-managing. If you hit a snag, you need to let your manager know. As a manager, when one of your reports does that, you need to learn to say: “ok, what’s the plan to deal with the snag? do you need anything from me?” instead of immediately telling your report what to do.

    Reply
  2. Ash Tewari

    Very well articulated, Scott. This is relevant also in Scrum, where giving up control to the team members is a central tenet. A lot of P.M.’s transitioning into Scrum Masters role neglect/fail to appreciate this, especially where Scrum is being “implemented” from top-down.

    There will be a presentation/discussion about this at the SoCal Code Camp, at USC in November. More details here – http://www.tewari.info/2009/06/30/is-scrum-bad-for-developers/ and http://www.socalcodecamp.com/
    Please join us, if you are going to be in L.A area after the PDC-09.

    Reply
  3. Bill G

    Thanks, Scott!! One of the best pieces I’ve ever seen. I’m now free of micromanagers, but I hope those in my past will read this.

    Reply
  4. Justin Warren

    Hear hear!

    If only these managers were self-aware enough to realise they have this problem.

    And the ones who keep reminding you to run as fast as possible, but don’t tell you where the finish line is.

    Or keep moving it. Or suddenly teleport you onto a completely different track.

    @Bill G: how did you escape?

    Reply
  5. Mike Nitabach

    Awesome post!

    Of your three things a good manager needs to do, #1 is relatively easy if you’re not psychologically defective, #2 requires some skill for most people, and #3 is brutal even for the best.

    Reply
  6. Mike Nitabach

    What the frig is “Scrum”?

    Reply
  7. Greg

    “Scrum” is a term borrowed from rugby football, and inappropriately applied to a group activity performed in a certain ideological approach to software development. Like most sporting analogies, the relevance to a business context is dubious, but somehow resonant – it makes a good story with an emotive impact, but doesn’t bear up to any kind of analysis.

    The use of the word “scrum” is particularly annoying, because it seems to have been applied by people who had little or no familiarity with the sport of rugby. I suspect they watched rugby on TV a couple of times, and liked the sound of the word. After all, it’s suitably monosyllabic and unfamiliar to a North American audience.

    But hey, that’s just the opinion of someone who grew up in New Zealand, where rugby is more of a religion than a sport. So maybe I’m just concerned that the use of the holy “scrum” for something as trivial as software development is blasphemous…

    Reply
    • Jane Wells

      Re the horse racing analogy, there’s something missing. An inexperienced horse doesn’t get put in the race. During training, the trainer absolutely micromanages the horse and jockey to turn them into race winners. In companies, we don’t only hire thoroughbreds — we also hire foals that we hope to turn into thoroughbreds. Though I agree that giving a horse (or an employee) its head to see what it can do on its own is important, there is a level of education/training that has to happen with some people (and not so much with others) based on what they show. That balance is a fine line, and hard to walk. If we only ever hired thoroughbreds, there would probably fewer micromanagers as well. As someone who has both been micromanaged, and who has fallen into the micromanagement trap rather than just fire someone who didn’t meet expectations ( hoping to help get them closer to the expected performance level), I can see both sides of this. It sucks to not be trusted to do the job you were hired for. Sometimes it sucks more to be fired or have to fire someone you like.

      Reply
      • Scott Berkun

        Good points. I suppose the difference between micromanagement and basic training is a matter of perspective. A good teacher or boss can teach small things but make it empowering rather than demoralizing.

        In the case where someone isn’t performing well, it’s unavoidable that a manager has to be more involved. But to do that without making the other person feel micromanaged is hard. And in some cases I suppose the explicit goal *is* to make them feel some kind of additional pressure to work hard to gain more independence.

        Reply
  8. Aarti

    Hi Scott,
    Its really amazing to see such a bold and transparent opinion stream-lined to hit the hearts of those RULERS(I prefer to call them this way). I believe there should always be a quotient of empathy in their brain boxes than being a subordinate’s nightmare!!!

    Keep up the spirit…and best wishes for your endeavors

    regards,
    A supporter.

    Reply
  9. Elisabeth

    Wonderful post!

    My only question is: will this blog post ever reach its intended audience? *sigh* How on earth do we really get this behaviour to stop? As Tony pointed out: most managers also have to report to a micro-manager, which makes the whole problem almost epidemic. Besides, do managers and their bosses read blogs? One can only hope…

    Reply
  10. Scott Berkun

    Tony: You’re right in that managers need to report on progress and problems. But there is a sweet spot of involvement that allows the manager to understand what’s going on, with a minimum level of hand holding and annoyance.

    The easy place to start is, as you suggest, for one party to say to the other: “Hey. We need stuff from each other but don’t want to get all up in each others business. Lets find ways to be smart about how we communicate, so we don’t need to communicate every 30 seconds.” Or something of that nature.

    Reply
  11. Scott Berkun

    Elisabeth: It’s a good idea to learn how to smell and avoid micromanagers before they become your boss. It’s always good to ask people who used to work for your possible new boss before you take the job. And if they wont suggest people for you to talk to, it’s a warning sign.

    As far as feedback and change, when good people quit jobs it shows and it’s a flag to the manager of the micromanager.

    And lastly, there’s a link at the end of the post for sending email anonymously. Anyone can send this post to anyone they like.

    Reply
  12. Jorge

    I’m pretty sure that a hardcore micromanager would try to screw up is less-liked employee, ya know, the one that bitches for every tiny not so good thing that happens around here, upon arrival of this mail from an “anonymous” sender (It’s far from anonymous: it’s signed on behalf of a group, which will be too much).
    Why not: on a particular issue directly ask your manager more trust/room; mention the micromanaging style at peer reviews; if all fails buy your manager lunch and tell him you’ll leave if he keeps the act… and be prepared to leave.

    Reply
  13. laurie ruettimann

    You never know you’re a micromanager until someone tells you — and you rarely believe the messenger.

    (Coming from a micromanager.)

    Reply
  14. Ricardo Duarte

    I completely agree with you. I work for a huge brazilian company and seen things like this happening all the time.
    Great piece.

    Reply
  15. Monica Granfield

    How much does being a micromanager directly relate to being a type A person who needs control and how can you work with that personality type, if at all possible, seems key here. Wondering if people who like to control naturally gravitate to management positions? Would be great if a well written article like this could do the trick : )Thanks again for another insightful read!

    Reply
  16. Elle

    I’d love to send this to my micromanager, but she’d just sic IT Services to find this link in my cookies! Scott – awesome, awesome letter. Thank you from the bottom of this micro-managed employee’s heart.

    Reply
  17. Developer Art

    That is all true, couldn’t agree more. Micromanagement is a very effective disruptive power that can ruin entire projects.

    Once I worked in some place where the manager felt the need to regularly review our database model! and approve or disapprove certain design decisions. It felt so dull and demoralizing when you as an experienced developer have to listen to suggestions from basically an unqualified individual and agree to incorporate them into your database model even if you see how bad it’s going to be.

    Went even worse. There were two managers who were trying to manage as in parallel but to forward us into opposite directions. Today we paint a wall green, tomorrow we paint it blue. So the team was just staying in the middle not knowing where to go. From what I have seen in my not so long time there, they were staying in the same place for maybe like two years without any evident progress.

    One could hope these days they should have learned already how to manage software projects. It’s year 2009 already.

    Reply
  18. Ricardo Duarte

    Hi Scott,
    May I have your permission to translate this letter to brazilian portuguese and post it on my blog?
    Let me know what you think about it.

    Reply
  19. Ash Tewari

    Very well put, Slaughter. I will summarize your response here :)

    =============

    Son (or Daughter) : Dad, stop treating me like a kid ..

    Dad : Well, why don’t you stop behaving like one ?

    =============

    Reply
  20. Bees Knees

    Thank you so, so, SO much for this post. I’ve spent lots of evenings and mornings before work crying to my husband about not being appreciated at work and dreading each day. This helps. It does.

    Reply
  21. Sosena Kebede

    Hi Scott

    After working with three horribly managed institutions (great potentials though), I am inspired to write a book on why good employees (thoroughbreds) should not put up with too much crap and why employees may want to pay attention to these class of employees… so I stumbled upon your work on the web. My question: I have never written a book and although I do have some grasp on basic HR management principles I am hardly an expert in it- so what is your suggestion for me in regards to pre-reads or researches I need to do for such a book.

    Thanks by the way for your great blogs- I will remain a fan

    Sosena

    Reply
  22. Laura

    Scot, how I wish I could convince my boss that micromanaging is crazy. But he thinks it is a GREAT idea. I cannot even send out an e-mail without printing it off first for his approval. It is EXHAUSTING. I have been thought of as an excellent administrative assistant by every person I have ever worked for, but nothing I do is good enough. That proposal was completed in 10 minutes? Why wasn’t it done in 6? 500 mail merge letters sent in 3 hours? What took you so long?

    My only question is how do I spot a boss like this during the interview process, so that I don’t go out of the frying pan and into the fire? Yes, even in this economy, recruiters are calling me for interviews. So I am ready to go, but very gun-shy, as you can understand. What questions can I ask properly, without sounding like I am complaining about my current situation to find out what type of environment I am going into?

    Reply
  23. Derek

    What are micromanagers (or worse micromanaging CEOs) doing instead of reading this? Why Micromanaging! Nice letter into the firewall. Hope it survives. :(

    Reply
  24. Kim H

    What if you’re married to a micromanager? What do you do then??

    Reply
  25. Matelot

    I have an aching urge to send send this page to my new boss….

    and if I have the means I would pay to put this on a whole NY Times page.

    micromanagers are the cancer of a company.

    Reply
  26. Starlays-Racing

    Hi, UK reader here. This article makes for a good read. To be honest I have never thought as the horses as been the ‘staff’ and this alone is an interesting concept. More interesting however is that I feel as if I have actually learned something from this page. Things that I can now apply to my own personal situations as a manager, so thanks for a quality post!

    Reply
  27. Covering Letter

    You have mentioned the good features of a manager that in which a manager should have this.I liked your posts.
    —————
    Dean

    Reply
  28. Joe

    I had a supervisor who lived by the motto ” Love everybody -trust nobody”. This supervisor would assign 2 people to a task because he figured that at least 1 of the 2 would have the brains to figure it out.

    If the 1st 2 people did not figure it out, he would have a 3rd person jump in at the last minute to do the job for the 1st 2 people assigned to the task.

    He was not supervising 16 y/o juvenile delinquents at Mc Donald’s-all of his direct subordinates had at least associates/bachelor’s degrees or higher.

    Needless to say, it was a stressful work environment. 5 of the 14 new hires quit during his 2 years in charge.

    Reply
    • Andrew

      I am an amoeba under my boss’s microscope. My only function in life is to serve his every whim; I have creativity as far as he has agreed any idea, my work life is on rails, I try to escape work early every day but often fail dismally, I might as well be a machine. Does he not know slavery was abolished centuries ago in the modern world?

      He is so exalted I quake in his mere presence; or that is what he wants me to do, wow what ego! He tells me how to think now; it is very odd; I feel sorry for him, he is one of life’s unfortunates, it is so clear.

      I write big long documents about doing stuff without actually doing anything – they pay me very well for this but it is dull, the documents look smart but they generally suck. If they were PowerPoint slides they would kill though sheer boredom. He reads these documents at the weekend because he is a mono-life and he can’t separate his job from mine (or my colleagues) so always has too much to do.

      I am considering writing a program to automatically send all my emails to him too, it would save me the CC work in Outlook; that would give him enough to read until Monday morning when the merry-go-round starts again.

      I have tried to vaguely tell the hapless halfwit of the error in his ways by saying that “we need more professional distance” and “are you sure you have time to review this work every two days” but the penny never drops. Next I am going to write reports about the reports we have and I am sure he will devour those too; it might distract him for a while like shiny stuff for a magpie.

      Scott, you are right on the money with this.

      Reply
  29. Andy M

    Excellent post and like your other contributors I only wish that the perpetrators for such unproductive behaviour would open their minds to their destructiveness; but I think these types of people are the least open and this is the perennial challenge.

    I have read all the posts and it is interesting to see how many pertain to the IT industry (within which I also work) and whether, at all, there is a bias of behaviour to that industry (which from the outset I think it unlikely).

    Reading from Laura and Monica’s posts, there are aspects of control and criticism used by the person identified as the micro-manager. From looking at the Wikipedia article on micro-management (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Micromanagement) I see a paragraph ‘The notion of micromanagement can be extended to any social context where one person takes a bully approach’ and from my own experience this seems to be true.

    Of particular concern for some micro-managers is the level of pointless and destructive criticism (often utterly trivial, e.g. paper not stapled correctly, demands for re-writes of perfectly good documents) coupled with the maniacal level of control and the consequent link with workplace bullying. I have found the following resource ties this information together superbly: http://bullyonline.org/workbully/amibeing.htm

    I have noticed from some of the posts above the considerable negative personal impact that the effects of poor management (sometimes sadly extended into bullying) seem to be having and that for many people the only recourse is to leave that employer.

    It is great to see articles like this educate on aspects of workplace incivility, waste and destruction so that we can move towards better future working environments.

    Reply
  30. Toby Elwin

    This is fantastic to read. Sometimes I feel like I’ve gone down the rabbit hole with Alice looking around at the default management techniques of so many.

    I do see fear driving micromanagers. I do feel, as one commenter points out, a key is to be aware of your team’s portfolio in case your boss is a micromanager. And one way to mitigate a surprise is to position those doing the work to be the ones, themselves, to brief your superiors with you. Position them for success and coach/model managing up.

    Great read. I am glad I’ve found my way here. The power of the search engine delivers.

    Reply
  31. I

    One important detail to these sad people. Many of them suffer from Narcissistic Personality disorder. (not all) You will never win the fight. You might out last them, but it is best in the meantime to avoid them and have as little contact as possible. These kind of people often hire people weaker than they are, because weaklings are easier to control. It becomes a living hell when there are multiples of these people promoted. All doing a bad job, and everyone else getting nowhere, and terrified of them. I work in an industry where everyone has at least 6 years of University, many have a lot more. We are generally treated like idiots, instead of supported. Then when the goal doesn’t pan out…it was our fault yet again. The letter was fun to read today, as I suffered the wrath of a crazy bully today.

    Reply
  32. Rowan

    This article sums up exactly what is happening to me at work. I am currently stuck in a small office with a manager who manages only me and insists on checking every single thing I do. I am not allowed to make my own decisions or disagree with hers. In fact, I’m not even allowed my own opinions on anything, work related or not.

    I’ve worked at my current place of employment longer than my manager, have a good track record and have a lot more to give to the company. Unfortunately I’m not allowed to, so I’m looking to take my skills elsewhere.

    Reply

Pingbacks

Leave a Reply

* Required