Joe Johnson, Ph.D.
Entrepreneur. Investor. Startup Expert.

There’s a distinct difference between giving people control of particular tasks/projects and seemingly ceding control while still ensuring that everything is being done to your standards.

The first management style consists of delegating tasks/projects to direct reports and trusting that they have the ability and knowledge to successfully complete them. The second style, micromanaging, is a more control-centered approach where direct reports are constantly monitored and required to adhere to a rigid process.

The ability to delegate tasks doesn’t come easily to everyone, especially when one’s own, lovingly nurtured, business is at stake. Handing over the reins of even the smallest tasks can be scary and difficult. At the same time, doing so frees you to tackle bigger-picture tasks.

To successfully delegate, it’s essential to understand that getting things done is more important than having everything done precisely as you’d prefer.

What is Micromanaging?

Micromanagers are often referenced derisively. They are frequently portrayed as overbearing control freaks who require everything to be done their way and who maintain an eagle-eye on every aspect of every project. If you’ve ever read a Dilbert cartoon, you’re familiar with the concept.

Micromanaging involves personally checking every small detail and limiting an employee’s ability to make decisions.

Some people suggest that micromanaging can help employees to learn new skills or tasks safely. After all, if they have to follow rigid guidelines or report back after completing every minute step, they’re probably learning to perform exactly as they’ve been told to do. That said, there may yet be a better method which positively encourages employees to tackle projects to stretch their current skill sets. Let’s call this method “coaching”. With coaching, while there may be check-ins and helpful advice given, there shouldn’t be the sense that an employee’s actions are being constantly monitored or that they don’t have the ability to make decisions for themselves.

Most micromanagers don’t know that they’re micromanagers. This is problematic for individuals who are attempting to create a new enterprise. Entrepreneurs generally envision themselves as leading a new team to success with forward-thinking ideas. No one plans to hound subordinates as a means of ensuring that everything is done to their liking.

As an entrepreneur, how can you ensure that you approach your position as a positive leader and not as a micromanager? The first step is to identify some micromanagement traits and, should you find that you favor those tendencies, you’ll be aware that you need to work that much harder to overcome them. You may also want to hire a good manager who can handle the people side of your organization as a means of avoiding the temptation entirely.

Micromanagement Traits

Micromanagers have a tendency to:

  • Delegate only the simplest tasks. A micromanager may believe that a direct report doesn’t have the ability or knowledge to complete a task to their liking. They may feel that it’s faster to simply execute certain tasks themselves and to assign only small, nonessential tasks to direct reports.
  • Require frequent check-ins on even the easiest tasks. Constantly monitoring direct reports and questioning both their progress and choices is a tell-tale sign of micromanagement.
  • Control how tasks are performed. Companies have policies and procedures to ensure that decisions are made in a particular way and that tasks are completed appropriately. However, certain individuals habitually exceed the strictures of policy and procedure. They may require that certain tasks be handled in particular ways (i.e. the right way – which is the way that they would do it) and take issue with any other offered solution, even should it accomplish the same desired result.
  • Assign arbitrary deadlines. When a manager doesn’t trust that their direct reports will be up to a task, they may give them an arbitrary deadline. This serves to not only help them control the situation, but to help them feel as though they can fix any issues or complete the task themselves if necessary. Deadlines can certainly be useful tools to ensure that work is completed in a timely fashion, but employing deadlines for their own sake rarely serves any useful purpose.
  • Do work that direct reports should be doing. There’s a difference between knowing the roles played by team members and understanding their responsibilities vs. personally completing their assigned tasks/projects. A manager should be concerned with his own projects and permit each team members to complete theirs.
  • Spend an inordinate amount of time illustrating precisely how things ought to be done to people who should already know. Given that most team members are hired for their skill sets, once new employees are oriented at the beginning of their company tenure, they shouldn’t require constant training, supervision, or handholding. A case of “constant training” indicates that either a micromanager is involved or an employee is being assigned tasks beyond their abilities to complete.
  • Spend more time supervising than working on their own projects. While managers should certainly support and supervise their direct reports, doing so shouldn’t account for all of their time. Managers must have time have to spearhead their own initiatives.
  • Take credit for everything. Rather than allowing direct reports to share in any earned praise, they believe that they personally merit any and all acquired accolades.

Negative Effects of Micromanagement

Some may feel that micromanaging is just a management style, however, it can constitute a destructive influence on an organization.

Micromanagement can lead to workplace frustrations, higher turnover as frustrated employees abandon ship, under-productivity, and other issues. Ultimately, these issues will all lead to a loss of profitability. High turnover means that you must hire and train a greater number of people; while under-productivity means that an insufficient amount of useful work is being done. Additionally, should you have a micromanager on your staff – or if you are one yourself – you may very well be negatively impacting your company’s potential for innovation and ideation.

Micromanagement can be viewed as a misallocation of resources. Time is not being well-spent and individuals are not being challenged to reach their maximum potential.

Making the Switch From Micromanaging to Delegating

Ultimately, micromanaging causes more harm than good. On the other hand, delegating work and responsibilities helps to build trust. Employees feel valued and as though they’re an integral part of the team.

Buy-in is essential for smaller organizations which need a plugged-in team to move forward. In order for a startup to thrive, it must have a culture in place that illustrates the employee value and provides each one with a path for sharing their insights and feedback. Curbing micromanagement can help to nurture this sort of positive culture and thereby create an environment which helps a business to thrive.

Identify the Problem

If you find that you’re micromanaging, you may need to take a step back in order to identify just why it is that you’re doing so. Do you trust your employees? Do you feel as though your employees are capable of doing their jobs? Are you afraid of mistakes or failure? Are you concerned that a task being performed differently somehow won’t be “right?” Whatever the case, make a plan to start combatting your micromanaging tendencies with small, proactive steps.

Start with Hiring

Putting an end to micromanaging can start during the hiring process. Hiring the right people for the right job – people with the appropriate skills and background – can help to engender trust. One reason that some people micromanage is because they don’t feel that a direct report can handle a specific task/project appropriately. If you’ve hired someone because of their skill set, it should be clear that they can handle the responsibilities of their position. The onus is then on the manager to trust that they’ve made the right decision and to establish a protocol for checking in.

Learn What to Delegate

Knowing what to delegate is essential. There will always be tasks that need to be handled by a manager – just as there will always be tasks which don’t require a manager’s direct intervention. Learning to make the critical determination of exactly which tasks are priorities and which would best be accomplished by particular employees takes time. A manager should always ask themselves, “What is the best use of my time?”

Match Tasks to the Employee

One important thing to remember when trying to delegate more is that you don’t have to delegate to everyone in just the same way. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. As you’re deciding which projects or tasks to assign to whom, keep their strengths in mind and play to them. You’ll likely find that you can provide more difficult tasks with fewer instructions to one person and moderate tasks with specific instructions to another.

Develop Direct Reports

Direct reports should feel empowered to ask questions or to seek advice on their tasks/projects. They shouldn’t feel as though they’ll be punished for making a mistake. Rather, they should be coached when they make an error and given the appropriate tools to succeed in the future. This sort of positive culture must be inculcated from the top down. Ultimately, it can help people to be more productive and creative, enabling a company to grow with its employees’ growth.

Managers who have problems delegating should be coached through the process so that they can more effectively utilize their time and develop their direct reports.

Create Accountability

Some micromanagers may worry that their direct reports won’t be able to complete tasks on time or without constant supervision. Creating a system of accountability can help combat the need to check in with direct reports and interrupt their workflow. Spreadsheets and productivity software can help to keep a team connected while minimizing interruptions. Daily or weekly emails can ensure that tasks are being completed while keeping management updated.

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When you start a company, you may find that you have to be both a leader and a manager – at least until you can hire someone else to act as management. It can be a tough balancing act and you’ll likely need to delegate. This is difficult for a lot of us, though it’s the only successful path to long-term growth and sustainability.

About the Author

Dr. Joe Johnson is an entrepreneur, investor, and startup expert. He is the founder and principal of GoodField Investments and the GoodField Foundation (www.GoodField.com).

Joe has a Ph.D. in Entrepreneurial Leadership and an MBA. He is the author of the upcoming book on The Science of Why Most Entrepreneurs Fail and Some Succeed.

Most importantly, he is the incredibly blessed husband of one amazing wife and father of six wonderful children. He resides in Bradenton, Florida. For more information on Dr. Johnson and his work, go to www.JoeJohnson.com.