How to Avoid Micromanagement in the Workplace

Exerting too much control is terrible for your team’s morale. Here’s how building trust can resolve that.
Sunny Betz
June 11, 2021
Updated: September 9, 2021
Sunny Betz
June 11, 2021
Updated: September 9, 2021

The tech industry is known for being a fast-paced, intensely competitive environment. The stakes are high. As a tech manager, it’s your job to make sure everyone stays on track and hits their deadlines. But sometimes that pressure gets to be too much.

It’s natural to want your team to be the best they can but if you find yourself staying up late agonizing over a line of code, tracking what your employees are doing every half hour or leaping into projects to save the day — you’ve ventured into micromanaging.

It’s what happens when a manager becomes too involved with their employee’s performance. Micromanagers feel that their team can only succeed if they are controlling it all. Really though, that does more harm than good.

How to Avoid Micromanaging

  • Cut yourself some slack: Micromanagement puts too many tasks on your plate
  • Work on building trust: It’s the key to strong workplace relationships
  • Practice giving up control: You’ll stress less and help your employees practice accountability
  • Over communicate: Leave no room for misunderstanding and set your team up for success
  • Allow learning: Let your team, and yourself, learn from mistakes independently

Like many people in the tech industry, John Breen, lead software engineer at Washington, D.C.-based healthtech company Laerdal Labs, hated being micromanaged. “It’s not gonna win you any friends or help you build loyalty,” he said. Rather than feeling accomplished, he felt inadequate and like he couldn’t be trusted to complete tasks on his own.

Now in a management role, Breen understands where the instinct to micromanage begins — it comes from a place of fear. That realization led Breen to start building more trust with his direct reports. “Trust is the foundation of everything,” he said. “You have to trust that people are doing the best they can.”

 

Micromanagement Erodes Loyalty

Micromanaging might give managers relief temporarily, but it compromises the trust established between a manager and their team. If your manager is always hounding you, then that communicates you’re not doing good enough.

“Worst case scenario, it will make employees feel like you think they’re incompetent,” said Frankie Nicoletti, head of engineering at grocery delivery company Zero Grocery, based in Berkeley, California.

An atmosphere where employees feel put down by their managers breeds discontent. Teammates might avoid opening up and work in fear under constant criticism.

“Micromanagement can hurt employees’ morale, their motivation and their self-worth, so far to the point that it can cause employees to quit,” said Dean Guida, CEO of New Jersey-based mobile development company Infragistics. “And any manager that is labeled a ‘micromanager’ becomes a person that no one wants to work with, hurting their relationship with their peers and employees.”

Managers need to be aware of the environment their creating — if you don’t believe your team can be successful independently then you probably shouldn’t be a manager, Nicoletti said.

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Don’t Waste Time

Micromanagement doesn’t just hurt employees — it also makes a manager’s job harder.

“It’s so stressful feeling like you have to control everything,” Nicoletti said. “If I had to review every piece of code that my employees developed, I would never get anything else done.”

A micromanager might feel like their approach is getting more done, but, in reality, micromanagement is a huge time suck.

“If you’re constantly spending time checking up on people, then that’s time that you’re not spending doing the other high-leverage activities that you can be doing as a leader,” Breen said. Ironically, while micromanagers tend to work longer hours, they often wind up getting less done, hindering their growth as leaders.

Leaders that micromanage rarely come from a place of malice. More often than not, their tendencies are a result of workplace pressure or nervousness.

“People might hold on to tasks because they fear that their direct report won’t do it as well,” Nicoletti said. That instinct comes from a good place, but letting anxiety rule isn’t helpful, and it can stall your team’s progress. Combating that anxiety requires making peace with the fact that your employees won’t meet your personal standards every time and that’s OK.

“At a startup, we’re not handling a nuclear reactor core — a revenue statement is not a matter of life or death,” Nicoletti said.

 

Practice Letting Go

“I think there’s a huge pattern in tech of taking the most senior engineer, throwing them into a leadership role and wishing them luck,” Breen said. Management is commonly assumed to be a step up from other careers, but in reality, it’s a whole other career track altogether. “You have to treat it as a different skill set and actually train people for it, versus hoping that people just intuitively get it,” he said.

If you’re new to management, you might try to overcome the fear of messing up by becoming too controlling. Loosening your grip as a manager is difficult, but ultimately necessary — both for the wellness of your employees and for your own sanity.

“There is no such thing as perfect.”

“You have to be more forgiving of certain types of mistakes and know the difference between the must haves and the nice to haves,” Nicoletti said. Roadblocks and mistakes are just a part of working on a team. Trying too hard to control outcomes and make sure absolutely everything goes smoothly, you’ll fall into the trap of perfectionism — one that is hard to break out of.

“There is no such thing as perfect. It is a falsehood,” said Liz Giorgi, founder and CEO at Denver-based content creation engine soona. Rather than striving for perfection in everything you do, create a list of attainable goals that you and your team can work toward. For instance, sending typo-free newsletters, participating in scrums or reaching a social media milestone.

Tell your team what your expectations are and give them space to do their work. Then, check in on the final product. This will not only free up more of your time, it will also help your team practice accountability and time management.

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Over Communicate

Micromanaging can also be when a manager swoops in at the last second to fix issues or redo projects. Set your team up for success by giving thorough and detailed instructions, so that your direct reports don’t make the wrong assumptions.

“People want to know how they’re doing and it’s up to managers to tell them,” Guida said. “Instead of taking up the work for someone else, managers need to explain clearly what was wrong and have the employee fix it themselves.”

When it comes to communication, what you don’t say is equally as important as what you say. An overly critical manager that always comments on what an employee should be doing can alienate that person. In order to truly support your team, be discerning about what advice or guidance you give.

“Whenever you want to give someone feedback, you should force yourself to also give a reason for sharing that feedback,” Nicoletti said. “If the reasons are ‘because I said so,’ or ‘because this is my preference,’ maybe don’t give that feedback.” Only share critical feedback on an employee’s performance when it’s affecting the outcome of a project — it’s more efficient and more effective.

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Make Space for Learning

It’s crucial that you encourage your employees to grow and develop their careers, in addition to coaching them through office projects. While a junior employee might need a little more guidance than someone in a senior role, sometimes the best way to support an employee is by leaving them alone to figure things out.

“We can imagine micromanagement as a very complicated maze, where the walls are very skinny with lots of right and left turns,” Giorgi said. “There’s nowhere to go because the path is so narrow and so strictly enforced that there’s no room left to have curiosity, to have opportunities to explore alternatives.”

When you step back and let your employees accomplish things on their own terms, they have more freedom to innovate and forge new paths. What they learn may even help take your company in a new, better direction.

To be a strong manager, you have to be OK with letting others take the reins every once in a while. “If you see people wanting to step up and wanting to take on more responsibility, make sure that you’re providing those opportunities when you can,” Breen said. Every would-be manager started somewhere, see what you can do to help your direct reports grow.

 

Cut Yourself Some Slack

Most managers want to see their teams succeed and their company thrive. Sometimes managers are put into positions without the tools or training they need to be effective. That lack of preparation can lead to micromanaging.

“If youre new to management, you should be kind to yourself.”

Leadership roles are intimidating. You are responsible for your team’s performance and well-being, but taking on too much of the burden will burn you and your employees out. Focus on learning and seek out resources to help you grow.

“If you’re new to management, you should be kind to yourself,” Nicoletti said. “Treat people management like a new skill, rather than assuming that you’re going to know what you’re doing immediately. Because you won't.”

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