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The Fine Line Between a Hands-On Manager and a Micromanager

Sharlyn Lauby

Whenever I talk with employees about the qualities of a bad manager, one item inevitably comes up - micromanagement. Employees do not like being micromanaged. Now that I think about it, I've never heard anyone say they like being micromanaged.

But whenever I'm trying to coach someone who has been labeled a micromanager, their response is "Me? I'm not a micromanager. I'm just being hands-on. That's good, right?"

It's true. Being a hands-on manager is considered by most to be a good thing. My definition of a hands-on manager is someone who is willing to do the same work as their employees. Here's an example from my past:

Our human resources manager was responsible for new hire orientation. One day, she was being pulled into several directions and putting out fires. At the end of the day, when she would normally start setting up our training room for orientation, I could tell she was tired. So, I offered to help. She delegated to me the tasks that needed to be done, and I set up the room.

The key elements that made this situation hands-on:

1) I didn't take responsibility away from the human resources manager and,

2) I was willing to accept direction.

The difference between a hands-on manager and a micromanager

On the flip side, a micromanager is a person who gets too involved in the work possibly to the point of keeping the work from being completed. Let me share another example from my corporate days:

Years ago, I worked for a manager who asked us to shred all of our paper trash. On one hand, I get it - we're human resources and there's the possibility of sensitive info being on a piece of paper. However, one day I got called into his office and reprimanded because I was shredding paper in the wrong direction. It appears that after everyone left, he would go through our trash and try to piece the shredded documents back together.

Where this situation leans toward micromanagement is when my boss started spending his evenings piecing together shredded papers. If there was a concern, there are other ways to address it (like crosscut shredders).

His actions were keeping the department focused on the wrong thing. Instead of the focus being on employee privacy and security, his actions shifted the focus to shredding.

The key difference between being a hands-on manager and a micromanager is trust . If we trust our team, then we're comfortable jumping into their process and helping out. In fact, we might learn a new and better way to doing things.

How to deal with a micromanager

Notice above I said "their process" - meaning the process the team developed. When we don't trust our team, we're only comfortable when we control the process. Hence, being a micromanager.

This is an important distinction to understand, especially if you're trying to confront micromanaging behavior. Essentially, you're asking someone to give up control and that's not always an easy thing for someone to do.

When dealing with a micromanager, here are a couple things to remember:

1. Look for areas of consistency. Sometimes control and consistency are synonymous. Demonstrating that a situation or process will be handled in a consistent fashion can give a micromanager comfort.

2. Anticipate the next step. In my career, I found it helpful to share my next steps with micromanagers. It lets them know I'm thinking ahead, and I can be held responsible for the situation.

3. Build a relationship. It's tempting to avoid the micromanager. Ultimately, you'll want to address this issue with the person. But you can't do it until you have a relationship that allows for open feedback.

Working with a micromanager is a learning opportunity

Step back from the situation and look for ways to make progress. And if you've ever had someone accuse you of being a micromanager, before denying the label and saying it was "hands-on", stop and ask yourself, "Is it possible someone saw me in that light?"

The key to keeping micromanagement out of the workplace is setting expectations, trusting employees to do the work, and holding them accountable for results.

Your Turn: What tips do you have for being mindful of micromanaging employees or for dealing with a micromanager?

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