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Grist: Micromanagers, Unite!

Confessions from a real-life micro-manager -- and how our company can benefit from a little meddling.
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I have a confession to make: I am a micromanager. This is not an easy thing to admit in public. After all, is there a more loathed specimen in American business than the meddlesome boss? Micromanagement, according to conventional wisdom, is the affliction of small-minded, task-oriented, visionless leaders. At my company, when people kvetch about micromanagement, what they're really saying is that I don't trust them, that I hired them and won't let them do their jobs. If I just backed off and did something important -- like go out to lunch -- everything would be just fine.

No question, spending too much time on the small stuff can demoralize employees and distract leaders from the real, difficult issues that are scary to confront. But micromanagement has gotten a bad name. In fact, I believe that most accusations of micromanagement are a clever smoke screen, used by employees who resist (and resent) reasonable levels of oversight. But the charge sticks. So ugly are allegations of micromanagement -- so culturally out of phase is the behavior -- that those accused of it often back off immediately.

I've seen it happen -- not just with me, but with the senior managers of companies I work with. When a top executive begins to grill an associate with some tough questions, all the person on the receiving end needs to say is: "Let me do my job. Don't micromanage me." Suddenly a concerned boss is nothing but a busybody, inappropriately concerned with details that should be left to the employee.

Well, take it from me: Don't back off. The real problems that land on a CEO's desk are usually the result of managers paying too little attention to something, not too much. In most cases, issues like cost overruns and the sudden appearance of bad news could have been caught earlier if bosses were less convinced that the single most important management skill is the ability to delegate. Nor is there anything contradictory about keeping your eye on the big picture while simultaneously heeding the details. I'd argue that the best leaders are capable of moving frictionlessly from one mode of operation to the other.

In fact, I think we need more micromanagement, not less. Think about the tragedies and failures that have resulted from an inability to manage properly -- from an unwillingness to micromanage. Take the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster. It can't be proved that the tragedy resulted from a fear of micromanaging within NASA. But it seems obvious that an attentive, probing -- dare I say enlightened? -- micromanager would have challenged the lower-level rationale that the damage sustained by the shuttle on liftoff was not substantial. Imagine what might have happened had Secretary of State Colin Powell done a little more micromanaging before telling the United Nations that the U.S. had solid evidence that Iraq had WMD manufacturing capabilities. And I'm sure that recent travails at Enron, Citigroup, and Fannie Mae would have been minimized if managers had struck a healthier balance between "micromanagement" and "empowerment." (What about at your company? Has a reluctance to micromanage ever caused you problems? Let me know at ahanft@hanftunlimited.com.)

How did things get this way? The widespread understanding

of micromanaging as the nation's leading boss disease can be traced to our culture of therapy. Essentially, when you're accused of being a micromanager, what someone is really saying is that your mother didn't trust you to cross the street by yourself, or you were toilet-trained too early. You're simply transferring that anxiety to others. Don't be snookered. Your mother may have messed you up, but if you feel like asking exactly why you should believe those rosy financial projections...go for it. And if you still can't stand the sting of being labeled a micromanager, here's a suggestion. Inform your colleagues that you're not micromanaging -- you're "managing to the moment." Hmm. I like the sound of that. I think I'll try it myself.

Adam Hanft is founder and CEO of Hanft Unlimited, a Manhattan-based consulting, advertising, and publishing firm.

Last updated: Dec 1, 2004




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