Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Common Management Problems - micro-management

This post continues my common management problem series with a look at the micro-manager, one of the most common reasons for management failure.

All staff know the micro-manager. This is the person who cannot let go real control, who tries to set, control and check every activity. Lacking authority and responsibility, staff cease to be independent workers and instead become no more than arms and legs for the manager.

One common symptom of micro-management can be found in the complaint by managers that staff will not take responsibility, that they have to do everything themselves. When I hear this complaint, I automatically check for micro-management. Most times I find it.

With some managers, micro-management is a deeply entrenched feature of their personality, a need to control. There is often little you can do with such managers to improve the situation. If they are important in their position because of their knowledge or particular skill-sets, you may just have to work around them. Otherwise, you are better off removing them, or at least reducing their staff management role.

The partial or inconsistent micro-manager can be a particular problem, simply because they are harder to spot

Often insecure, this type of manager would not usually see themselves as a micro-manager. If queried, they would say (correctly) that they do give staff autonomy.

The core problem with these managers is that they are inconsistent. They stand back in most cases, but then intervene on an irregular basis. Having allocated a task with a report back deadline, they then ask before the due date, have you started or finished this task?

The staff member in question who has been trying to set his or her own priorities may not even have started the task. Now he/she finds a worried manager creating worry in the mind of the staff member. Suddenly the staff member has to shift focus, even though something else may suffer.

This can have exactly the same effect as the more extreme micro-manager cases in that staff take less responsibility for their own work, pushing responsibility up-stairs to their manager.

From an overall management perspective, it is easier to help the partial micro-manager improve performance, subject to one qualification: the problem has to lie with the manager, not the firm itself.

Too often, partial or inconsistent micro-management by one manager is in fact a symptom of, a response to, micro-management at the next level up. In worst cases, micro-management across the firm may be a cascade effect from the CEO or managing partner. Here we have a systemic problem.

One difficulty with micro-management is that it can yield high performance simply because the manager in question is so driven. However, it also has great dangers.

I saw a simple example of this recently at project level. The manager in question had to go on leave in the middle of a critical project roll-out. While the rest of the project team had the skills required to continue the roll-out, the project struggled because team members did not know everything that the manager had been doing, nor did they have the authority to take over key elements of the manager's role.

This case illustrates the practical problems that can arise should the micro-manager suddenly leave the scene.

At a more macro-level, the firm suffers because the bad drives out the good.

Staff who cannot work in a micro-management environment leave. Those who remain are less likely to be able or willing to accept responsibility and to provide the drive that the firm may need. Remove the micro-manager or managers, and the firm may go into sudden decline as a consequence.

Previous posts

Those interested can find a full list of the posts in this series here.

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