What causes Micromanagement?

What causes Micromanagement? The most common reason for people leaving permanent jobs in the UK is down to bad management. And ask anyone who’s been through a few managers and Micromanagement is right up there on the I-really-want-to-punch-my-boss-now-ometer. It’s someone sat over your shoulder watching everything you do. Why are you doing that? You need to work on this now. Why haven’t you done this yet? What are you doing? Etc.

I can understand this direct management style if it is for a trainee, someone who doesn’t know what they are doing or someone who will slack off the moment you blink. But it doesn’t tend to be an approach just used for certain people at necessary periods in their job roles. Micromanagers simply fall into the trap of micromanaging consistently. It’s Obsessive Control. Often, a Micromanager is actually very good at the task the person who they are managing is doing. The problem is how is this person meant to learn if they are being told what to do all day? Furthermore, this is demoralising and stressful if you are the recipient. There is only so much you’ll take before you move on.

Who is a typical Micromanager?

A typical Micromanager falls into two categories. The first is someone who is actually very good at the task. Their staff may not appreciate just good how good they actually are. Probably because they are too demoralised and stressed from their relentless and obsessive control freak manager to notice. The second is a manager who has been trained and nurtured to believe that this is how to manage. If they don’t know any different then this is what they deem as appropriate management.

McGregor’s X-Y theory

This is an age old theory about the two schools of management thought. Although things have come on to be a little more sophisticated, it’s two schools of thought are unwittingly utilised by the vast majority on how best to manage people.

An X Manager is someone who thinks the worst of their staff. For example, they will believe that if you give most people an inch they’ll take a mile. If you don’t lay down the law and control things people will not perform. This in management circles is often regarded as old school management.

A Y Manager is someone who thinks the best of their staff. Give trust and you will receive it. People will need a chance. The idea is that most people are inherently good people and will do well if you believe in them. This is often seen as new school management.

The First Mistake

Public opinion, if things like Social Media are anything to go by, is that Y management is the way forward and that X Managers are dinosaurs. The problem here is that when you manage people at 99% of companies you will discover that you actually have a mix of good people working for you and not so good people working for you. I don’t mean that the not so good people are bad people, but once you’ve known them for a little while given the choice, you’d rather see the back of them.

Issues range from continued lateness, always calling in sick, a chip on their shoulder and general laziness right up to a purely bad attitude. You can try to be nice to them or you can be hard on them but they are stuck in their ways. They won’t like you or work well for you no matter what you do. Therefore, in the real world of management teams typically have an 80/20 or 90/10 majority split of people who you could Y Manage over those who it’s best to X manage. As the book series “the one minute manager” (great read) advises, “use different strokes for different folks”.

An Early Management Lesson

If you want to be a good manager and take pride in what you do, you’ll probably feel frustrated by those where an X Management style seems to be the only thing that will work with them. What have you got to do to get them to work out? The problem here is that without realising it you end up spending too much time focused on the minority group of bad employees and neglect the good employees who do actually want to do well.

If this is pointed out to you, you’ve just realised it or you become aware that you’re falling into that trap you need to fix this problem. Bad employees are almost always in the minority. You might have 20 staff and just 2 or 3 are problem people. The rest may differ in results and abilities, but you won’t have them causing you problems all the time. At worst, the majority of people will generally always do a decent job for you. Concentrate on the people who want to improve so you can help them do so and less time on those who don’t.

The Combination Paradox

As a manager you will first and foremost be judged on your results. If you’re results are amazing, you could almost get away with murder. The priority in employing a manager is that they get results for the business. After all, if you’re a business owner paying a manager more money than a person on the task, if that manager can’t make not only a return on investment but also a calculable increase in the results of their staff due to their management impact, why employ that manager otherwise?

However, if you put yourself in the shoes of a manager, you’ll be fully aware of this expectation to get results. But like most companies you’ll have to work with what you’ve got. I.E getting results from both good and bad staff. If you spend too much time trying to change the ways of bad staff, you’ll find that your good staff start having performance dips or worse, they start leaving. However, if you ignore the bad staff, they could cause problems within the team and as a consequence, start triggering your teams results to suffer.

How a Manager turns to Micromanagement

You need a system that’s practical for you to manage the team, that produces the results you need and that can be used throughout that team. Most Managers got to where they are because they got results on the task. The logic from those who promote or hire the manager in question is that if they could get results on the task then they’ll know how to get results from those who work for them.

The combination paradox comes when a manager knows that they obviously have to get results, but they have a team of both good and bad people and need a practical solution. In the books and on TV the manager can fire bad people and get the best people in to replace them. But in the real world it doesn’t work that way. Most managers can’t fire who they want. Companies don’t like staff retention problems. You get who you are given and you are expected to get results from them.

The only way of getting this to work is to tightly manage everything all of them do in the same regimented manner. You’ll know what any of them are doing at any one point and you’ll make sure they are only doing the right things. If you spend your time obsessively being on top of everyone so you know they are doing the right things only, you will get results if you know what you are doing. They’ll get results because they are basically following what you would do, only they’re doing the task itself. The Micromanager is just checking, instructing and directing. The truth is, this actually works. You’ll get results.

Has Micromanagement just got bad press then?

The problem is that company’s senior leadership teams give middle and junior managers little choice but to adopt micromanagement in many cases. It’s less about micromanaging being misunderstood and getting bad press and more about it being the only option to get results in too many cases. If you’re career is on the line if you don’t get results and this is the only known option to get results, the chances are you will take this option. Micromanagement is a bad thing because it’s a last option that is inadvertently forced on team managers in order to get results.

Neutron Jack

In the days when Jack Welch was in charge of General Electric, then the most valuable company in the world, Welch got the nickname Neutron Jack for his approach to the bottom 10% of performers in each department. He would fire them. Managers, Workers, Operatives, anyone. If you were in the bottom 10% of performers in your department or job function, you’d be fired.

Regardless of the incredible success enjoyed by General Electric under the stewardship of Jack Welch this is seen as a bit extreme. Surely there must be a better way of running a company than firing your worst 10% of performers every year. After all, a few things have changed over the years.


Workers have rights. Unbeknown to many employees, in the UK a company can fire you for little reason at any point in your first two years of employment. You are not entitled to a pay off or even an explanation. That being said, most companies fortunately aren’t that harsh and you’ll probably be fearful for your job before it even gets to that stage. It probably wouldn’t come as that much of a surprise because you’d have had negative feedback in appraisals and a few warnings along the way.

Employment law and equality has come on since the 1980’s and therefore you’re likely to have more rights than companies are legally required to offer you believe it or not. Companies will try to avoid firing people if they can.


The other change is that today there is a lot of competition for employees. During the old days it was a company lead market. This meant that companies would have perhaps 10 people they could hire for a job. So if someone left or they fired them, they’d have plenty of choice immediately for replacements.

Today it’s the other way around. Candidates have several companies to pick from when applying for jobs, certainly in technical professions. Therefore, if a company fires someone or they leave it’s an arduous task to replace them. And so, companies will do almost anything they can to retain people.

Fuel for Micromanagement

Although micromanagement is nothing new, the stars have aligned to make it an increasingly common management technique. What with companies doing anything they can to retain people even if they have a bad attitude, cause their managers extra stress and get the backs up of their colleagues, those companies won’t fire them. The Senior Leadership in companies won’t have to deal with these bad eggs personally. And these bad eggs will learn this and discover that they can take the Mickey and get away with it.

A manager therefore may have a team of 50, but with 5 or 6 problem people. But that manager still has to get results. And what’s the tried and tested method to get results under these circumstances? Micromanagement of course.


The solution is quite simple, but don’t get your hopes up if you’re being micromanaged. The senior leadership of the company give the power to managers to fire and discipline staff. And the senior leadership give the manager a reasonable time frame and budget to assemble a team worthy of bringing results.

The manager can then oust the bad eggs. They can keep the rest of the team happy. And will have the money to replace the bad eggs with the best people they can find and build the team to make it all happen without getting the boot in the meantime. Think Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. He already had a top team when he walked in. And even though he didn’t win anything in his first year in the job, was still backed with time and huge of amounts of money to get who he wanted in for that team.

Then what happens? Back to back Premier League titles and a domestic treble. However, there are 92 teams in the English football league. So, just like the realistic statistics of the English Football league, most companies simply don’t offer those options. Bar 4 or 5 other managers with mega bucks, the rest will have to make do with what they have.

The people who suffer most are those being micromanaged. What do you do to solve the problem? Move company. Therefore, the managers will be under more pressure to get results and so micromanage even more. It’s a vicious cycle.

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