There’s a classic scene from the 1999 movie Office Space in which the lead character, who is growing increasingly fed up with the dysfunctional environment at his office, tries to explain to one of his many supervisors that a mistake he made — forgetting to put a coversheet on a report — was a minor oversight.
But because Peter Gibbons has eight bosses, he has to explain over and over again that he did in fact “get the memo” about the new policy, and that he simply forgot to do it.
I love it because it’s such an accurate depiction of workplace dynamics. I hate it for the same reason.
When I watch a scene like that, it gives me flashbacks of past jobs and reminds me just how unbelievably difficult it is to thrive — or even survive — when you’re being micromanaged. Defined by Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary as managing “with excessive control or attention to details,” micromanagement can occur in different forms, from subtle moves like a manager asking to be copied on e-mails when it might not be necessary, to more brazen tactics like checking in on an employee while he or she is out of the office. But no matter how you slice it, micromanagement is a dangerous practice that can breed discontentment, create an environment of distrust, and inhibit both teamwork and independent thinking.
The problem is that managers don’t always realize they are keeping too tight of a leash. Let’s face it, rarely does anyone set out to deliberately micromanage. Instead, what happens is that managers end up taking on too much responsibility and getting involved in too many projects for fear that something will slip through the cracks. Sometimes it’s because they’re put under a great deal of pressure — and sometimes it’s because they simply need to be in control.
So how do you know if you are — or if you’re working for — a micromanager? Here are some of the tell-tale signs:
Avoiding delegation — This is a classic example of something that can start with good intentions. For example, a manager feels he or she may have a better understanding of a particular task than the person who was assigned to do it. So instead of giving free reign, the manager oversees every step of the process to make sure it’s done correctly. The problem with this is that it prevents the person who was given the task from being able to really learn the process and provide a fresh perspective that could lead to improvements.
Requesting unnecessary and overly detailed reports — At one of my previous jobs, all staff members were required to submit a list at the end of each day of everything we worked on during that particular day. I understand that in some cases this might be warranted; for example, if an employer was trying to justify adding another staff member (and needed to demonstrate how overworked the staff was) or determine whether a new or junior-level person was using his or her time wisely. But asking senior staff members to do this every day? That’s overkill in my book. To people who work hard and do their job, it’s insulting to have to report on everything you do on a daily basis.
Implementing processes and procedures for the sake of doing so — A few years ago, I held a position that required a lot of travel. So when it was decided that all flights and hotels had to be booked through a third party and cleared first by two different people, one of whom was often out of the office, it rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, including me. When I asked why I could no longer book my flights through Expedia, which was almost always cheaper, I was told, “Because that’s our policy now.” A similar situation occurred at a workplace where it was decided that all requests for time off had to be submitted through a computer system and approved by multiple people, despite the fact that it was a small company. It’s putting up red tape for the sake of putting up red tape.
There are countless other examples of micromanaging and, in each one, the theme is the same: control.
And the thing is, even when a manager has good intentions, micromanaging is a slippery slope, and what starts out as a new procedure here and there can escalate into a situation where employees feel like they can’t blink without getting permission first. And I understand that some of these policies are out of a manager’s hands, and that there’s nothing you can do. But you can control the way you choose to govern your staff.
It comes down to this: you can keep your staff on a tight leash, or you can cut them some slack. If you trust your employees and treat them like adults, more often than not they’ll pay you back by becoming more invested in the job. They’ll embrace the responsibility.
But if you micromanage them, you’ll have a Peter Gibbons on your hands.