I think everyone has encountered the micromanaging type at some point or another in their career. Most obviously or memorably, this might have been a boss who took the attitude, “no decision too small!” But it might also have been a coworker’s boss or just someone else at the company you had the misfortune to share an office with. If you’ve managed to avoid this your whole career, count yourself fortunate, but understand that there is a type of person out there that feels as though he is the only one capable of making decisions and then acts accordingly.
The up-front cost of this behavior is fairly obvious. It clearly doesn’t scale well, so micromanagers wind up being huge bottlenecks to productivity with all decisions essentially on hold until that person gets to them. Micromanaging also the effect of creating learned helplessness in those around them, rendering everyone else less productive. People learn that there’s no point in trying to have autonomy, so they check out and stop paying attention. Some will even engage in passive aggressive behaviors that harm the organization, such as malicious compliance. “You want me to ship this code as-is, huh? Okie-dokie.” (“Heh, heh, well, it crashes, but hey, you’re the boss!”)
Being subjected to a micromanager is hard to take and often stressful, so turnover is typically high in such scenarios. And that’s where a hidden cost comes in. People working under the purview of a micromanager don’t suddenly and automatically switch gears when their situation improves — they often bring their previous behaviors along for the ride. If you’ve ever seen the movie The Shawshank Redemption, recall the scene with Red in the grocery store when he gets paroled to work after 40 years in prison:
Red: Restroom break?
Boss: You don´t need to ask me every time you need to go take a piss. Just go.
Red (thinking to himself): Forty years I´ve been asking permission to piss. I can´t squeeze a drop without say-so.
Red’s boss and the grocery store are experiencing what I’m describing as the hidden cost of micromanagement. He has an employee so used to having his day micromanaged that the employee is maddeningly, annoyingly dependent. In your own travels, it’s easy to tell the signs of a previous victim of micromanagement: endless updates about details and inconsequential minutiae, constantly asking permission to do anything, non-stop preemptive apologies and general insecurity about work quality. That all might seem harmless, if a little sad, but the problem is that this lack of autonomy and willingness to take charge of situations has a real productivity hit for both parties. The new manager/lead should be focusing on bigger picture issues, such as removing impediments from the path of her team — she shouldn’t have to worry about whether one of her team members’ Outlook inbox is 80% full. That’s a meaningless detail that nobody should report to anyone, and yet tons and tons of micromanagement victims do.
It goes without saying that you should avoid micromanagement. It’s a terrible interaction and leadership strategy on its face that is largely the purview of people with psychological problems. But look for past victims of micromanagement and given them a hand or a leg up. Encourage them. Work with them. And most of all, let them know that they’re capable of making good decisions and worthy of being trusted to do so. Your organization will be much better off for it.