Backsliding into Micromanaging

When I first started as a manager, my marketable skills included being exceptional at the job I had, being very organized and being detail oriented. Those are great skills, but none of them have anything to do with being a good manager of people. I came out of the gate trying to patch holes in a failing ship and learn to manage with grace and patience. What did I do? I micromanaged.

I improved and developed skills as a manager and leader with time. With some luck, we patched those holes and things started to run remarkedly smoother. In good times it has been easy to be a good manager. When everyone is hitting their targets, I know to resist any temptation to intervene or offer my insights. In good times I remember that my job is about the big picture and ensuring long term success. All I need to offer my team is the right tools, quick responses and solid support.

What should a manager do when a good team starts to miss their targets and struggle to perform? Suddenly quick responses and support aren’t doing the job. We know as managers that action is necessary but finding the right actions at the right times is very difficult. I found that when the pressure started to build, I backslid into micromanagement and I had no idea!

It was only until, exasperated with the problem, I decided to take a step back and reflect on how the team dynamic has changed that I realized I’m part of the problem. I reverted to some bad habits.

Here are some ways I knew I was micromanaging again:

  1. My team members were suddenly seized with indecision. They used to make decisions, come up with creative solutions and best of all…not ask for my permission. Now the team is coming to me for solutions to simple problems. Now they aren’t sure how to approach something they’ve encountered before. They are even telling me about small changes to their schedule!

I’ve offered my opinion too many times! When I was a team member or an equal, my insights were valuable to them and free of judgement. When the stress is piling on everyone, manager insights become a fail-safe. It is easier to let the manager take the reigns rather than risk another failure or worse…looking bad to your boss when you are already down.

The solution? Don’t give your opinion. Ask for their ideas. Remind them that action over inaction will always be rewarded. Remind them that if they act and make a wrong turn, you will defend them if there is a problem. Encourage your team members to brainstorm with each other first.

  1. I recognized that I was feeling stressed and helpless. I know from years of mistakes that my stress response is to get into the weeds. I tend to over-commit and try to power through. I also tend to micromanage.

The solution? Recognize the behavior and put a stop to it. When I start to feel it or see it, I go meditate for as long as it takes. I also found that having lunch with other managers reminded me of the higher-level thinking that I should be doing.

  1. My team is having group meetings when I am out of the office. I’m not kidding about this one! They used to love me and now they have secret meetings that they call Coffee Hour. The meetings only happen when I’m on vacation.

This one doesn’t upset me at all. It is a sign of a strongly bonded team. It’s also a sign that I’m not giving them the space they need to solve their problems and air their grievances.

Solution? Let them have their meetings. Be supportive and encouraging.

  1. They used to take ownership of their projects, but now I’m hearing excuses. When we talk about project status, I used to hear about what my team members were doing. Now I’m hearing about the delays that someone else caused. I’m hearing about bad records and missed deadlines instead of what they plan to do about it.

I also noticed a slight language change centered around our projects. My team used to say, “my project” or “my lead.” More and more I now hear them refer to the projects by anything other than “my.”

Solution? Gently remind the team that they are the owners and masters of these projects. Take care to point out the positives in that ownership such unshared success, creative control and (since we collect delinquent taxes) a sense of justice that comes from our work.

  1. I almost changed procedures and policies so that there would be more oversight and manager approval. I saw many managers who tried to force improvement through policy or required procedures. It never worked. My second creed as a manager is that I will never impose a procedure or requirement just because it could resolve a problem that happens 20% of the time.

In my time of stress and micromanaging, I almost let my number two talk me into a required procedure that would benefit only two of my entire staff. Thankfully, I came to my senses before that!

Solution? Do not stray from the hard rules you obey that have always worked before!

  1. I joined and offered to help on projects that I don’t have time for. I’ll be honest, every single time I did this I just wanted to shame my team member for not just putting in the work. Not only was that toxic, but I got myself into more work than I anticipated. Shame on me.

Solution? Let the team members tell you what they need. Join when it is appropriate or find better resources for that help.

  1. The group was silent at our last training session. Nearly every team member had asked me about a certain topic in the last month, so I chose it for our regularly scheduled training session. These sessions are not for me to talk. I pose an issue and we all discuss options and ideas, but during this session the team was not having it. I could tell they were over my involvement on the issue.

Solution? Ask someone else to lead the discussion. I’m considering not even being present for the next training session. I’m hoping this will require some future leaders to step up and generate confidence.

  1. I felt personally frustrated by a team member’s progress. I realized that I was beginning to value a person by their job performance rather than the whole person. This was a person I have always liked and suddenly all I could see was their non-progressing project list.

Solution?  Take time to think about each team member as a whole person.  Remember their kids. Remember the funny joke they always tell. Remember their travels and addiction to caffeine. Remember that they are trying their best.

  1. I felt growing distrust over a team members quality of work when I previously had full faith in their work. I found myself going over their work with a fine-toothed comb. I had decided in my mind that one of two things was happening. This person is struggling because they don’t really know what they are doing, or this person is cutting corners in her desperation to show progress.

I confronted a team member about a project that I thought they blew. As it turns out there were perfectly rational explanations for points of contention and I just looked like an ass.

Solution? Chill out. In good times I knew when someone was struggling to understand a concept. In all times, I know the real signs of cutting corners. Have faith that you will see the problem when there really is a problem. Oh, and ask before you accuse.

  1. I used to spend most of my time planning for the big picture and the future, but now I’m doing team member level work. By this time last year, I had already mapped and written a detailed strategy for how the next year was going to be bigger than ever. I used to spend every Monday just brainstorming for solutions, ideas for growth, etc. Now, I’m doing audits every single day. I’m having progress meetings with all my team members. I’m answering stupid questions.

Solution? Make planning and strategizing a priority no matter what! I find it helpful to change my environment by working from the park or from a restaurant patio on a Friday afternoon. A change of environment always changes my perspective. I also like to surround myself with inspiring idea guys. This reminds me that I’m not meant for the daily grind; I’m meant to turn the daily grind into something successful.

Carrie Stephenson
Carrie Stephenson is an indirect tax specialist and audit firm manager. She combines her experience in the field of auditing with her interest in personal growth in order to serve as an “audit mom” for her team. Carrie is passionate about bringing fresh perspective and creativity to problem solving both at home and in the office.

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