Management Myth 26: It’s Fine to Micromanage


Johanna Rothman explains the challenges and pitfalls of micromanagement. Sometimes, managers micromanage when they need information. In that case, it’s easier to create an information radiator rather than have the manager come running to you every thirty minutes.

Sharon poked her head into Heath’s cubicle. “Hey, Heath, are you done yet with that fix?”

Heath turned around. “Sharon, you asked me that less than an hour ago. I’m not done yet.”

“Well, I need to know when you will be done. Oh, and I need to know if you’re using the design we discussed.”

Heath started to turn red. “We didn’t discuss any design at all. You told me a design to use. Because you used that design back in the day, back when you were a developer. So you want me to use it now. Are you delegating this fix to me or not? Do you want to do it?”

Damon tapped Sharon on the shoulder before she could reply. “Sharon, it sounds as if you need information. It also sounds as if Heath needs time to finish that fix. How about I help?”

Sharon looked relieved. So did Heath. “That would be great,” she replied. “I have another Ops meeting in fifteen minutes where everyone is going to ask me when the fix will be done. I’d really like to know the answer.” She took off down the hall, texting on her phone as she went.

Damon sat down next to Heath. “OK, tell me what’s going on. You sound as if you’re at the end of your rope.”

“I know this is a critical fix. But Sharon won’t let me do my job,” Heath said. “It’s not just this fix; it’s anything. She wants to design this fix for me. She’s come over here five times this morning, and its not even noon. OK, she has that meeting, and I know they’re going to rake her over the coals. I got that part. But interrupting me isn’t going to help. I need time to think.”

Damon prodded. “You said it’s not just this fix? What do you mean?”

“I’ve taken over Sharon’s subject matter expertise areas, right? I want to share them. I don’t want to be the only person who knows them. That’s crazy. Every time I ask for help she says things like, ‘I didn’t need help when I was the developer,’ or crazy things like that. This is a big fix. I said I want to pair with another developer or a developer and a tester, too. She told me I didn’t need to. How could she possibly know what I need to do? Is she a mind reader now?

“And for my regular work, when we estimate as a team, she’s there. She’s not supposed to be there, but our supposed ScrumMaster won’t kick her out of the room, so she screws up our estimates. You haven’t seen this, because you’re a tech lead on another team. She tells us our estimates are too big, so she bullies us into making them smaller. But we can’t make them smaller. They are what they are. It’s crazy.

“Then she tells us how to design. She doesn’t know the code anymore. She’s in meetings all the time. But she thinks she does. This is really bad. I don’t think I can take it anymore. Maybe I’ll quit today. That would serve her right.”

“Whoa,” Damon said. “Managers are people, too. I suspect Sharon doesn’t know what to do in her new role. She has not learned how to delegate or what an agile manager does, so she’s insinuating herself into the team. Has anyone provided her with feedback?”

“No. We’re just putting up with things.”

“OK. You folks have to learn how to give Sharon feedback. For now, I’ll talk to her. Would you like me to work with you so you have someone to talk with, just on this fix?”

“Yes, please,” Heath replied. “This is harder than it looks.”

“OK. I’ll timebox our work to ten minutes so I have something to say to Sharon. I’ll run interference for you and give her a status. Then I’ll come back to you, OK?”

Managers Have to Learn to Delegate
If you were one of the best technical people and you were promoted to a manager, you may have to learn how to delegate. If people are clamoring for information and you’re not sure what to tell them, you might want to push the current technical staff aside and do it yourself. You might be right—it might be faster. But unless the technical staff ask you for help, that’s wrong.

People want to feel accountable for their own work. People need to both succeed and fail on their own. They are adults—so they should be treated as if they are adults.

If you explain to people the results you want and the boundaries of what the acceptable deliverables are, people will deliver. And, as in this case, if you explain that you need information in a timely manner, they will deliver that, too.
Managers Need Information
Sometimes, managers micromanage when they need information. In that case, it’s easier to create an information radiator rather than have the manager come running to you every thirty minutes. Or you can work with a buddy so that someone else is running interference for you, so you can concentrate on your technical work and some other manager will receive the information.

Often, a senior manager needs the information. You can ask your immediate manager to provide the cover for you. If that doesn’t work, see if a tech lead or someone else who has the manager’s respect will work with you. It’s worth a shot.

Team Members Have to Provide Feedback to Managers, Too
Managers need feedback to know that they are micromanaging. They don’t need to know when they are headed to the Ops meeting, but they need to know.

Damon explained to Sharon, “Here’s where Heath is right now. I’ll be working with him for the next hour, so you can be sure we will be making progress. And there’s something else I want to discuss with you. Check with me when you return, OK?”

“No problem. Maybe by then, you two will have fixed the problem,” Sharon replied.

When Sharon returned from the Ops meeting, she checked with Damon. “OK, I’m ready. Did you two fix the problem?”

“Not yet. Heath has a good handle on it right now. I’m going to work with him later. But I need to talk to you about something else.”

“Oh, what’s that?” Sharon asked.

“When you ask Heath for status that often and tell him how to design and implement, you’re micromanaging him. Are you aware of that?”

“Well, no. I thought I was being a good mentor or coach. I thought that’s what good managers did.”

“No, good managers offer suggestions—if people want them. You can ask, ‘Would you like help?’ And if people say, ‘No, thanks,’ you back off. Believe me, I know how tough this is to take. Even as a tech lead, I want to tell people what to do sometimes. But I can’t. I can offer, but I can’t make them do things.

“When you were promoted, did anyone ever tell you about delegation?”

“No, no one ever did,” Sharon admitted.

“Hmm. Do you ever have one-on-ones with your manager?”

“Oh, no. Steve says he’s too busy. I’m winging it.”

“That’s a problem,” Damon said. “If you want, I can tell you what I know. Joakim is a great manager. I’m just a tech lead, so I don’t do ‘management’ per se, but I have a lot of the same quandaries. If you want, we can meet once a week and I can tell you what I know.

“That sounds great.”

Read more of Johanna's management myth columns here:

User Comments

1 comment
Madhava Verma Dantuluri's picture

Very good topic and i totally agree. I being transformed from tech to managerial now, its really tough to delegate to the team. Thats the challenge am working on and your tips are very good. Will have to follow them.

February 13, 2014 - 11:25am

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