Why Companies Love Micromanagers

Back in the day when I was first promoted into management, the term itself was commonly defined as ”Getting things done through people.” Over last ten years or so, I’ve noticed a definite shift, particularly in the expectations that top executives demand from mid-level managers. I now believe that the commonly held definition of management, at least for that middle level, is more akin to either simply, ”Getting things done”, “Getting things done yourself” or worse, “Getting things done in spite of people.” Enter the micromanager. While micromanagers may be the bane of their co-workers and direct reports, the top echelons of corporations can’t seem to get enough of them.

I do not claim to be an industrial psychologist (or any other kind for that matter) but will simply offer my observations and opinions as to what makes micromanagers tick and why they have become so highly prized and in demand. Micromanagement is a broad term encompassing a wide range and degree of such behaviors. I will only focus on one type of micromanager here, as I am more familiar with this particular incarnation.

These micromanagers are usually intelligent individuals with what we used to call type “A” personalities. In some circles they might even be described as being obsessive/compulsive. Such traits result in these individuals often being rigid, anxiety-filled, single minded, overly demanding and fixated on the most miniscule of details. They are very good at performing the tasks to which they are assigned, particularly when left alone to their own resources. That is why many individuals exhibiting these characteristics are culled out of the workforce and promoted into positions that oversee the work of others. Their excellent work habits and capacity to take on more and more tasks are viewed as the perfect role models for companies to use in order to whip workgroups into shape.

Tethered to the company with latest electronic devices (named after a variety of fruits and animals), micromanagers will work endless hours checking up on things. Because they have already performed much of the work assigned to their group, they can fill-in for absent staff members and oftentimes even retain many of their old tasks. These individuals are a great “fit” in today’s cost conscious and bottom line driven companies.

The downside to these personality types is that they generally lack good or even any people skills. Outside of the workplace (the few times you’ll see them out of it anyway) they’ll appear as normal folks but I would venture to say that many of these types of micromanagers exhibit nearly anti-social behaviors in workplace situations. It matters not that they drive their staff’s crazy by acting as overbearing task masters with an incessant drive for perfection and having things done “their way.” They become extremely and openly frustrated with their staffs when things are not done in the precise manner that they have dictated. They will doggedly pursue any nonconformance and churn through employees seeking only those that will think and work like they do. These attributes are perfect for today’s corporate cultures that are driven by precise metrics and tight deadlines.

People skills are no longer important. Only getting the job done is. Since the socio-corporate status of non-management employees has reverted back to being nothing more than fodder for the corporate gristmills, human relations skills in these managers have taken a back seat to delivering results. Workers, even highly educated technical types such as engineers and accountants, are considered to be a dime a dozen. It’s just too bad if they can’t get along with or emulate their micromanaging boss. In fact, many executives would love an entire workforce of micromanagers. It’s extremely shortsighted thinking on the part of those that decide to promote or hire these individuals. But then what top management team is in it for the long haul anyway?

Many of these micromanagers have a very difficult time working with peers in cross-functional situations. Their single mindedness obscures larger issues. The very traits and characteristics that make them micromanagers cause discord with peers. They seem to have a great deal of difficulty understanding why everyone else does not think like they do. It’s a bad situation that often requires a lot of time wasting refereeing. It’s quite interesting to watch two micromanagers go at it over an issue. But not to worry; the benefits to company far outweigh the costs.

The real shame of it all is that the negative traits, characteristics and behaviors of these micromanagers have been validated and even rewarded through promotions into positions of power over others who might not share the fanatical zeal of their new masters and might have different if not better ideas on how to get the job done.

Excuses and apologies abound for the behaviors of these types:

Their single (or even closed) minded obsessions have been redefined as “passion.”

Their incessant attention to even the goofiest of details is excused as “driving for excellence.”

Of course we all know that the anxieties causing them to work tremendous hours without rest are heralded as “selfless dedication.”

Because of this reinforcement, these micromanagers soon develop a “Be like me” attitude with their subordinates. They become “My way or the Highway” types that cannot tolerate even the slightest deviation from their notion of how things should be done.

But even these micromanagers are not mechanical robots with an unlimited capacity. Life changing events may occur that cause them to refocus their energies away from work even temporarily. They may simply wear out both physically and mentally. When that occurs, the view of top management is often that they have lost their edge and now need replacement. It’s all part of what I call the “Expectations Theory” of management. I’ll write more about that in another post. Once these micromanagers become burnt out or no longer useful, they are simply discarded and others are selected to lead the charge. The aftermath can be devastating to this type of individual. They feel betrayed and become cynical and jaded. They are usually not allowed to go back to what they did best all along. An excellent worker has been lost and another bad manager has been created

One validation of this trend is apparent in recent help wanted Ads that I’ve seen for supervisors and managers as well as my own debriefings of individuals who have recently interviewed for such positions. It would appear that prospective candidates are now only being asked in passing if they have experience in supervising groups. Rather than manage, it is now seems more important that they personally know how to perform the function or tasks at hand. “Hands-on” is the new code word for “Do it yourself and/or micromanage others.”

The search for micromanagers goes on.


4 Responses to “Why Companies Love Micromanagers”

  1. JoJo Says:

    Very interesting. I worked for a guy like this once – it nearly put me in therapy. A total helicopter boss – always hovering over my shoulder, “re-prioritizing” me, nitpicking over silly details, and watching the clock on me. Lack of trust was at the bottom of it – he was always sure everyone was trying to screw the company. He was the company’s controller, and spent his six-figure salaried time chasing down employees over $9.00 phone charges on travel expense reports and obsessing over what we spent on coffee for the break room.

    One time he freaked out because I had left ten minutes early the day before, so I pointed out that I had been in the office all day Saturday – and I was salaried. Well, he replied, he didn’t KNOW I had been there on Saturday. I am a responsible, professional adult who had (at the time) ten years of experience in that field – why did I have to check in with this guy over ten minutes of time anyway? Simply being given a job to do and then being left alone to do it was so far away as to not even be on the horizon for me.

    I was never given true responsibility or ownership of anything. When I completed something, he would go back and mark over it with revisions – usually petty re-wording – usually two or three times, until it was finally just the way he wanted it. Sometimes he would have me change something once, then change it back to the way it had been before. Why not just assume ownership of my “rough draft” (which was the best I was ever going to be able to do) and make the changes to the document himself? Or he would ask me to make his phone calls, but dictate every last thing he wanted me to say. How is that saving time? Just make your own phone calls, so I am not stuck in the middle as a go-between for follow-up questions!

    That was by far the most miserable employment experience I have ever gone through – nothing else in my work history even comes close.

  2. thecorporatecynic Says:

    Thanks for your comment JoJo. Been there, done that and still have the scars to prove it. So I feel your pain. The goof that I worked for was so bad that I devoted an entire chapter to him in my book “160 Degrees of Deviation: The Case for the Corporate Cynic.”

    Glad to see that you made it out alive. Keep on reading, I’m sure that you’ll find lots of interesting things here. You’re most definitely not alone.

    Come on back anytime!


  3. Sad Says:

    JoJo, thanks for posting this text.

    Right after my graduation last year I got my first real job (apart from internships and RAs in the university) in a big company, in a media/IT department which has 7 employees. It’s been very stressful since the beginning, and in just one year I saw 5 people resigning because they could not bear the boss. Most of them had excellent skills and awesome CVs, and were very far from being incompetent.

    The boss controls each step we take, knows how much time we spend in the bathroom, how much time we take to have coffee, he calls us on weekends and at night to talk about work. He wants us to show him drafts of all the emails, wants to be copied in all them, complains about everything and every 10 minutes disturbs us to check what and how we are doing things. Over the night he sends me on average 20 emails with new tasks for the following day, and when I take vacation he keeps sending emails as if I was working normally. Then when I go back there are a few hundred emails accumulated.

    He is verbally and physically aggressive, and my office mates are always crying and having nightmares because of him. One confessed to me that had to go on drugs. I always try to behave like a stone and don’t take into consideration the insults. I do everything he wants me to do, agree with everything even knowing that he is wrong, and I very rarely complain. He likes me, wants me to stay and offered me a salary increase. But the truth is that I am about to explode and he is driving me crazy. I have no energy to do anything after work and on weekends anymore 😦

    On the other hand, he is so cool and nice out of the office, everybody loves him! He is ANOTHER person.

    I had no clue what was really going on, I had never heard of “micromanagement” until a more experienced colleague (who is about to quit the job) mentioned that to me. I started to read about it, and came to your text here. I am so surprised with everything that I’ve been reading, and I hope to learn new techniques on how to survive in the office because I love my work (without the boss) and it has always been the dream of my life to work where I work now.

  4. MV Says:

    “JoJo” described my experience exactly: “I worked for a guy like this once – it nearly put me in therapy…That was by far the most miserable employment experience I have ever gone through – nothing else in my work history even comes close”.

    LT Poirier left the Navy with a Navy Commendation and I resigned utterly humilated.

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