Seven signs you’re a micromanager – and four steps to letting go



Read time
7 mins

If you’re bogged down by the detail, and don’t trust your team to succeed without your input, it’s time to stop micromanaging and start delegating

When stepping up from being part of a team to leading one as a line manager, there’s a transition period when you stop focusing on the day-to-day tasks and start focusing on the bigger picture. But there’s a fine line between being interested in and supportive of your team’s work and being an unbearable micromanager.

Here are seven signs that you’ve become a micromanager – and four steps to letting go and trusting your team.

Seven signs that you’re a micromanager

1. You require constant communication from and with your team

A classic sign of micromanaging is an insistence on being in the loop at all times. Whether that’s asking for regular status updates (formal or informal), attending meetings that you don’t need to be at, requiring your team to cc you on most or all of their emails, or checking in online outside of working hours or during your time off, you demand to know what’s happening at all times.

2. You prescribe not only what needs to be done – but how

All managers will frequently need to ask their team to take on tasks or projects. But micromanagers take this one step further by not only deciding what needs to get done, but also the precise steps that staff need to take to complete the task. Rather than judging success based on outcomes, you determine whether a team member has passed or failed a task based on how closely they followed your instructions.

3. You never have time to focus on the big picture stuff

Because you’re so busy keeping tabs on your team, and dictating how tasks get done, you don’t get time – or the headspace – to work on the big picture, value-add projects that are an expected part of your role.

4. Your team have stopped coming to you with new ideas

By being so prescriptive not only about what work your team does, but precisely how they do it, your employees have come to realise that there’s no point generating new ideas. As Steve Motenko, a Seattle-based executive coach, told NPR: “We need employees who will do more than do what they’re told – employees who will think for themselves, who will be creative, who will try new approaches. All of that is squashed by micromanaging.”

This perpetuates your impression that your workers don’t have the capacity to think creatively, and that you’re the only one capable of producing the work that’s required of your department.

5. Your staff turnover is higher than in other teams

Management gurus like to claim that ‘people leave managers, not companies’. While that probably isn’t true in many cases, for workers in teams run by micromanagers, the constant scrutiny and intense pressure caused by your micromanaging behaviour is likely to be a major reason why employees seek a new role.

6. You’ve become a bottleneck

Because you need to sign off on every decision, every purchase, every communication, and every project, you’re overwhelmed with work. That means you’ve become a huge bottleneck in your team: your staff are working as hard as possible to get things done, but few projects are okayed for closure. Your team’s productivity stalls, and you believe the only way to make sure they get things done is to monitor their work even more closely – and so the micromanaging cycle perpetuates itself.

7. You take credit for success, and blame others for failure

When your team wins a new deal or is praised for a brilliant project, as their manager – and because you’ve invested so much time and energy in supervising their work – you’ll take the credit for their hard work. But, conversely, if a project fails to meet its goals or deadlines, you’ll be quick to blame team members’ lack of knowledge, expertise or commitment, and claim that this failure is exactly why you can’t trust them to work without your help.

Four steps to letting go of micromanagement

1. Understand the reasons for your behaviour

Before you can start to change a behaviour, you need to understand what’s causing it. Are you micromanaging staff because of internal or personal factors – such as fear of failure, a need for control, that you don’t have enough management experience, or because of an underlying health condition such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?  Or is it caused by external factors such as tight deadlines and high workloads, or are you aping the wider organisational culture?

2. Understand how your behaviour is affecting your team

Have honest conversations with your employees about how your behaviours are affecting them, both in terms of their ability to do their jobs effectively and in terms of their happiness and job satisfaction. You might prefer to do this in team meetings, one-to-one conversations, or via anonymous 360-feedback tools. Having these discussions with your team will help them understand that you recognise that your behaviour is causing problems, and that you are committed to making a real change. You might want to invite your employees to hold you accountable, too, by pushing back when you’re intervening too much or in a way that’s unhelpful.

3. Start delegating – but start small

“Micromanaging displaces the real work of leaders, which is developing and articulating a compelling and strategically relevant vision for your team,” noted Jennifer Chatman, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, in a 2015 Harvard Business Review article. To refocus your energy on the strategic priorities that matter, make a list of all the tasks and projects that your team is working on – as well as the projects that you might have bumped into the long grass. Try categorising these tasks and projects into lists of actions to ‘start’ doing, ‘stop’ doing (by delegating to your team) or ‘continue’ doing. Begin by entrusting your team with the lowest-value tasks, and those where their expertise outweighs yours.

Be sure to review this list of priorities regularly, to determine if you could delegate more items to your employees, and consider if you need to support them with learning and development initiatives to improve their capabilities, and free up your time even further.

When delegating projects, direct your employees ‘what’ to do, but stop being prescriptive about ‘how’ they do things. You’ve hired this team for a reason: it’s time to trust their knowledge, skills and creativity, and that they’ll ask for your help should they need it.

4. Accept that it’s ok to fail

Part of relinquishing control of the day-to-day minutiae, and trusting your team, is accepting that sometimes things will go wrong. Most of the time, projects will be successful – but it’s only human to make mistakes. If an employee gets something wrong, treat it as an opportunity for them to learn and improve for next time – and not a sign that you were wrong to trust them.