The Opinionated Manager

learning to trust my own opinions and expertise

Micromanagement as a Performance Intervention. Can it Work?

Dilbert Micromanagement

Well, I had my little tantrum yesterday, and now that I’ve got it out of my system I want to look a little bit closer, and with a lot more seriousness, at some of the things that I have done (or supported others in doing) and how they might have contributed to the problems that are currently frustrating me – that is, ongoing conflict between members of my team.

All interpersonal conflict is complex – it can’t be explained by a single action or reaction, but one point that I want to focus on and explore is the impact of micro-management on staff conflict.  What sparked off this line of thought was a colleague telling me that micro-management EQUALS bullying.

That’s a pretty strong statement – bullying is a very serious accusation, and whilst I don’t hesitate to acknowledge that continuous micro-management is a useless and damaging style of managing staff, I don’t agree that in and of itself, it is bullying.

Earlier today I felt pretty confident that there are times that micro-management is a valid, albeit serious, intervention to use on a temporary basis with staff that are under performing.  But as I’ve thought and thought about it, I am starting to doubt myself.

Is micro-management ever OK?  And does it ever actually help to improve a situation?  I’m really keen to hear the views of anyone interested enough to have read this far (!) and I will provide the following two examples as food for thought:

Staff member A wants her job to be something that it isn’t, and spends a large amount of time focussing on work that suits her interests rather than the allocated work required to move the team forward in the proper direction.  In spite of conversations from her supervisor regarding this unacceptable performance, and clear directions on the work projects that are required, the staff member gives only cursory attention to these tasks and continues to concentrate her efforts in the wrong direction.

Staff member B does not like his job or the people he works with.  He seems to deliberately obstruct meetings and discussions, and because he cannot see the point of the tasks that he is given, completes them only to the absolute bare minimum.  Again the supervisor talks with the staff member about this unacceptable performance, however the situation does not improve.

As I write these examples, it is really clear that there is more going on than a simple failure to complete allocated work.  Both staff members are disgruntled with their roles and the work they are allocated is not satisfying to them on a personal or professional basis.  Conflict between the staff members and supervisors already exists to some point.  I don’t want to give the impression that this was ignored – time and effort was put into trying to repair these disconnects.  I cannot change the job and the work required, this is tied to the project outcomes, but some of the strategies that were put in place with the intention of improving the situation included: developing team mission/visions; social break-outs & team building activities; performance counselling; allocation of more autonomous projects; and identification of tasks of interest that some time could be given to.

When there was no significant or sustained improvement in performance, I supported the supervisors in the decision to intervene and manage the staff members’ workloads more directly.  In effect to give clear and detailed instructions of the work required to be completed, along with some instruction on how to progress those tasks, and to allocate set deadlines to tasks.  A very definition of micro-management.

My thinking was this:

  1. Unsatisfactory performance needs to be documented in my work environment if anything is to happen in repercussion.  I believed that giving such clear and detailed instructions would mean that the staff member would have to comply, and if not, then I would have easily documented evidence of performance problems.
  2. Poor communication of requirements could not be used by the staff members as justification for failure to complete tasks satisfactorily.
  3. It provided a clear pathway for the staff members to regain the trust of their supervisors through achievement of the allocated tasks.
  4. It would be a temporary intervention that would either work or not.  It would be a “last chance”.

But now I am starting to doubt how any intervention strategy based on such a negative premise could possibly have long-lasting positive outcomes for team relationships, self-esteem, initiative, accountability, respect for management and project completion.  The only “positive” outcome that I am now seeing is where a decision has already been made to performance manage someone out of an organisation or role.

And when I look at my scenarios, it is clear that whilst there has been performance improvement, there is simmering mistrust and disaffection between staff members and supervisors which takes only minor friction to cause a bubble over that puts us back at the beginning.

So back to my question: Can micro-management ever be a valid intervention strategy for poor work performance?

I am genuinely interested in your experiences and opinions as a manager, supervisor or staff member, so please share.


14 comments on “Micromanagement as a Performance Intervention. Can it Work?

  1. Lydia C. lee
    June 13, 2013

    I have watched 2 people micromanaged in a way that to me looked like bullying (and was completely counter productive) as one person quit on the spot after about a month and one person resigned (but took the month to find a new job).
    I’ve had to do stupid reporting for people that didn’t really seem to do anything productive with the reports (it just seemed to be wanting to know what I was doing – I wasn’t under performing at the time, but it felt to me, like they didn;’t think I was working hard enough- and it made me aggressively anti any new idea or procedure they wanted to implement. All ideas were tarnished with this micro management style, whether they deserved it or not.

    Not saying I was right and they were wrong, just saying it seems to bring out the worst in people.

    • Katyberry
      June 13, 2013

      Lydia, I really agree – it does bring out the worst in people, and isn’t something that I would even consider except in dire circumstances. But thinking about it some more, I’m not even sure that in worst case scenarios it really helps, except to document people out the door.

      I’ve felt micromanaged before and it was AWFUL. I found myself believing that the work that I was doing was of no worth, and that I was no good at my job. I HATED that boss. It worked out OK in the end, as I was quite young, and had a bit of growing up to do in my attitude as well, but it was a really good thing when I cleared the air with my boss and we found a way forward together.

  2. Leanne
    June 13, 2013

    It’s a tough one. When underperformance continues even after taking steps to have gentle chats with the person, and working with them in a broader sense to help remove obstacles etc then there’s not much left apart from going down the micro-management road. I agree, by that stage it’s more a case of, this just isn’t working,now we need to document everything to move towards warnings and so on. I’m not sure that there’s another answer but I don’t agree that it meets the criteria for bullying. If you have the person set goals for themselves that will meet everyone’s expectations then it is up to them to achieve them – or not.

    • Katyberry
      June 13, 2013

      You’re so right – it’s kind of like, Well what’s left to do? In one case it really was just managing the person out the door as easily as possible, but with the other person it has been really difficult. I didn’t want that person to hate their job but it was difficult to find a way forward. Even now I feel like I am still muddling along with that person. There are still lots of ups and downs which is upsetting to me (and to them!) because they are a really great asset to our team when things are working.

  3. Ness
    June 13, 2013

    I have no idea what micro management is so I don’t have any wisdom to share. I never enjoyed working with a lot of people, in teams and so forth. Managing them would be even worse for me. Not really a people person, which makes me basically unemployable. Sigh.s

    • Katyberry
      June 13, 2013

      Oh Ness! I feel like my posts are making you unhappy. I hope that isn’t really the case.
      I’d love to hear more of your story one day, and the choices you made, or circumstances that happened, that have led you to your path, which is just as valid as mine or anyone else’s.
      I have an idea for a series of guest posts around “My Career Story” and if I ever get around to implementing it, I would be really interested to hear from you, even if your “career” hasn’t been in a workplace in the traditional sense.

  4. robomum
    June 13, 2013

    I can’t even get into this topic without getting emotional. Not me, someone I know very well. There’s a fine line between MM and bullying and if administered incorrectly, it’s hard for everyone involved.

    • Katyberry
      June 13, 2013

      I think that you are so right, and I can see that micromanagement, even when administered with a clear aim in mind, really treads a fine line. Even if it isn’t bullying, it can have such a negative affect on a person. If I am ever needing to use it as a strategy again, beforehand I am going to be really clear with the person about what is happening. Honesty might not make it much easier, but at least I can try and make sure the person knows that I have thought carefully about what is happening and the problems that I am trying to address, and the seriousness of the situation. Because the situation would have to be really serious for us to get to that point. I would hope that at least then it wouldn’t seem like a random act of being picked on etc.

  5. robomum
    June 13, 2013

    Yes I think a bit of clarity at first would go a long way but regardless of good intentions, it won’t be taken well. Performance plans, micro, PIP – they all mean the same thing right. I could tell you a story that would knock your socks off but I shouldn’t coz it’s still ‘in action’.

  6. Rachel
    June 13, 2013

    Micro-management is almost always counter productive as it lacks the one key that that is essential to behavioural change – and that is buy-in from the other person. They may provide surface “agreement” to the performance plan or management structure but in reality it is always something that is imposed on the employee, and if they are not really committed to it then it hasn’t got Buckleys of ever producing a positive result.

    BUT I do agree that it is necessary when lack of performance has gotten so bad that it cannot be allowed to continue. It becomes an essential part of the process by which an employees who is unsuitable for a particular job either decides to leave of their own accord OR you amass enough evidence of non-performance to justify the decision to let them go. But either way the main thing is that these employees do get a chance to turn things around and some clear instructions on the steps they need to take to do it. So like you said they can’t turn around and accuse you of unfairness.

    This is a crappy situation which I hope sorts itself out for you soon !

  7. mummymanifestodotcom
    June 13, 2013

    My hubby is an IT recruitment manager and often has to intervene in work related cases like this. His answer was Yes, micro management can work,but if it doesn’t then you may have to “talk” with everyone to work out why that person is being micro-managed, But I personally think it may work for the employer, it may not work for the employee-not in the long run.
    Unfortunately, not everyone has their dream job, some people are there just for the pay-check so you are never going to make them happy. Goodluck!

  8. Me
    June 14, 2013

    I agree it is a really fine line between MM and bullying. If you are clear about what your expectations for them and the group are and have to MM in order to ensure that they stay on task and within the required time frame, if they don’t like being MM, it is up to them to prove to you that they are capable of doing the correct tasks in the time frame without you having to MM them.
    With Staff member A, it sounds like they are just delaying doing the jobs they don’t like – every job I have had has had an aspect of them that I don’t like, but the bottom line is, it is a requirement of my job that I do those and so I just get on do them.
    With Staff member B, it sounds like there is nothing you could offer which would make him like his job or the people he works with – it sounds like he needs a job and this one is it. If he isn’t able to work with the team to achieve the goals required, I don’t think you are doing the wrong thing by MM in order to be able to have specific incidents to use for future reference.
    Having had roles that manage people and those that don’t, if I have an option I take the one that doesn’t have to manage people – they are so much easier !!!!!!
    Have the best day !

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  10. dionnelew
    June 29, 2013

    I wrote a long response to this which got lost last week when I tried to post it but I wanted to revisit it because I thought it was important.

    There is no single answer to whether micromanagement is good or bad – everything is contextual and different circumstances call for different management styles. Different people also have preferred management styles.

    In my extensive experience as a leader what is micromanagement to one person seems really caring to another. What is a loved and demanded autonomy to one can translate as a scary feeling of abandonment to another.

    A key to being a good leader is recognising that there are rarely right/wrong answers or absolutes and the skill is to use judgement and adapt to the circumstance – a useful shift in thinking is to move from either this/or that – to and this/and that – which is a mindset change.

    However I did want to suggest that as far as I am concerned, naming micromanagement as bullying is mis-naming. Micromanagement like any form of intervention can be destructive or constructive depending on when and how it is used.

    I did write more, but for the sake of brevity, I will leave it there.

I love hearing your opinions and experiences, so please comment

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This entry was posted on June 12, 2013 by in Leadership & Management and tagged , , , , , , .

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