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Managers: It’s not about you

Wed., March 30, 2005, midnight

Despite some protesta- tions, I hear that work- places are more enlightened these days and that “everybody knows autocratic work styles don’t work anymore.” There’s plenty of contrary evidence.

I continue to hear stories of middle managers being told that if they don’t follow the corporate program they can move along. I recently heard a story about a CEO of a midsize company who confessed to his management team that he tries to fight the temptation to do everybody else’s job, but sometimes he fails. Apparently he thought the advance confession would forgive his power-hungry meddling. The advance notice will not fix the fact that everybody will be second-guessed and forced to operate out of fear.

Such behavior takes a measurable negative toll on the workplace according to Harry Chambers, who has written an insightful book called “My Way or the Highway: The Micromanagement Survival Guide.” He says 79 percent of employees he surveyed say they have been micromanaged in their career and 32 percent of employees have changed jobs because of it. The saddest statistic in Chambers’ book is that 91 percent of managers are unaware that their employees changed jobs because of micromanagement.

Chambers does a great job of helping micromanagers resist their troublesome instincts. He offers excellent advice to people who need to survive one of these “I always know best” types. Chambers avoids simplistic accusations and solutions. He’s always constructive.

Yet, one paragraph in the book captured my attention above all the others. For my money it defines the problem overwhelming workplaces. Chambers begins his second chapter with this: “The engine that pulls the train of micromanagement is the inability to subordinate self. Subordination of self is the setting aside of personal perceptions, opinions and at times, self interest for the greater good or the best interest of others. Unfortunately, people who micromanage usually think it’s all about ‘them.’ They lack the ability to take themselves out of the equation …”

You don’t have to be a top manager to be a micromanager. They exist throughout organizations and the sin they all share is self-absorption. When a manager insists that work must be done in only one way, he is exclaiming to the world that he is superior to everyone else. His self-esteem is in question and self-focus is the result.

When a manager needs to control every detail of the way work is done she is trying to prove her knowledge and expertise is greater than everyone else. She’s self-focused.

When a manager or leader attempts to quell dissent, he’s making his power and authority more important than getting work done well. Again, self-focus is the culprit.

And, what few of these micromanagers realize is they are creating an entire culture of “my way or the highway.” If my boss attempts to control every aspect of my work and insists on constant reports and explanations, then I cannot afford my people the freedom they need and deserve to do their work well.

When top executives demand reams of reports and insist that every decision go through them or that every trip must be approved by a top manager, they create a culture of micromanagement that will permeate the entire company. Employees will become frustrated and many will leave, but something even worse happens.

All accountability through the chain is removed and only the top executive becomes responsible for the success of the organization. Sadly, micromanaging executives fail to see this. They try to hold others accountable, but cannot because they actually authored all the important decisions. The finger-pointing culture that results is often fatal.

Tip for your search: Try to focus on others this week. Entertain the possibility that other people have positive, fruitful ideas. Take time to appreciate other people’s work styles and approaches. Master your job and let others master theirs.

Resource for your search: “My Way of the Highway: The Micromanagement Survival Guide” by Harry E. Chambers (Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc., 2004).


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