The Side Effects of Micromanagement

By Hise Gibson & Nadege Benoit

Micromanagement is cancer to innovation. Unfortunately, some organizations build sophisticated processes to mask the need for leader control which erodes and undermines trust. Not all micromanagers ultimately stifle innovation, but they are the exception and not the rule.

Amazon has had a Day 1 mentality since its inception. Jeff Bezos understood the lifecycle of organizations. One day you start, you reach stasis, then you die. The day one mantra pushes the stasis component further out to delay the eventual death of the organization. Amazon has been on Day 1 for over 20 years. This simple idea could not work if Jeff Bezos were the only one who had great ideas. It would be impossible to fail often and fail fast if the organization is lead by leaders who micromanage. Micromanagement smothers innovation when it is the leading tool of choice.

Many organizations have attempted to integrate agile frameworks to create environments that can rapidly generate new and novel options. These are initiatives to support the desired innovative culture needed in the highly interactive environment of 2021. Unfortunately, to be creative, leaders struggle to develop strategy, operationalize that strategy, and implement tactical tasks to complete initiatives promptly. Instead, leaders remain deeply tactical and mask their micromanagement tendencies with sophisticated processes that allow overreaching control, which erodes trust, thus stifling innovation.

A former U.S. President stated, “Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don’t interfere as long as the policy you’ve decided upon is being carried out.” — Ronald Reagan.

Exercising this agency is easier said than done. Leaders mimic what they have been exposed to and are a representation of their own experiences. During the financial crisis of 2008, organizations defunded the majority of their leadership development portfolio and pivoted to a sink or swim model. The current senior leaders of today are the absolute best swimmers and survived the turbulence created by the crisis. However, the environment has transitioned much like in an Iron Man Race. The athlete must transition from the swim event to the bike event. Unfortunately, many leaders cannot ride a bike unless it either has training wheels or is stationary. They have not exercised the muscles necessary to be a solid cyclist but are excellent swimmers. Many leaders thus are swim coaches trying to direct a cyclist and a marathoner. Swimmer guiding marathon training is not right, and stating buzzwords, does not mean they are adequately equipped to enable optimal performance.

Often, we observe sporadic action or activity of ADHD leaders masks as speed, risk-taking, and agility. Unfortunately, their teams recognize the leader is trying to control all activities to ease their anxiety (the leader) and not the team’s anxiety. In turn, the leader is working against themselves. They amplify uncertainty and extract the critical Trade space of team members. The latter is more worried about guessing “what is in the leader’s pocket” versus focusing on important initiatives.

Although micromanagement can sometimes be a valuable tool in leading a team, particularly during times of crisis, it should be used temporarily and not as a long-term leadership strategy. The adverse effects, including burnout, lack of innovation, and loss of trust, can cripple an organization.

This undesirable leadership behavior grows from the self-fulfilling reality of what success is. The leader usually has not only done the team members’ job, but the leaders did it exceptionally well. This is why the mantle of leadership is placed on the leader’s shoulders. Since the leader understands the challenges, micromanagement creeps in, not malicious but helpful and supportive. The leader operating in this way has fallen into the “what got me her won’t get you there” trap. The leader is still doing the previous role versus focusing on the current one.

Because this is a team operation, the leader must recognize everyone’s needs, a place at the table, and an opportuntity to E-A-T.

E=The leader must work on their emotional intelligence (EQ). Team members give cues when they feel devalued. They become distant and less willing to extend themselves or ideas to support initiatives.

A=Leaders must also acknowledge that they are in a new role, and the firm promoted them and entrusted them with a broader span and control for a reason. Part of this more general responsibility is to observe whether you can develop, guide, and manage a team effectively.

T=Leadership is all about managing transitions. In the dynamic environment in which we operate, leaders must be engaged and recognize that they need to control an initiative decreases agility simply because team members who prioritize their ability to perform at a high level are impaired.

Dr. Hise O. Gibson is an Academy Professor of Systems Engineering at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He graduated with a B.S. in Operations Research from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and a Doctorate of Business Administration in Technology and Operations Management from Harvard Business School. His expertise is the intersection of operational effectiveness and human capital development to enable more effective ways to maximize the integration of Technology, People, and Processes throughout an organization.

Nadege Benoit is an Army Adjutant General Officer and is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. She currently serves as a Leader Developer at the United States Military Academy at West Point, and is a graduate of the Army’s Eisenhower Leader Development Program and holds a master’s degree in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University.

Passionate about the intersection of Operational Effectiveness & Human Capital Development by leveraging a Systems Thinking framework to solve complex problems.