Micromanagers are toxic: here’s how to help them to change

Julia Milner identifies three types of offender and suggests ways to transform their leadership styles

Credit: Farideh Diehl

Two-thirds of employees say they have been micromanaged. This means that most managers have slipped into micromanagement mode at least once.  

Managers who micromanage, despite popular stereotypes, are not necessarily mean-spirited tyrants. Often, they resort to micromanagement for benign reasons: lack of time, C-suite pressure or a simple lack of training in alternative management styles. 

However, for employees and even the company overall, a micromanager presents a real challenge. Employees may feel unmotivated and uninspired to think creatively when faced with a micromanager. They feel mentally boxed in and, in extreme situations, physically uncomfortable and even depressed. Micromanagers get in the way of real change in an organisation because they dismiss observations and solutions from the people who know best. This presents a real danger to innovation and long-term financial success. 

Employees who work with a micromanager often fear getting it wrong, doing it wrong or saying it wrong. They believe they will be punished if they deviate from what their manager told them. This prevents employees from experimenting with trial and error and gaining problem-solving skills. Faced with a manager who micromanages, employees switch to autopilot, doing the tasks they must do to survive, but, otherwise, they are mentally checked out and quietly quitting. 

There’s been an uptick in micromanaging in recent years as a result of hybrid work. Work from home scenarios can make even the best manager turn into a control freak. This is why it’s more important than ever to flag micromanagement as a corrosive element in the workplace and help managers avoid using it in daily interactions with their teams. 

Not all micromanagers are the same

As a professor of leadership in a French business school, I work with managers from around the globe and various industries. Here are the types of micromanagers I have encountered in my teaching and consulting work: 

The technical micromanager. These managers have been promoted because they have excellent technical skills and excelled in their previous posts. They were not, however, promoted for their people skills. These managers are forced to learn how to manage people on the run and often don’t have the support they need to succeed. My research colleagues and I found that most managers need training to be good leaders. They can’t be left alone to ‘pick up’ these skills along the way. The good news is that technical micromanagers are generally quick learners; they won’t need a lengthy training course to adapt. 

The controlling micromanager. This category of micromanager is populated by managers who crave power. They are holding on to control and are not interested in empowering others. This subset of micromanagers is trickier to handle as they often lack self awareness, which is vital to personal growth. 

The motivational micromanager. These micromanagers are often viewed as effective and sometimes even charismatic managers. They are popular and well respected. However, they have fallen into the micromanaging trap because they confuse enthusiasm and support for their teams with controlling them and forcing them to follow their lead. They use closed questions to hide that they are still giving commands. The employee, however, is aware of the message behind the question, and they still feel pressured to do exactly as their manager demands. Closed questions include: ‘Have you tried this or that?’ ‘Have you thought of this?’ ‘Why don’t you do it this way?’ 

Creating a micromanagement-free zone

Technical micromanagers often benefit from training in communication, active listening, active questioning and giving feedback. They also benefit from training in promoting empathy in the workplace. Attention: these managers need support during the transition period. They have a history of excelling and it is frustrating for them to feel like they are underperforming. 

Controlling micromanagers are among the toughest micromanagers to convert. HR managers should help these managers create a more positive work culture and show them how to make their team members feel safe. Conversations with team members may be necessary to gauge the damage done. Team members may need to be counselled on how to interact with their manager during the transition phase. 

The motivational micromanager is at the other end of the spectrum. These managers are usually very open to learning and change but need help identifying their micromanaging tendencies. They may benefit from practising new behaviours with like-minded peers, and HR can coach them on switching to a more neutral form of cheerleading and support. These managers benefit from feedback from their colleagues, team members and HR representatives. 

We live and work in a society that values success, so managers often feel pressure to reach impossible goals. This can result in micromanaging behaviours that, in the end, tear apart teams and foster toxic work environments. Instead of giving advice and dictating specific actions, managers must learn to empower their teams, even if it means not listening to their own advice or ditching their own game plan. 

Julia Milner is a professor of leadership at EDHEC Business School