Why Don't Companies Get Rid of Micro-Managers?

Last Updated Jul 5, 2010 6:15 AM EDT

BNET reader Bonadventure left the following comment on my post "My Micro-Managing Boss and I Share an Office":

Do you have any opinion on why companies don't reprimand micro-managers? As a matter of fact they seem to get promoted. Also, do you know how to filter for this type of behavior to in candidates considered for promotion?

Finally, why is it that HR don't usually filter for this behavior?

I, of course, do have an opinion on this. I have an opinion on everything. This especially annoys my husband.

Micro-managers exist and flourish because many people assume that employees won't work if you don't make them. That is, if I'm not constantly on your case, you won't get your work done.

This is, of course, true in enough cases to "prove" the point. It's also self-fulfilling prophecy because a good, self-motivated, results-oriented employee won't stay around under such a manager. At least not for very long. The employees that stay in that environment long term need to have someone looking over their shoulders. Therefore, the micro-manager has no desire to change.

And why do companies promote people who turn out to be micro-managers? Because companies tend to promote the person who does the best job at the individual contributor level, not the best potential manager. Why? Because it's easier to see who is the best worker bee then it is to look at all the employees and determine which one would be the best at managing and developing employees.

So, if you've been micro-managed for most of your career, and you are the best in your department so you get the promotion, what else are you going to do? You think hovering is normal. You know you were doing the work better than everyone else, so, therefore, your way is the right way and there can be no other way. You enforce this by looking over everyone's shoulder and giving "helpful" hints.

My favorite experience with a micro-manager came not in the workplace but in a church volunteer situation. I was loosely supervising a group of women who were doing the "difficult" task of folding and putting away a stack of towels. And by loosely I mean I said, "Here are the towels. They go over there."

Well, my supervisor appeared, saw these very capable women folding towels and came up to me in a huff. "They are folding the towels wrong! Go tell them to fold them in thirds, not fourths!"

I said, rather rationally, "When people are volunteering I don't like to correct them unless it's absolutely necessary. The towels will be fine."

"This is the Lord's house," she said, "and folding them in thirds is the Lord's way to fold towels!"

The interesting thing to me is that she absolutely believed it. It was obvious to her that her method of folding towels was the only correct one. It didn't matter that there was tons of evidence right in front of her that towels can be folded a different way and lightening will not strike. She knew she was right and therefore she needed to micro-manage the towel folding.

Part of the reason micro-managers get through the interviews is that we focus on the wrong things. We use terms like "detail oriented," to describe the ideal candidate. What this should mean is that we want someone who will make sure everything flows smoothly and the final product is mistake free. Unfortunately, many people interpret that as you have to be aware of every detail.

How do you screen out micro-managers? Well, I am a big supporter of the Results Oriented Workplace Environment (ROWE). This is where you are measured on your results not your face time. Managers let people do their work without hovering. The Wikipedia article on ROWE lists a few companies that officially use this method. There are more departments out there that do this on the sly, and some companies that do it without realizing. For instance, while BNET uses a lot of independent contractors (me included), the concept is really results oriented. I have set times in which I have to have a new article published. My editor doesn't care when or how I write as long as the quality is there. I'm writing this right now at 7:00 a.m. on Saturday while my family sleeps. I'm listening to Natalie Merchant and eating store-brand sugar-coated corn flakes while I do that. It's enough to make a micro-manager twitchy.

In order to make this work you have to hire only real adults. This has nothing to do with age and everything to do with maturity. You have to trust your employees to do their work. To hire managers who do this, hire people who want to work like this. It's all about getting the results at the end of the day. Seek out people who work "independently."

As for why HR doesn't "filter" for that type of behavior, well for one we don't make the final hiring decisions and for two, we don't directly mentor your manager. His manager should be doing that. But, in reality, just like in other fields, there are a lot of micro-managers in HR as well. You've met them. They are the ones that write 30 item lists of what type of shoes are and are not acceptable in the dress code.

Now, before everyone sinks into a pit of despair, let me say that micro-managing isn't the kiss of death, nor does everyone do it. I've only worked for one manager with micro-managing tendencies in my entire career. And even with her, once I made it very clear that I would come to her when I needed help and that I knew what I was doing and she left me alone and hovered over the rest of the department. (It helped that my focus was an area which she had little experience, so even though she wanted to hover she realized her hovering did not do any good.)

When you're interviewing ask directly if they are familiar with ROWE and what their thoughts are on it. If you're managing, check out the links above. If you're not managing, check out the links above anyway. If more companies would do this, we'd see the last of the micro-managers.

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