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Micromanagement: The Hidden Cost on Mental Health

We all have at some point in our lives experienced working closely with a micromanager. They dot the i’s and cross the t’s, go through every minute detail with hawk-eye precision and crush innocuous souls one red mark at a time. Some common characteristics include: redoing the work of others, resisting delegation, setting unrealistic deadlines and asking for frequent updates.

We laugh it off as the price we pay for the privilege of working with high-achieving perfectionists. It is almost reassuring at first, especially when starting a new role, to have your safety net cast wide for you by a compulsive scrutiniser. But the realm of micromanagement extends way beyond its value as easy comical material for a few office jokes. It digs much deeper into issues such as personal autonomy, job satisfaction and long-term mental health.

The Empowerment Factor

To feel empowered, we each need to feel like we can take ownership of our individual remits at work. Micromanagement is an insidious form of control, whereby the person being managed feels like no matter what they do, how they do it or how hard they try – it is never good enough. Eventually, they will stop using their brain or contribute anything of substance since, frankly, what’s the point?

Being micromanaged for an extended period is no laughing matter. It rids an individual of their autonomy and creativity, erodes their self-confidence, and exponentially increases their anxiety and stress levels. What’s more, these negative effects are disempowering and often spill over to that individual’s next role, having a long-term impact on their ability to flourish in their career.

The Perfection / Expression Trade-off

Some of us correct to uplift the work, to sharpen the tone, to refine the message. Some of us correct for the sake of soothing our perfectionist tantrums. The former adds value, whilst respecting the autonomy and freedom of expression of another. The latter is a form of control, whether or not intentional.

Some contexts tend towards perfectionism in that the margin of error needs to be close to zero - such as performing a medical procedure or flying a plane. However, the vast majority of what we do does not have life or death situations hanging in the balance. Drafting a cover letter enclosing some documents to the tax office is not one, writing a sales brochure is not one, neither is doing a marketing pitch to a new lead. In these scenarios, an individual should be allowed to express these messages, or carry out these objectives, in the way that they see fit – so long as what they do is not simply wrong, jeopardising a deadline, or detrimental to the purpose of the task.

A quick interjection: this article does not seek to make excuses for laziness or slapdash work. It invites us to consider the way we work and how it might have a negative impact on our working environment and collective mental wellbeing.

There needs to be an understanding and acceptance of the fact that people have different brains, and therefore may arrive at a solution from a different angle or express something differently. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it is wrong. Forcing someone to take on a working style that isn’t naturally theirs is only going to decrease productivity and quality of work.

Every time we correct someone else’s work or dictate exactly how something needs to be executed – think about the cost of doing so versus the actual value that it adds. The tweaks and improvements that boost a 92% to a 95% (in your mind) often costs more than the value it brings. This stifling management style not only severely undermines an individual’s self-confidence, but also leads to long-term scars. Gallup found that disengagement absenteeism costs a 10,000 person company a whopping US$600,000 a year. A disincentivised employee is not one that will be productive, bring new ideas or work extra hours because they care about the project. No matter how talented or intelligent that individual may be, being micromanaged is a sure way to ensure that they are less engaged, less motivated, and less likely to stay with the organisation.

The situation worsens if the individual continues to be micromanaged even as they gain seniority and experience. They will eventually lose a sense of purpose and fall into a rabbit hole of self-deprecation, chronic anxiety and bitter resentment. Imagine a child who is being taught how to ride a bike. If someone keeps holding on to the tail of the bicycle whilst they peddle, for months and years, how will they ever learn? And how terrible would the child feel if, after months and years, they realise that they still cannot ride a bike, because someone keeps telling them that they are incompetent, without being given the opportunity to try?

Handholding your teammates and scrutinising everything that they do is not going to help them learn. People learn when they are given the space to try, to fail, to fall and to grow.

No fun and games for the micromanager either

Micromanagement stems from a deep-rooted insecurity and is rarely malicious. High achievers are often so terrified of letting their reputation down, and therefore feel the need to exercise control over every aspect that they feel responsible for. It is not unusual for a micromanager to constantly be on the verge of burnout, as they are unable to let go of any microscopic task or detail – doing their job on top of everyone else’s, overworking themselves to the ground.

But the bottom line is - this controlling behaviour is counterproductive in all respects. It leads to higher staff attrition, low morale, employee disengagement, absenteeism and jeopardises the sustainability of an organisation. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent on recruiting and retaining talent. Talent that can simply go down the drain at the hands of an obsessive micromanager.

All about trust

While most micromanagers are not intentionally on the prowl to annihilate others, they need to be made aware of the true mental and financial cost of their management style – to the organisation, to themselves and to their colleagues. Addressing micromanagement within a team should be an integral part of every mental health roadmap, as well as talent retention and succession planning strategies.

There is one secret ingredient to all of this. Whether you’re a habitual micromanager or long-suffering ‘micromanagee’ - a little bit of trust, in yourself and in others, can go a long way.


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