The Secret Fear That Causes Bosses To Micromanage
This article originally appeared on Forbes by Mark Murphy, Founder of Leadership IQ
You’re sitting at your desk, intensely focused on writing that big report, when you start to feel a weird tingling on the back of your neck. You try to refocus, furrowing your brow and redoubling your efforts, but you can’t shake the disquieting sense that you’re being watched. Finally, you give up and slowly turn around in your chair, sincerely hoping there’s not an ax murderer lurking behind you. “Ahhrh! Jeezum! What the?!?!?!?” you shriek as you flail out of your seat. Because looming a few inches behind you, watching your every move is your boss.
Not every micromanaging boss lurks in the office waiting to startle you with their best Norman Bates impression. But whether they’re skulking about or emailing you incessantly for status updates, being on the receiving end of micromanaging is frustrating, and even demoralizing.
So, why do bosses micromanage? Are they sadistically trying to cause us pain? Honestly, yes, there are some malformed personalities scattered throughout the world’s managerial ranks. But most of the time when you see a boss micromanaging, the root cause isn’t sadism, it’s fear.
There are lots of reasons why bosses experience fear. Some bosses fear a loss of control. For instance, if you’re an individual contributor programmer, you can resolve a lot of issues by yourself. You type your lines of code and if something goes wrong, you fix it. But if you’re a manager and something goes wrong, you can’t just hop in front of your computer and fix it. You oversee a bunch of programmers and your job is to convince them to go fix the problem. It’s one of the great ironies of having managerial authority; your title gets bigger but your personal control gets smaller. And the bigger your title, the less personal control you have.
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Other leaders experience the fear that comes from having a healthy ego. Bosses often start their careers as high-performing individual contributors. They’re expert in their individual role, they get noticed for doing superior work and then get promoted into a supervisory job. They were the best person in their individual role but now they’re managing a group of people who just weren’t as good. And they fear that if they put their name on work that’s not as good as they could have done themselves, they’ll look bad.
But the fear most responsible for causing bosses to micromanage is that 48% of bosses like to be seen as experts and authority figures. More than 5,000 leaders have taken the online test “Are You Motivated By Power Or Achievement?” And based on the results of the test, we know that about 41% of leaders have a very strong desire for power.
Being power driven is not inherently a bad thing; it just means that they want to be in charge and they want authority to make decisions that will impact others. And used properly, that can be terrific. Remember that even the noblest leaders still need power to achieve good in the world.
But if you have a strong drive for power and you want to be seen as an expert, imagine how you’ll feel when your employees are working so independently and self-sufficiently that they seem to have no use for your expertise and authority. Take it a step further and imagine that those employees are out traveling or just telecommuting from home. If you have a strong power drive and want to be seen as an expert, it’s easy to imagine hundreds of work situations that would make you feel nonessential, superfluous and maybe even obsolete. And faced with those fearful emotions, most leaders would naturally start micromanaging.
In cases like this, bosses aren’t micromanaging because they want to cause pain; they’re doing it because they want to be seen as an expert and yet nobody seems to care what they think! So they start hovering about, looking for opportunities to say something really smart, to remind folks of their expertise. Or they start nagging employees for project updates or demanding to see work-in-progress, in the hopes that they can identify some problems and use their ‘expertise’ to correct them.
While lots of leaders dislike terms like ‘existential crisis,’ that’s exactly what many of them face. They want to be influential and seen as an expert, so what are they supposed to do when their employees’ don’t appear to need (or value) the boss’ contributions? It can be an absolutely gut-wrenching challenge for leaders.
Of course, proactive, resilient and ambitious leaders will just find new areas in which to be seen as ‘expert.’ They won’t micromanage their employees in an attempt to make themselves feel better; they’ll just keep growing and developing to keep pace with their employees. And that’s the solution for leaders facing this existential crisis. Micromanaging is an ultimately self-defeating strategy. But personal growth is an approach that not only spares your employees from the pain of micromanaging, it also makes the leader more expert and more powerful.
Mark Murphy is the author of Truth At Work: The Science Of Delivering Tough Messages, Hiring For Attitude and Hundred Percenters.