Minding My Own Business

A Handbook for Micromanagers

October 18, 2005

Of the hundreds of books, seminars, columns, white papers, and professionals that dispense business advice, perhaps no subject is more universally maligned than micromanagement. For whatever reason, the all-knowing cartel of 21st Century business gurus - prestigious educational institutions, white-glove consultancies, and retired (or soon to be retired) executives - are unwavering in their confidence and unanimity that the road to incompetence is paved with micromanagement. Tome after tome urges managers to delegate authority to qualified subordinates so that they can focus on the big picture, devoting themselves to major strategic, financial, and operational matters.

Sound advice. But what about those managers who can't help micromanaging? What is to be done with those managers who, despite the admonitions of experts, do in fact lie awake at night fretting over the font on their company letterheads or the color choices for the conference room carpet? Who is going to dispense advice to the executive who can't abide the fact that her salespeople regularly bypass established e-mail templates and fax handwritten quotes to million dollar prospects? Are there any helpful hints for the chief executive officer of a $75 million company who insists on personally purchasing everything from raw materials to paper clips?

Well, as a concerned observer (and, to be fair, one who has been accused of indulging in the occasional micromanagement craving), I'd like to offer this column as a start, and dedicate this effort to all the micromanagers out there, from the chronically detail-driven to the obsessively compulsive.

Like other first steps, we should begin by acknowledging the reality that with some very rare exceptions, every manager has a little micromanager inside. Are any of us truly immune from trying to correct or improve the errors or inefficiencies that we notice on our daily rounds? Are we capable of listening to our salespeople pitch a customer without correcting or embellishing their points?

The point is not whether we know better than everyone else; of course we do. The point is that we don't have the time or ability to correct everyone else. The second step, therefore, is to embrace the fact that our destiny is almost never completely within our own hands. For many, the definition of poor judgement is any decision that is different from what they would have chosen - especially in hindsight. As business managers, we are, in fact, fated to endure the incompetence of our subordinates, and expected to overcome it. That is what leadership is all about.

However, given our predisposition towards micromanagement - and given that I do on occasion succumb to it myself - I'd like to offer just a few tips that might help you, as they have aided me, disguise these managerial indiscretions from subordinates.

The Comb-Over

Activating this strategy involves hiding your micromanaging (your bald spot) beneath a far more overreaching grand concept (the comb-over). You must convince your subordinates that what they think of as your getting too involved in minor details is in actuality a critical element in implementing Total Quality Management or Lean Manufacturing.

After you correct the grammar in an internal memo or insert yourself into negotiations with a vendor, you should immediately point out that "These are exactly the kind of areas that are keeping us from achieving our goals, and need to do better".

The General Patton

Turn the tables on the perception of micromanagement by insisting that your intrusions are examples of leadership by example. To pull this one off, you must be able to convince your managers that you are merely using the nitpicking as "examples" - but overstress the example just enough to ensure that they understand that this particular example is in and of itself a real issue in your opinion.

You can get your point across with a simple "There's nothing I hate more than overpaying for pencils. If we can't purchase office supplies sharply, how the heck can we expect to avoid overpaying for tooling?"

The Cousin Vinny

An homage to one of the funniest movies of the past two decades, this head fake requires you to build the case to your subordinates that involving yourself in the nitty gritty can ultimately help you win the big case. Just like Joe Pesci used his recently-gained knowledge of southern grits to get his nephew acquitted of murder, so too must you be able to convince those around you that you can transfer the knowledge or experience gained by your micromanagement into a credible business asset.

For example, interfering with your scheduling supervisor to get the $300 production run for your wife's brother pushed ahead of the $13,000 rush order for your newest customer can be alleviated by telling the supervisor that "this is a great test case. Now we will know how quickly our production personnel can shift gears at the last minute under intense time pressures."

The Case for Fundamentals

Like the newly hired manager of a losing major league team, it's never a bad idea to remind the team to concentrate on the fundamentals. You can excuse just about any action perceived as meddling by saluting the importance of getting the basics right in order to ensure a foundation upon which to build greatness.

It's amazing, but after you criticize the photo selected for the company newsletter, you can comfortably fall back on "Our newsletter is how we communicate at the most fundamental level with our employees, and the right photo sets the tone - so let's examine exactly what tone we really want to set."

I hope you find these hints helpful. Remember, this is about replacing the perception of a micromanager with that of a top-flight executive. I don't for a second really believe that anyone can truly be cured of his or her faults or managerial frailties - there is far too much Larry David in all of us. Like other vices, micromanagement will always exist. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Elisha Tropper is president of Prestige Label Co., of Burgaw, NC, a CFG company, headquartered in New York City.