On Micromanaging

Micromanaging is not unique to educational settings, but I have worked primarily in schools, so that is where I have experienced it. It is a familiar phenomenon: leaders give excessive direction to workers. They specify details of how direct reports are to complete their work and they pay excessive attention to the processes workers follow.

In my experience, this is often explained as a lack of trust. It is reasoned leaders do not trust workers to be competent. In my experience, it is often explained as a “group punishment” for individual shortcomings. Rather than having uncomfortable coaching and mentoring sessions with individuals, leaders specify details for how all are to work.

While those explanations do explain many instances of micromanaging, I have become convinced that micromanaging is largely the result of incompetence. The Peter Principle” is a well-known effect; leaders rise to their level of incompetence. I maintain micromanaging is an characteristic of leaders who have “Petered out.”

Consider this example (based on a real situation I experienced at one point in my career): A principal was leading a school with many problems. There were cultural and organizational issues that needed to be addressed. It was clear that the principal the was struggling to address those problems.

In the middle of the school year, the principal became hyper-focused on posters in classrooms. He spent days walking into classrooms and noting the posters. He provided written details to the teachers of the changes he expected to see and he dropped in unannounced to check that the changes he specified had been made.

Of course, that principal’s actions can be explained in several ways. He may have been…

  • … looking for a success. (We all add “low hanging fruit” to our project lists.)
  • … passing along a directive coming from above. (Perhaps a curriculum coordinator had been to a conference presentation in which the benefits of classroom posters were described).
  • … deeply committed to classroom posters and finally gotten to his “passion.”

I am increasingly convinced micromanagers are focusing on something they feel comfortable doing. They take on those management tasks to appear too busy to address other larger issues or they know they can succeed in micromanaging, but they are unsure that can solve larger issues.

Micromanagers annoy workers. They want to be trusted. They want to use their own expertise. They also want leaders to solve the problems they are paid (significantly more than others) to solve.