Why some leaders just can’t stop micromanaging
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Why some leaders just can’t stop micromanaging

Did you get promoted into a leadership role because you had deep experience in leadership? Not likely. Because you had a proven track record as a developer of people? Again, probably not.

You most likely got singled out because you excelled at a specific technical skill. Your organization made a bet. It said, “Because you’re a high performer, we’re going to raise your level of responsibility and hope you can get results through other people.” In other words, through delegating some of your responsibilities to those who report to you.

When organizations win this bet, the payoff is huge. First, delegation helps leaders replicate in others the knowledge, skills and behaviors that made them successful. Second, leaders like these have the time to take on high-level strategic activities and make an even greater impact.

Feeling disempowered

No surprise, though, the bet is often a losing one. One huge reason why: Too many leaders can’t resist the urge to micromanage their people, watching their every move, insisting that employees follow the leader’s processes to the letter. This makes people feel stifled and disempowered, and kills any chance the leader might have had to inculcate their strengths in their employees.

But why do otherwise smart and skilled leaders micromanage?

The leader’s own insecurity

Usually, it’s not because they’re cold, mean, manipulative individuals. Rather, there’s a deep psychological reason. Behavioral research suggests that leaders are prone to micromanage when they themselves don’t feel secure in their role.

In two separate studies, researchers from the University of California, Riverside surveyed groups of people about how powerful they felt in various aspects of their lives, and also about their attitudes toward managing employees.

The researchers found that the less powerful they felt, the more likely they were to agree with authoritarian management where bosses micromanage all decisions. The idea is that managers who feel insecure try to compensate by exercising tight control over their employees. That makes sense, when you think about it: Human beings need some sense of control, and will go to great lengths to get it.

Look in the mirror

If you suspect you might be micromanaging, ask yourself why. Is it because you don’t feel secure yourself?

Then, recognize that good people need to find their own way, and that includes making mistakes. Micromanagement is appropriate with beginners or in a crisis, but as a sustained management style it’s destructive.

This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “Delegation: How to Get Results Through Other People.” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based on the following scholarly article: Haselhuhn, M. et al. (2017). With great power comes shared responsibility: Psychological power and the delegation of authority. Personality and Individual Differences, 108, 1-4.

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