A Micromanager’s Guide to Trust, Teamwork, and Communication

TeamworkThe unavoidable truth is micromanagement makes us feel better and that’s why we do it.  Like the nicotine in a cigarette, it calms the nervous manager, providing information and visibility into situations where it would otherwise be lacking.  We gain our “hit” of easy information, our twitching eases, and we can move on to something else for a while.

The problem is that just like the nicotine in cigarettes comes laden with a cadre of things that will kill you, micromanagement too carries a host of cancer-causing effects that poison an organization and wreak havoc in the minds of even dedicated workers.  Likewise, such an intense hands-on approach is no way to scale an organization, fails to develop new leadership, and traps existing managers in a relentless daily grind.  Most managers realize this – even new ones – and don’t break their habits simply out of lack of knowledge, lack of ideas, or… well… habit.

The real fact of the matter is that micromanagement is usually a reaction to a problem that, rather than addressing and eliminating the problem directly, serves as a convenient power play to side-step the issue all together.  But more effective solutions are available for gaining visibility, providing accountability, and taking issues head-on.

On-Board Terrorists
What is it that kicks off a good round of micromanaging, anyway?  For some it literally may be as simple as the need for information without the skill to gain it in any other way.  For others, a different issue may be at work.

Do you have information terrorists in your organization?  You know the kind.  People that won’t let go of information, but instead guard it close?  What are the impacts of this behavior to their co-workers, their team, and the company at large when they refuse to communicate?  What is the impact on trust in the group around them, or the spirit of teamwork?  Sometimes micromanagement can be a coping mechanism for poor employee behavior.  But rather than simply cope, it’s better to address the root issue.

One for All
Is it ever okay for an employee to declare their own personal little fiefdom?   Do “we the people” have the right to carve off a corner of the company from the whole, taking vital company data and information with?  And yet when on-board terrorists go to work, this is exactly what happens.

Any sense of teamwork is lost.  It is, in fact, the company’s data, the company’s information, the company’s sales leads, etc., and we are charged with creating, working, and furthering them.  As soon as the “pronoun problem” becomes internalized and people begin to believe in terms of “my” instead of “our,” teamwork is a concept instead of reality.

Bring it Together
What systems of accountability are in place in your organization?  All I have to do in order to generate a roll of the eyes with a client is to point out they don’t trust their employees and tell them they need to get past it.  But if you think “get past it” means “blind trust” you’re dead wrong.

I don’t advocate blind trust for the same reason I’m not a big fan of trust falls and quite a few other “team building” exercises.  Want to build a team?  Accomplish something – preferably something challenging.

Good systems of accountability feature at least three things.  First, they clearly define goals and personal responsibilities.  Second, they create a regular, predictable, controlled forum in which status on responsibilities is reported and progress towards goals is made clear.  Third and finally, they create an environment where the expectation within the group is that success is expected from all.

In this environment, trust is built and reinforced through success.  Teamwork is an integral component as the collective problem solves toward common goals.  Communication simply happens because it is the standard operating procedure.  Whereas the micromanager may cycle between extremes of over-communication and hands-off indifference in the name of “staying informed,” the accountable manager produces better results through better information, more often.

And a Caveat
Let’s be fair.  If an employee is new to a role or a set of skills, then hands-on, close-contact management may be appropriate, particularly if the job is technical.  This isn’t called micromanagement, though.  It’s called training and it’s critical for success.

Wrapping Up
We can micromanage our way around the on-board anti-communication terrorists… only to face them another day.  We can side-step issues of teamwork in the same way, and even get around lack of trust in a team, all while strong-arming the information needed.

But a better alternative is to address the fundamental issues directly and not accept lack of trust, teamwork, or communication as standard operating procedure.  The fundamental step is to take a different approach of installing systems of accountability that help to encourage and reinforce trust, teamwork, and communication.  The net effect is improved information flow, increased productivity, and improved profitability.


Dustin Walling is Principal of Dustin Walling Associates, a Seattle-based management consulting firm providing strategy and operational consulting to small and medium businesses.  For article topics, questions, or comments, Dustin can be reached at http://www.DustinWalling.com.