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Have you ever had a boss who is always hovering over your shoulder, checking to see what you're doing and how long it takes you to complete tasks? Maybe they do it while you're in the office, stopping by every hour for a status update at your desk and interrupting your task flow.

Or perhaps they are checking in too much online, sending you emails and chats too frequently. This doesn't lead to a good employee experience - you probably felt stressed, irritated, and unable to get your work done well.

These behaviors are all examples of micromanagement in the workplace. Micromanagement is a common but disruptive behavior that too many managers use with their teams to produce good work.

But micromanagement has many adverse effects, and it can decrease productivity overall. This guide will cover what micromanagement is, how to spot it, and why it's harming your team and your company, plus some suggestions for improvements that can help everyone perform at their best.

What is micromanagement in the workplace?

Micromanagement describes a management style where a manager closely observes and controls the actions and output of team members. Micromanagement is more than just paying careful attention to what your team is working on and producing.

It is an excessive amount of involvement in all the team's activities. It is a method of exacting control that limits the autonomy and creativity of employees.

Micromanagement is a negative way of managing a team. But it doesn't typically come from bad intentions. It comes out of a manager's need for control and to assert their authority.

The manager imagines there's a need for structure in the chaos of the workplace. So they behave by exerting excessive control and carrying each project over the finish line themselves.

Sometimes it also comes from deep insecurities, where the manager doesn't feel they deserve their position, so they think the same about the people they supervise. They may worry that the team's performance reflects poorly on them, so they try to control every element of each task an employee performs.

Whatever the reason for being a micromanaging boss, it's an ineffective management style that needs to be stopped quickly and curtailed before the behavior hurts the whole team.

Examples of micromanagement in the workplace

What does micromanagement look like in the workplace? Many different behaviors can indicate a problematic management style, but here are a few classic examples that can help you spot a micromanager.

  • They ask to be copied on all emails from the team, whether they genuinely need to be included or not.
  • They are reluctant to delegate even the most minor tasks to their team members.
  • They constantly check where their employees are, seeing if they're at their desks or online, and may even monitor bathroom breaks.
  • They ask for excessively frequent updates on even small tasks and check and double-check on deadlines.
  • They rarely ask for input from anyone else.
  • They take pleasure in correcting someone else's work or pointing out very small errors.
  • They scrutinize each task intently, no matter how small or low-priority the work is.
  • They never seem to be satisfied with any work an employee performs.
  • They are reluctant to share their knowledge with team members, often telling them it's not important to know this information.
  • They don't have constructive feedback conversations with their employees, and instead of asking them how things are going, they spend their time telling them what to do and how to do it.

Micromanagement can manifest in many ways, but the defining factor is an excessive desire for control that gets in the way of getting real work done.

Adverse effects of micromanagement in the workplace

The negative effects of micromanagement are numerous. It has a significant negative effect on both the micromanaging manager and the team experiencing this management style. It drags down business results, slows innovation, decreases engagement levels, and drives employees out of the company altogether.

1. Increased employee turnover

Did you know that micromanagement is listed as one of the top three reasons employees resign from their jobs? In a work environment where micromanagement runs rampant employees seek to leave as soon as possible.

And since the actual cost of employee turnover is high, micromanagement also leads to an increase in recruitment and hiring costs, as well as a loss of vital institutional knowledge as workers depart quickly.

2. Loss of trust

‍When employees feel they're not trusted to do even simple tasks on their own or take a quick bathroom break without being closely observed and criticized, that erodes their sense of autonomy.

If you hire high-quality, top-performing professionals and treat them like children who need to be monitored and guarded every moment of the day, that lessens their trust in their manager and your organization as a whole.

3. Manager burnout

Micromanaging isn't just exhausting for the team members being managed - it's draining for the manager as well. Exerting this level of control is unsustainable for managers, as they need to look at every single task closely and fail to prioritize or delegate appropriately.

This frustration and overwork can end up taking a toll on the manager, which they may pass onto employees in a vicious cycle that is difficult to break.

4. Lower employee engagement

Employees feel most engaged when they have a sense of autonomy over their work and a sense of purpose in the work they do every day. Micromanagement stifles this connection to meaningful work and the employee's sense of autonomy.

And feeling heard also impacts engagement and productivity: employees who feel their voice is heard are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to perform their best work.

5. Losing sight of the big picture

Managers and leaders are supposed to be taking a strategic role in their jobs, helping lead the team's daily tasks to contribute to the organization as a whole. But micromanagers lose sight of the bigger picture as they're overly focused on paying attention to small details.

Employees lose their creativity and start focusing on the next small task to be done, and the whole team suffers as a result.

6. Dependence on the manager

Teams that are micromanaged naturally begin to rely excessively on the manager to direct even the smallest tasks. They feel unable to take any actions or risk themselves because they're focused only on making their hard-to-please manager happy. That encourages an unhealthy dependence and stifles creativity and innovation for the whole team.

What is the difference between micro and macro management?

Micromanagement is looking at the smallest of tasks with a need for control and scrutiny. Macro management, on the other hand, is focusing on the bigger picture and allows employees the independence and autonomy they need to perform their best in their roles. 

Macro managers employ a more hands-off approach to managing their team and instead focus on creating a work environment where everyone can thrive. They keep direct supervision and criticism to a minimum and treat employees like competent professionals.

After all, why would you take the time and effort to hire employees with excellent skills and plenty of competence only to treat them like unruly kindergartners? Macro managers believe that is an unhelpful approach to leading a team.

How to be a macro manager?

Becoming a macro manager can be a difficult journey for many recovering micromanagers. Here are a few key steps to trying out a macro-management style for yourself.

1. Reflect on your behavior

‍What fears or needs have led you to have a micromanaging style? It will be difficult to make a lasting change if you don't know why you micromanage employees to begin with.

Is it insecurity about your team reflecting badly on you, or a desire to get tasks done yourself instead of trusting the team? Knowing why you have this need for control will help you focus on why you shouldn't micromanage as well.

2. Get feedback

‍Learning from your team members about how your micromanaging negatively affects their work and their view of your team can be instructive in creating real change. You can do this through 360 reviews or informally gathering feedback in surveys.

3. Delegate wisely

‍One of the biggest pitfalls of micromanagement is that it doesn't allow time for getting the real work of managing done because you're overly focused on small tasks.

Instead, take the time to delegate tasks you feel comfortable handing over to a trusted team member and slowly begin to see the benefits of a macro management style.

4. Give appropriate support

‍Macro management doesn't mean taking an entirely hands-off approach to management - employees will still need guidance and advice regularly.

Giving them this support only when needed and in a way that helps employees figure out things on their own without giving explicit direction about what to do, is excellent practice at becoming a macro manager.

Inspired to let go of your micromanaging ways but find the process intimidating? Harvard Business Review has some powerful stories about former micromanagers making the transition that might prove helpful.

Key takeaways

Micromanagement is a common problem in every industry - managers too often believe that leadership means exerting a high degree of control and telling employees exactly what to do. But that's detrimental to your employee engagement levels, retention efforts, and any chance at innovation and growth your business has.

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Kathleen O'Donnell

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Kathleen is a freelance writer and employee communications and culture expert, with 6+ years of experience in corporate internal communications.