Sunday, September 18, 2011


Every man, woman, and child complains that his boss is a micromanager. If we were to take this at face value, we would have to believe that every single corporate authority figure is a bitchy Sasquatch with a sawed-off Blackberry. It is not that unambiguous.

As someone who has been micromanaged, I sympathize with the anguish it causes, but listening to people’s huffy homilies about micromanaging bosses is like listening to their huffy homilies about bad drivers. Everyone claims every driver but them is an incompetent maniac. Not true. Driving is an activity that begs for catastrophe, yet accidents are infrequent. It is simply not the case that every driver but you is unable to differentiate between the gas pedal and the brake.

It is more probable that many folks define themselves as great drivers and therefore must claim everyone who isn’t them is so useless behind the wheel they couldn’t even crash a bumper car. Just as it is impossible that every driver but you is a menace, it is impossible for every single boss to be a psychopathic micromanager. I don’t doubt that micromanaging is widespread, but I don’t think it happens to the extent the anecdotal reporting would indicate.

Here are some of what I think are the nuances of the micromanagement phenomenon:

Most people work in close quarters now; offices ("cubicle farms"). This means when you’re ordered to do something, it is right up close, so your sheer proximity to the order-giver makes you feel more micromanaged.

It also used to be much easier to fire people. When it was more of a “My way or the highway” world, you only had to tell someone to do something once, because if he didn’t comply, you could can him. Now that employees have much more leeway, you have to nag them to get them to perform their duties, which of course is interpreted as micromanagement.

And unlike the days when many people worked in factories and fields, today it is less obvious who is in charge. When you’re the team leader of an office as opposed to a factory foreman, it is less apparent what purpose you serve, so you must show yourself to be conspicuously in charge, which leads to constant authority-asserting emails and 386 word mission statements with 2 words of actual meaning.

Also, you can now send someone a command from anywhere. Before smartphones, if you were physically away from your computer, you couldn’t send or receive email. Neither could your boss. So if he went to lunch, no commands were issued for at least 30 minutes. If you went to lunch, no commands were received for at least 30 minutes. What this means is that in the old days, an email sent at 12:02 wasn’t read until you returned to your desk at 12:30. Now that 12:02 email reaches you while you’re on line at Chipotle, prompting you to scream: “Doesn’t he know I’m at lunch?!” Pre-smartphone or post, that email was sent at 12:02, but now that it reaches you wherever you are, it makes you feel he’s all over you.

Leaving aside technology, the old axiom still holds: If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. Every person thinks his way is the right way. If you’re a boss, your subordinates are never going to be exact clones of you, which means you will never get them to do things exactly as you would, which in your mind is the right way. So because they’re not you, in your mind everything they do is at least a little wrong, causing you to keep trying to correct them (it is after all your job to mold them to do things “right”). Hence micromanaging.

And because you the subordinate also think you know how everything should be done, you resent receiving any instruction on a task, because you believe you innately know the best method for the task (again, if you want something done right...). So any degree of instruction is going to make you feel micromanaged.

What is happening is the mechanisms required to be a boss in the modern white-collar world are colliding with the innate sense people have always had that they know best how to do things. I guess all we can do is update some old worker angst songs: “You load 16 GBs, whadda ya get? Another day older and deeper in debt.”

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