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Am I micromanaging my team?

Here are the 5 most telling signs of micromanagement – and what you can do instead.

I won’t tell anyone: You think you might be a micromanager. Argh. If there were scarlet letters for a bad manager to wear, “m-i-c-r-o-m-a-n-a-g-e-r” would be among them.

But, how do you know if you’re a micromanager, for sure?

Yes, you can directly ask your team members if they think you’re micromanaging them. If you have a direct report who has a penchant for shooting you straight, I highly recommend this. (In fact, when we asked through Know Your Team to 606 employees across 61 companies, “Do you feel micromanaged?” 12% said “Yes.”)

But it’s also probable that your direct report might not concede the truth. You are their boss, after all. And telling a boss they’re a micromanager is the equivalent of, well, slapping them in the face.

Given that your team member does not want to slap you in the face… you can sort of do it yourself 🙂 What I mean by this is that you can consider the behaviors most often exhibited by micromanagers, and honestly reflect: Do I do this?

From the research and insights we’ve gathered through Know Your Team and the interviews I’ve done with leaders on our podcast, here are the 5 most-telling signs that your answer to “Am I micromanaging my team?” is “Drat, yes.”

Sign #1: You have a habit of asking, “Just checking in on this?” before a project is due.

The clock is ticking and you haven’t heard how a project is coming along. Is it on time? Is it going well? So, you do what feels only natural: You ask, “How’s it going?” or “What’s the latest?” or “Just checking in on this?” While seemingly harmless to you — and rather important to you that you have an answer — it’s death by a thousand paper cuts for your direct reports. You’re not giving them a chance to prove to you that it’s going well. You’re literally intruding and asking for a status update to appease your own anxiety about progress. Instead, make it clear upfront how you’d like progress to be communicated to you, instead of popping in and asking, “Just checking in on this?” on your own whim and schedule.

Sign #2: You find yourself saying, “Here’s how I would do it,” before they ask, “How would you do it?”

You want to be helpful. You’ve done the thing a million times yourself. You know the tricks, the nooks, the crannies… Wouldn’t your team want to know your opinion? They might. But when you assert your opinion before they ask for it, you can obligate a team member to do something your way. No one wants to offend their boss by not following their advice. It can feel constricting — not to mention distracting — to have suggestions heaped on them before they’ve even had an opportunity to wrestle with the problem themselves. Rather, try waiting for your direct report to ask, “How would you approach this?” instead of offering your advice immediately.

Sign #3: You mentally log what time someone arrives or leaves the office (or appears online or offline).

When you’ve got a crucial project on the line, it’s tempting to know that your team will produce the results you’re looking for. And, it’s easy to correlate the likelihood of an outcome with the number of hours spent in the office or online. However, that’s not how it works. The quality of results has nothing to do with the amount of time spent at the office or online. Remind yourself: What you care about are the results. So any energy you spend — even if it’s 30 seconds — gaging how often someone’s green “online” dot is ever-present in Slack is wasted energy. You’re only building up more frantic, unproductive energy within yourself.

Sign #4: You say, “I can just do it…” or “Let me just do it…”

A problem appears. A team member comes to you, asking for your help. Or perhaps it’s a mistake or issue you notice on your own accord. Someone has to fix it — so who better than you? You roll up your sleeves and get to work. This is the right move… right? Not quite. In my podcast interview with Wade Foster, CEO of Zapier, he shared how solving problems as a manager is a big sign you’re not doing your job well as a manager. When you’re the one saying “I can just do it” or “Let me just do it” you don’t give your team a chance to do it. Your team never learns, and thus, they can never get better. You stifle your team, and unknowingly to you, are micromanaging them.

Sign #5: You ask: Can you “cc” me on that?

You want to be in the loop. You need context to do your job well as a manager. As a result, you ask “Can you ‘cc’ me on that?” While appropriate in some cases, your reliance on this phrase can also reveal how much space you’re giving your team to do their best work. Are you asking to be cc-ed on things you don’t truly need to copied on? Is it “just in case,” to quell your own uncertainty? Consider that the more you use this phrase — and the greater triviality of the message you’re asking to be cc-ed on — the more you’re trying to micromanage your team.

If one (or all) of these signs of micromanagement had you nodding begrudgingly — it’s okay. You don’t need to castigate yourself or hide in shame. There are some small, practical things you can do to avoid becoming a micromanager.

Instead of defaulting controlling tendencies, here are some questions you can ask to avoid micromanaging:

  • How should we define success?
  • Is the definition of success clear?
  • What do you need from me to be successful?
  • What’s the best way to share progress about this project?
  • When would you prefer I check-in, if at all?
  • When is it most helpful for you to loop me in?
  • How much context would you like upfront before I hand-off a project or a task?
  • What are you most worried about getting “wrong” with the project?
  • Do you like new ideas and suggestions for ways to do things? Or do you prefer to be heads-down a bit before I interject and offer suggestions?
  • What’s the best way to define if something is “done” or high quality?

These questions give choice in how someone can do their work, instead of imposing your own way of working on them.

You can also use certain phrases to clarify expectations — without micromanaging your team. Here is a handful to try during your next one-on-one meeting:

  • If I have a tendency to do X please call me out on it.
  • You don’t need to ask for my permission about Y.
  • You don’t need to cc me about Z.
  • You don’t need to tell me about A.
  • I would prefer that you tell me about B, ask for permission about C, and cc me about D.
  • This is just my advice, take it or leave it.
  • You do not have to do E the way that I did it.
  • This is your decision to make.

While micromanaging your team can seem like the gravest of leadership sins, it is not unredeemable. The first — and perhaps most important — step is that you’re here, in the confessional booth, already. Now it’s up to you to act differently.

You don’t have to be a micromanager if you don’t want to be.

👀 The root cause of micromanagement typically is that you haven’t set up an easy, transparent way for your direct reports to share progress with you. Use our Heartbeat Check-in in Know Your Team to get regular team status updates — so you’re less inclined to micromanage. It will help align everyone on your team and share what progress is being made, so you can sit on your hands a bit 😉 Give the Heartbeat Check-in in Know Your team a try today.

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Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Canopy. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.