Remote micromanagement:

The hidden symptom of 2020

Managing the micromanagers

For reasons that hardly need to be explained, 2020 has seen an explosion in the popularity of employee monitoring software, tools that track and report on the productivity and attentiveness of workers from minute to minute during the working day.

Whatever your views on this technology, we’re going to go out on a limb and suggest that the trend reflects a discomfort in organisations, and by extension among their line managers, at the sudden shift to remote work.

Talking to our partners, customers and colleagues, there seems to be a consensus that remote work has led to an increase in instances of micromanagement. Newly remote managers have suddenly been stripped of ‘line of sight’ of their teams. As well as the universal pressures we’ve all faced around the upheaval of the past few months, they’ve lost the ability to be sure beyond doubt that their people aren’t re-watching Deep Space 9 instead of getting on with work.

This loss of control can naturally lead them to compensate through exercising control. It’s a new and stressful situation, and isolated in the bubble of remote work it’s easy to imagine how, unchecked, this behaviour descends into a cycle of close scrutiny, demands for unnecessary check-ins, reports and meetings. This isn’t a healthy place for anyone involved.

In March 2020, Gallup found that a whopping 76% of employees admitted to experiencing burnout at least some of the time. The study pointed an implicit finger of blame directly at line management.

This year has thrown us all into unfamiliar situations and we’re learning on the job, particularly managers who have been thrust into a remote environment. But if micromanagement is one of the symptoms, it’s one that needs to be addressed. But how?

Recognise micromanagement behaviours

Most people understand what it is to be micromanaged, but when you’re the micromanager, it’s harder to spot. A lot of the behaviours exist in the grey area between attention to detail and stifling control. The first step in addressing the issue is acknowledgement. So how do you help people recognise the symptoms in themselves?

  • Do they spend too much time ‘down in the weeds’, involved in tasks that should be completed without their direct involvement?
  • When they set tasks, do they focus on outcomes or process? Stating an objective is one thing, prescribing the steps towards it bleeds into micromanagement territory.
  • Do they insist on knowing where team members are and what they’re working on, all the time?
  • Do they make revisions/corrections to every piece of work their team submits?
  • Do they believe their team could continue to function if they were absent for, say, a month?
  • Do they trust their team?

Training

Training is the obvious first place to start. But apparently not that obvious. Gallup’s burnout study noted that many line managers were lacking in the necessary support and training to effectively fulfil their leadership responsibilities.

And earlier this year, Havard Business Review found a substantial number of managers with sceptical views about remote working practice, lacking trust in their employees, and low confidence in their ability to lead remotely.

Micromanagement behaviours often manifest in individuals who are themselves struggling with pressure or confidence in their own abilities.

There’s an argument that micromanaging line managers should be treated as a cultural canary. Individual management approach owes a lot to oranisational culture, after all. The problem often stems from feelings of fear, fear that the job won’t be done to the required standard. These types of behaviours often roll downhill, so it’s important to track the problem back to its source and ensure training or support is properly directed.

Meaningful interventions can come from mentors, coaches or HR leaders, stress and/or resilience training might help them understand their own triggers and start to change their response.

Focus on results, not details

A common frustration for micromanagers is tasks not being performed as they would like. But the more managers involve themselves in the details of people’s day to day work, the less those people are able to take ownership. This fosters a culture of learned helplessness, reinforcing the belief on both sides that the employee can’t be trusted to carry out their work without close supervision.

These stressed out managers need help to focus on the big picture instead of the minutiae. Performance management framing can help in this, ensuring clarity around what is being measured and what the organisation’s leaders deem important, i.e. results.

It can come back down to good old-fashioned objective setting, ensuring reporting targets are clear, meaning people are responsible and accountable. Effective performance management tools will mean the manager is able to keep an eye on the figures rather than breathing down people’s necks for constant updates.

Pivot to empowerment

Managers prone to overzealous control will find it deeply uncomfortable to relax their grasp in any way that promotes autonomy amongst their team. But not only is this grasp demoralising for employees, it’s risky for the organisation for so much of the operation to rely on a single individual.

That’s a nice way to frame a suggestion that they test a new approach on a single project. Something less urgent that they can step back from with only minor palpitations.

It can be pitched as a pivot. Autonomy doesn’t mean less communication. Where managers can learn to shift towards empowerment and personal accountability, communication can transform from disruptive checking up to supportive checking in.

This is just normal

While organisations have experienced remote working being foisted upon them through necessity, figures from Gartner suggest that many are planning to allow the practice to continue after the threat of Covid has passed.

82% of leaders questioned said they would permit remote working some of the time, while almost half said they intended to allow employees to work remotely all of the time going forward.

This won’t be the new normal forever. Pretty soon it will just be normal.

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