Micromanagement is Really a Trust Issue

Here’s how to handle it, whether you’re the victim or the perpetrator.

I often hear from relatively senior managers that their bosses constantly expect them to have detailed answers for any question that might pop into their minds. As a result, they feel like they’re always preparing for a pop quiz and, consequently, don’t have much time or mental bandwidth left for higher value-added work.

You may have experienced this problem with your manager. Heck, you might be the source of the same problem for the people who are working for you. How do you break this cycle of micromanagement?

Start by recognizing that micromanagement is really a trust issue. Your manager doesn’t trust you. You don’t trust the people working for you. If you did, you wouldn’t be micromanaging them. So, now that you know this, what do you do about it?

Break it down. As the linguist Fernando Flores explains, trust is a function of three factors: sincerity, credibility and competence. If your boss doesn’t trust you or you don’t trust your people it’s because one or more of those factors is suspect. If you want to stop the micromanagement, you have to identify which of the three factors needs to be validated and take active measures to do so. Here’s how to get started on each of the three. You can read these through the lens of coaching yourself, coaching your team members, or both.

Sincerity: It’s about having and demonstrating positive intent. If you don’t have it and aren’t interested in getting it, that’s a good sign that you’re working in the wrong situation. If you have positive intent but your sincerity is still questioned, take a look at the pronouns you use the most. How much are you using I and me compared with you, we and us? Positive intent includes demonstrated concern for others and their priorities. The pronouns you use are an easy marker of how much concern you have for others. If you show sincere concern for other people and their needs, they’re more likely to trust you and less likely to micromanage you.

Credibility: This one is all about establishing a track record of doing what you said you were going to do within the timeframe you said you were going to do it. A lot of micromanagers do what they do because they’re afraid that other people aren’t going to get the important stuff done on time. There are some tried and true ways to make them less afraid. One is to deliver on what you said you would do. Another is to let the micromanager know when you do. By doing this, you’ll likely establish a pattern of performance that builds trust with the micromanager.

Competence: Of course, it’s one thing to deliver on time, it’s another to deliver quality results on time. This third element of the trust equation turns on whether or not you’re perceived as being capable of delivering what’s expected or what you’ve promised. A key word here is perceived. Perhaps you’re more competent than what the micromanager perceives. If that’s the case, look for or create opportunities to show what you’re capable of. On the other hand, maybe you’re not really there yet. If, after some honest self-assessment, you conclude that’s the case, you have some options. One is to find a position that’s a better fit for your skills and experience. Another, and perhaps better option, is to acknowledge your gaps and ask for help. With the non-pathological micromanager, this move can help in both the short and long runs. In the short run, it builds trust by demonstrating your positive intent (see sincerity above). In the long run, it gives you the opportunity to grow into your role and strengthen trust while you do.