Let’s Define Micro-Management Properly

by Krishna on January 31, 2009

Everybody hates micro-managers and a lot has been written about micro-management. Unfortunately, quite often, they are written from the viewpoint of the micro-managed person, and not the micro-manager. Here is what Kathy Sierra had to say about micro-managers. Let’s do a thought experiment and provide a resounding “No” to every question she asks.

  1. You are not on top of the projects that you manage, nor do you have a solid grasp of the details of your projects.
  2. You cannot perform any of the tasks of your direct reports, leave alone do a better job.
  3. You do not communicate frequently with your employees. You do not ask them for detailed status reports or updates.
  4. You do not have better knowledge and skills than your employees. You are not better equipped to make decisions.
  5. You do not care about things (quality, deadlines, etc.) more than your employees.

You see, when you do that, what you get is a “hands-off manager”, or, as someone once told me, a “glorified coordinator” between the development team and the management sponsors. In a matrix organization, maybe that is what your role is. And if so, good. But in many cases, the team leader or manager is an active part of the team and accountable for project deadlines and quality. And if you are such a person, then chances are that you will err more often on the side of micro-managing than being hands-off, if that is what has to be done.

Some very prominent people are famous for being micro-managers. Apple founder Steve Jobs is particularly notorious. Bob Sutton, in his book “The No-Asshole Rule”, has used him as an example of cases where being a jerk can produce results, even though he goes on to explain the hidden costs and human destruction with such behavior. Linus Torvalds is another technology celebrity with some micro-management issues. A friend forwarded this Linus discussion reply to me:

Quite frankly, I’d rather weed out the people who don’t start being careful early, rather than late. That sounds callous, and by God, it is callous. But it’s not the kind of “if you can’t stand the heat, get out the kitchen” kind of remark that some people take it for. No, it’s something much more deeper: I’d rather not work with people who aren’t careful. It’s Darwinism in software development.

It’s a cold, callous argument that says that there are two kinds of people, and I’d rather not work with the second kind. Live with it.

I’m a bastard. I have absolutely no clue why people can ever think otherwise. Yet they do. People think I’m a nice guy, and the fact is that I’m a scheming, conniving bastard who doesn’t care for any hurt feelings or lost hours of work, if it just results in what I consider to be a better system.

And I’m not just saying that. I’m really not a very nice person. I can say “I don’t care” with a straight face, and really mean it.

So, let’s be clear about this. When something about which a manager cares (career, reputation, money) is on the line, they are very likely to get involved in more “active” managing. Whether it is productive or counter-productive is not the issue. They confuse action and tough talk with results, and use *any* positive results to justify their way of working. And as we see in the above quote, they know that they care most about the product they are making.

Almost very discussion of micro-management ignores the fact that many managers are born from individual contributors who climbed one step higher in the organizational hierarchy. So they sometimes manage developers who have less experience and knowledge, and not a whole lot of business acumen. It is difficult for such managers NOT to think that they have better knowledge, skills or judgment.

Let me come to the point: Your thinking and your actions has to be put in the proper context. For example, hand-holding a junior employee may be better termed as “mentoring” while the exact same time spent with a senior employee can be insulting. Allowing employees to make decisions on their own is the right way to build a self-sufficient team, but you could also face disastrous crises. Many employees may be scared about the outcome of decisions (stalling the process), while others may be too careless. So the situation in which you operate matters a lot.

More than actions, micro-managing is essentially about the working relationship between an employee and a manager. Here are some clues towards understanding the dynamic:

  1. Is the relationship based on mutual respect? Does both the manager and employee accept that the other is acting in good faith?
  2. Does the manager listen to everything that the employee has to say?
  3. Does the manager’s behavior convince the employee that he truly understands their point of view?
  4. Does the manager explain the reasons behind his decision, if it is in conflict with the employee’s?
  5. Does the manager take responsibility for his decision, especially when he is in disagreement with the employee?
  6. Does the manager increase his trust of the employee as the relationship progresses?

The last is very important. Managing an employee should decrease in intensity as trust builds up. For this, each has to take responsibility. The employee has to ensure that their work is in adherence to the quality guidelines. The manager has to set low, initial expectations that will help build the employee’s confidence that they can meet targets.

Finally, the following talk about micro-management is from a private conversation between Obama and the British Conservative Party leader David Cameron, last year, one of those political moments that are quickly overshadowed by the news media’s fixation on silly sensationalism, and petty politicking:

You should be on the beach,” Cameron told Obama. “You need a break. Well, you need to be able to keep your head together.
You’ve got to refresh yourself,” agreed Obama.

Do you have a break at all?” asked Cameron.
I have not,” said Obama. “I am going to take a week in August. But I agree with you that somebody, somebody who had worked in the White House who — not Clinton himself, but somebody who had been close to the process — said that, should we be successful, that actually the most important thing you need to do is to have big chunks of time during the day when all you’re doing is thinking. And the biggest mistake that a lot of these folks make is just feeling as if you have to be –

These guys just chalk your diary up,” said Cameron, referring to a packed schedule.
Right,” Obama said. “In 15 minute increments …

We call it the dentist’s waiting room,” Cameron said. “You have to scrap that because you’ve got to have time.
And, well, and you start making mistakes,” Obama said, “or you lose the big picture. Or you lose a sense of, I think you lose a feel—“,

Your feeling,” interrupted Cameron. “And that is exactly what politics is all about. The judgment you bring to make decisions.
That’s exactly right,” Obama said. “And the truth is that we’ve got a bunch of smart people, I think, who know ten times more than we do about the specifics of the topics. And so if what you’re trying to do is micromanage and solve everything then you end up being a dilettante but you have to have enough knowledge to make good judgments about the choices that are presented to you.

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