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Micromanaging, Opinions and Autonomy

You’re an artist and you’ve been doing a lot more work than usual lately due to some recent management changes. You’ve started reporting to a new manager who tends to like a lot of detailed status information about what you’re doing. Creating artwork doesn’t seem to translate to status reports very well, so you tell him you’re on track for a particular time frame and don’t have any anticipated issues. But you also tell the new manager that, you’d recommend thinking of a balance between what to report to upper management and what not to report since not all status input is actually useful and sometimes could cause problems. Your new manager tells you he doesn’t want your opinion and doesn’t want to hear you pontificate and that he just wants the answer to his questions. Did we say something wrong? How do we break through? Is what he is doing micromanaging and is that ever a good thing?

Dictators and Social Media

For those who are more like military-style managers or dictators, it makes sense that opinions don’t help and can be shut-down. If we have an order or particular direction we’re trying to go, opinions could potentially change or question that direction. No one wants to have to explain themselves, defend their position or have their authority questioned…right?

Ever notice in social media, the controversial topics will have large numbers of people slandering others as ignorant and stupid. Anyone who has tried to bridge the gap by asking others to be more reasonable, to allow other opinions to co-exist, will also get shot down with statements like “Why should we listen to someone who is stupid?”, “Why should we waste our time on wrong information?”

There is an instinctive belief that those who oppose are trying to do so from a “negative” place, that only want the worst for everyone involved; or at the least have zero value to add. What does all of this have to do with micromanaging though? Can we imagine having to work with someone we felt was “wasting our time on wrong or useless information”?

Micromanaging

When we talk about micro-managing, usually it’s in a negative context. Yet, before we assume the worst, let’s look at two things that seem to be recognized as micromanaging: 1. Requesting detailed information about tasks in a way that limits autonomy. 2. Directing tasks in a way that limits autonomy.

When we look at it this way, what is considered micromanaging could be very ambiguous. If we had a strict checklist a manager had us follow, although it is limiting autonomy, we’d have to also “feel” as if we had no autonomy. If no one checked in on us regularly, then even though we have a strict checklist to follow we wouldn’t likely feel micromanaged. The checklist isn’t managing us, we ourselves are. But there are also plenty of situations that “limit autonomy” while at the same time not being considered micromanagement.

For example, why isn’t a teacher usually considered a micromanager? They are strict to certain rules, request status and they direct what we should do sometimes to very specific details. Why isn’t a coach considered a micromanager? They dictate just about every play at times and yet the team just listens and executes. These and many other situations have this dynamic and yet they do not necessarily feel bad.

Expectations and Autonomy

One potential driver of what determines micromanagement could be overall expectations. We join a team and expect to be told what to do by the coach. If they tell us we should change our form, generally we’ll listen because we see them as a respectable authority on the topic to help us get better. If we join the military, we would likely expect to be told what to do in just about every area of our work and wouldn’t think as often in terms of micromanaging.

However, if we join a team expecting to not change the way we play and the coach tells us to change things, there’s a good chance we’ll start to think of them as taking away our autonomy. In the job-world it’s no different, if we take on a role expecting to do our job without much management interaction and then start to get a lot of interaction, we’re going to feel our autonomy slipping away.

Opinions and Autonomy

As alluded to in the beginning, opinions have an important role in feeling micromanaged. If the coach is always right and we have a winning record to prove it, then we likely would have less opinions about how the coach is doing things. Yet, if we were constantly losing and we have opinions that do not align with the coach, chances are we’d want to express them. Some coaches may choose to shutdown opinions as irrelevant to maintain their own authority. While others may address opinions in an open way and explain their own thoughts so that everyone understands. Both ways could work as long as the team continues to believe they have autonomy.

Yet the only way opinions can really be shutdown without explanation is if we respect or believe in someone else more than ourselves. Trust in our teacher, coach, manager, religious or political leader and social circle more than ourselves can allow us to be able to ignore our own opinions and trust theirs. If we trust our manager more than ourselves, we won’t think of them as micromanaging; any opinions we had would easily be replaced by theirs. It doesn’t sound very healthy to shutdown opinions, but it is literally how cults and some organizations tend to operate.

Is Micromanaging bad?

Notice that two different people treated exactly the same could disagree as to whether they are being micromanaged. It’s all based on the perspective of whoever is being managed. So as a whole yes “micromanaging” is bad, because everyone who perceives it sees it in a negative context, one that says “I don’t have as much autonomy as I’d like”. Yet we have to understand that, it’s not the actual management, it’s the perception of management. Some may mistakenly assume that micromanaging just means we oversee tasks more directly, which of course isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The bad thing is when the workers believe they have limited autonomy, no matter how those tasks are being managed.

When we disagree and start treating everything we oppose as “negative”, we start creating a toxic environment (both the micromanager and those being managed). So we have to make sure to set expectations realistically.

Managing Project Based Work

Imaging being tasked to draw a complex scene in a month. Most artists will want to know some basic information about the purpose of the scene, expected style and any required components. Is it a dark scene, light scene, is a city scene or a nature scene? Is there any message we are trying to portray? Once those initial requirements are captured, there isn’t really much other input from the artist’s perspective, they can start creating at that point.

However from the manager perspective, the last thing they want is a perfected scene only to realize it’s not what they were wanting at all. That means that some form of iterative feedback would be necessary. Ideally most artists will know this and provide some sort of quick mock-up to ensure the direction is as expected. The number of milestones would depend on how intricate or complex the artwork is. We wouldn’t need or want to ask for input or feedback every step of the way unless that expectation is established upfront with good reasons.

The same concept can be used for any type of project based work, it’s a matter of dividing things into milestones that are succinct enough to have direction, but not overly detailed as to impede those doing the work. The “status” or feedback points would be defined in such a way that maximizes both autonomy and management direction.

Managing Day-to-Day Work

What if however instead of creating more complex artwork, we make more simple daily artwork for social media content. We could take the same construct as our project work and gather input at the start of the day, provide mock-ups in the middle and then submit the final work by the end of the day. Yet, most likely, the level of involvement needed for such repetitive tasks would be limited.

It would be similar to a cashier at a store, once they know their job it’s a matter of “rinse, repeat”. What input or status does a manager need from a cashier? They serve customers, they know the rules they are bound by. Instead of status, day-to-day and ongoing work is often more effectively governed by “metrics”. Managing social media content from an artist wouldn’t usually need a day-to-day status, it would need overall metrics surrounding their work. Time of posts, demographics of those who interact, positive/negative feedback over time, overall trends.

The more real-time the job is, the more status is naturally provided by simply performance of the work. Sports fall in this realm and also rely heavily on metrics more so than project-like milestones. Planning and strategic feedback would all depend on the pacing of the work and as such what is considered “micromanaging” also is often depends on the pacing.

Bottom Line

Managing and being managed takes awareness of all the people involved. It takes understanding that some people will feel micromanaged when others do not. It takes understanding that different types of work require different perspectives. All in all though, everyone has a part to play:

  1. Adjust expectations by communicating them upfront. Have a dialog so everyone can understand what and why things are being done the way they are.
  2. Always acknowledge opinions. Even the most time sensitive topics can be addressed in a way that doesn’t stifle other’s thoughts. If there is disagreement, positive interactions can still continue as long as opinions are acknowledged and addressed.
  3. Identify ways to ensure a level of autonomy is maintained. If the environment feels restrictive, creative ways may be necessary to increase the feeling of autonomy.
  4. If there is no agreement on expectations and no acknowledgement of opinions, there will be problems. Either find a way to change expectations, get opinions acknowledged or go through the motions until you find an environment that fits you better.

The consensus is generally that micromanagers suck, but remember we all have a part to play and we have to be sure to be open to changing our own expectations and we have to acknowledge the micromanager’s opinion as well.

Thoughts?

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