How to Tell If You’re a Micro-Manager

“I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.”
January 19, 2016
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January 29, 2018

How to Tell If You’re a Micro-Manager


You can’t really talk about micro-managing without also talking about its opposite: the manager who doesn’t coach, doesn’t give enough guidance, who is absent or disinterested. (Odd that there isn’t a name for this: feel free to suggest something in the comments section).

When I talk about these leaders during The Gettysburg Leadership Experience we’re usually outdoors, standing on the battlefield, and I illustrate the continuum with a very simple illustration. I ask someone to get up in front of the group, then I stand very close, looking over the person’s shoulder, and ask, “Why might I stand this close?”

My clients come up with good reasons. The team member is new, or the task is novel or especially challenging. But there are other explanations that don’t send a good message: I don’t trust you; I have trouble delegating; I’m afraid that someone, somewhere, might make a mistake.

Then I move a few steps away from the individual I’m “leading,” and I ask participants to call out circumstances that might move me along the spectrum.

“She’s got more experience but has asked for a little help.”

“You’ve got to put out a fire somewhere else, so you kind of leave her on her own.”

By the time I’m standing a few yards away the clients are describing an ideal team member: experienced, trusted, able to operate independently. I push them to consider other situations.

“Suppose I’m way over here and she isn’t any of those things? What does that look like?”

Paula, an executive with a financial firm described a leader who left her and her teammates to fend for themselves.

“He didn’t give us even the minimum guidance,” she said. “At first I thought maybe I was expecting too much, but the other people on the team were also at loose ends.”

So if you’re the leader, sliding back and forth on that spectrum based on your reading of the team member’s “maturity” (to use the term favored by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard in their work on situational leadership), how do you know if you’re getting it right? How do you know if you’re inclined to stand too close or too far away?


One way is to encourage an on-going conversation about leadership that will give your team member the opportunity to tell you to back off or come closer.


First you have to explain your perception of why a leader stands close or moves away, based on the situation. This is your leadership philosophy, a fancy name for how you think leaders should operate.

Second, you have to be honest. Tell your team members, “Look, I’m trying to strike a balance here. I want to challenge you because that’s how you’ll grow, but I also don’t want to leave you floundering. Sometimes you’re going to be out of your comfort zone, maybe quite often. That’s your ‘learning zone.’ But if you go beyond that to what trainers call the ‘panic zone,’ then you’ve got to ask for help. I’m not always going to get it right, and I need your help.”

Third: If you tell people you want honest dialogue about how the team operates—in this illustration, how close you stand—then you’ve got to be willing to listen. It doesn’t mean you’ll always concede or that you’ll arrive at a perfect agreement, but you’ll be a lot better off if you explain the ground rules and expectations, and then let people discuss what’s working and what’s not working.

Finally, you’ve got to be willing to change, to adjust how close you stand based on a shared understanding of what a team member needs.



If you enjoyed the discussion of leadership, consider joining me for the Gettysburg Leadership Experience (Leadership Experiences tab on the home page).