The cause and effect of micromanagement

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Written by Ed Wells on 26 November 2020 in Opinion
Opinion

Ed Wells urges leaders to develop a bigger picture style of management to ensure their larger aims are not lost in the routine minutiae.

Back in 2018, I was invited to contribute to a change and transformation team at a large organisation in the financial services sector. Their objective was to introduce a more evidence-based approach to problem-solving. 

They wanted to use root cause analysis (RCA) methods to achieve two goals: to understand company problems to the exact level of detail required and to be able to apply targeted solutions to specific elements of any problems they uncovered.

Some of their issues were technical in nature, some related to compliance, and many to sustainability. However, most concerned issues related to management style, company culture and ‘human error’.

In essence, one concept above all others underpins RCA: the concept of cause and effect. This applies to training and management as much as it does to any technical challenge. Effective cause and effect reveals that specific causes combine to create specific outcomes.

Furthermore, if you change, control or eliminate any of those preceding causes, the outcome (i.e. ‘effect’) will be altered – sometimes subtly, often substantially. 

When it comes to failed problem-solving approaches, micromanagement is never far away in the majority of organisations

It’s when you start to view micromanagement through the lens of cause and effect that things start to get very interesting. But how do you get the concept of micromanagement under said lens, and encourage teams to consider it objectively? After all, management style and technique is an emotive and inherently personal topic. 

One way to achieve this is to ask your teams to imagine and discuss what they would consider a dysfunctional and/or unpleasant working environment. Ask them to brainstorm, share opinions and generate a narrative around the topic.

From here, it’s worth aiming for a form of visual analysis, starting with the defined problem of ‘Dysfunctional Management Style’ (or similar title). Then start to step back in time, asking what contributes to this problem – in other words, framing through cause and effect.

Groups will quickly share things like blame culture, clumsy discipline, poor communication, lack of training, poor procedures, unachievable goals, conflicting KPIs and so on. From here, sooner or later, they’ll highlight micromanagement, sometimes as both a major cause and an effect.

When it comes to failed problem-solving approaches, micromanagement is never far away in the majority of organisations. This is because most managers put too much focus on humans as a root cause of failure. But is this because an individual person really was to blame?

Or is it because (more likely) there is nearly always a human involved somewhere when error strikes, and that humans are regularly the final part of an inevitable chain of events? Either way, this all too easily creates a slide towards micromanagement as a go-to solution.

In their outstanding 2016 book, Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths explore the effect of ‘overfitting’ – a major cause of poor performance in machine learning. In the workplace, many managers will already be familiar with overfitting by nature, if not by name.

A typical occupational example would be employing micromanagement for the sake of artificial management metrics, while completely losing sight of the underlying reasons the measures exist in the first place, and the overall company goals – in practice a form of ‘action idolatry’.

Frequent examples we see in the workplace environment are line managers obsessing on service analytics while ignoring wider goals and issues, or sales agents being forced to slavishly follow an ill-fitting script.

With this kind of narrow focus, it becomes increasingly difficult to know who the star performers in the business are, as opposed to someone who is skilled at tailoring their activity to meet a manager’s demands. In summary, micromanagement creates all sorts of consequences that you really can’t anticipate.

 

Sadly, this over-adherence to micromanagement, rules or training, can result in much more than just damage to performance figures, safety standards or balance sheets. In some cases, it’s the difference between life and death.

In their book, Christian and Griffiths use the example of police and military ‘line of fire’ drills as a sobering illustration of what can happen when the lines between theory and real-life praxis become overly blurred:

‘There are stories of [p]olice officers who find themselves, for instance, taking time out during a gunfight to put their spent casings in their pockets – good etiquette on a firing range.

As retired Army Ranger and West Point psychology professor Dave Grossman writes, “After the smoke had settled in many real gunfights, officers were shocked to find empty brass in their pockets with no memory of how it got there. On several occasions, dead cops were found with brass in their hands, dying in the middle of an administrative procedure that had been drummed into them.”’

Known as ‘training and management scars’, these are very difficult to overcome for anyone, particularly in periods of high stress. No scars run deeper than those received by enduring periods of micromanagement, and they, unfortunately, harm both those being managed and those doing the managing.

Sadly, this is one form of cause and effect that is inevitable.

 

About the author

Ed Wells is Head of Strategy & Development at Sologic Root Cause Analysis

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