The tendency to micro-manage can start in response to someone’s dereliction of duty deep in the organization or it can start at the top with an unhealthy need for control. Regardless of where it starts, micro-management becomes a vicious cycle that quickly reduces the value of everyone involved.

I heard a great story that exemplified this problem. An executive joined a company and set to work familiarizing himself with how things were done. He learned quickly about the company’s strong governance process and the signoffs required to approve contracts. One day, a contract landed on his desk. It had all the requisite signatures from the levels below, each initialled by the person who had approved it to go up the chain.

Given that he was new, he opened the contract to take a look. He was startled to find a variety of errors and omissions from the document. Attachments were missing and clauses incorrect, not to mention basic typos that hadn’t been caught with proofreading. The contract was definitely not ready to be signed.

The Choice Leaders Make

Clearly, many things had gone wrong by the time the executive saw the contract. The person responsible for pulling together the contract had missed key attachments, not cross-checked some of the clauses and numbers, and passed on a poor-quality piece of work. The two layers in between the person who compiled the contract and the executive who was supposed to approve it had not added the value they were supposed to in reviewing it.

At least three levels had failed to do their job.

Now put yourself in the shoes of the executive.  Do you compensate for the failings of the team below you (and therefore reduce their accountability and propagate the problem) or do you send it back and end the vicious cycle?

Resist the Urge

Unfortunately, most executives seem to huff and puff and then begrudgingly fix the problem themselves. That sets off the vicious cycle. There is no discomfort for the person who did poor quality work (which also means there is no learning). There is no heat on the people who passed the shoddy product along without catching the mistakes. There is a strong implicit message that the one person who is truly accountable is the executive. Thus, the poor work is likely to continue.

The Other Edge of the Sword

The other reason that micro-management becomes a vicious cycle is that your confidence in the layers below you has rightfully been shaken by the calibre of the work they delivered. It’s only natural that you’ll dig in more deeply next time. Knowing that the boss is “handling it,” those who report to you are unlikely to be motivated to take responsibility for their work. And around we go.

The Alternative

Rather than fixing poor quality work, you are much better off to reject it. As soon as you open the document and find the first few errors, close it back up. Send it back. Be kind and firm. A little discomfort will go a long way in preventing a similar situation in the future.

  • Make it clear to all three levels that the document is not up to an acceptable standard
  • Re-iterate your expectations (e.g., thoroughness, accuracy, etc.) and provide any coaching required to build understanding or capability
  • Ask for the work to be re-done
  • Clarify your expectations of the reviewers
  • Review the final document and repeat if necessary

I must be naïve but it’s shocking to me that poor quality work makes it up to the executive level. But then I think about how busy, how distracted, and how overwhelmed people are. I put myself in their shoes and think “if I can get away with putting less effort in here, why not?” If it’s never been uncomfortable to submit crappy work, then maybe I don’t even know it’s crappy. So it falls on the leader to end the vicious cycle and to stop doing other people’s work for them.

Further Reading

Should you get involved?

Why are you always in the weeds?

Deep dives