Warning signs for micromanagers and dreamers

By Caren Siehl, Ph.D.

Faulty leadership is sometimes like bad breath. People around you notice it — even if you don’t — but they don’t always speak up. Thus many bosses with good intentions remain unaware when they drop down as micromanagers or float up as dreamers.

Dropping down: Micromanagement is the more common leadership error, largely because corporate reward systems emphasize short-term results. Bosses get sucked into micromanagement because they face pressure to deliver on tight deadlines. They have little room to let their direct reports experiment and fail. Yet efforts to control every outcome often backfire. Morale drops and productivity declines when bosses do the work of the people below them. Here are some common micromanagement warning signs:

1. You never let people fail. If you’re managing at the right level, the people below you won’t get everything right all the time. By jumping in and fixing things too quickly, you rob people of opportunities to experiment, learn and grow.
2. You see lack of engagement. Once people realize you won’t let them fail, they pull back and wait for your intervention. They feel devalued. They stop taking risks, trying new things and working to exceed expectations.
3. Somebody else is doing your job. Micromanagement breeds micromanagement. When you drop down to do the work of your direct reports, you create a leadership vacuum in the space above. Somebody else has to step in to fill the gap.

Floating up: Dreamers who spend too much time in the clouds are less common, but even senior leaders can fall into this trap. Here are common warning signs that you might be a dreamer:

1. Details are missing. Dreamers fail to connect vision and execution. They leave too much for others to figure out, overlooking the challenges of converting lofty ideals into concrete results. When this happens, they often underestimate the true costs of the resulting initiatives.
2. People are lost. You have a problem when people at various levels in the hierarchy don’t know where the organization is going or what role they are supposed to play. A related problem is when you ask the same questions about strategy and direction and get different answers from different people at different times.
3. Information doesn’t flow. Some leaders never pick up on the confusion because they never ask the questions. Effective leaders are effective communicators who engage in two-way conversations using skip-level reviews, town halls and informal meetings. They are visible. They invite feedback and foster cultures of transparency.

Caren Siehl, Ph.D., is a clinical professor of management at Thunderbird School of Global Management, where she is academic director of the Global Leadership Certificate Program within Thunderbird Executive Education.