Technology superstar Elon Musk is often criticized for micromanagement at Tesla. Working 120-hour weeks, Musk has been asked by some investors to appoint a chief operating officer instead of trying to solve all of the company’s problems on his own. One former employee has said that, when things go badly, “Elon fires some engineer that made some irrelevant, bad decision, and Elon sleeps on the factory floor until the problem is fixed, or whatever. But it doesn’t actually fix the root problem, which is terrible management.”
A Leadership Style … or Something Else?
Leaders often assume micromanagement is what they are supposed to do. Allowing employees a high degree of autonomy may sometimes be viewed as a laissez-faire leadership style and a sign of poor leadership, particularly when things go wrong. Yet when we are the ones being controlled, we tend to passionately dislike it. Indeed, people often see micromanagement as a negative and controlling leadership style that constrains and frustrates rather than motivates and empowers people. Any form of detail-oriented behavior can quickly be labelled as “micromanagement” in the workplace, giving the phrase negative connotations.
However, in new research, Darden Professor Roshni Raveendhran argues that micromanagement is not a leadership style. Instead, it’s a label that we tend to give to behaviors that focus on controlling minute details in inappropriate situations. In other words, micromanagement is a dynamic phenomenon that depends largely on the context in which it occurs, the person displaying the behavior, and the person reacting to it. Indeed, while anecdotal accounts portray micromanagement as mostly reflecting badly on a leader, can those same behaviors have a positive impact on employees in some circumstances?
All About Context
In the research, a junior member of staff who is new to the role or less capable, for example, was more likely to accept or welcome a leader’s close scrutiny. Similarly, when working on a critical job, the success of which depends upon every team member being on the same page about every detail, such as in a crisis scenario, these behaviors can be viewed more positively. Moreover, people were less likely to view these behaviors as bad and label them as micromanagement if the leader proved competent.
However, while there are evidently situations in which these behaviors can be appropriate, even beneficial to a workgroup, the research found that it is inappropriate and hindering for more experienced and highly competent employees who might strongly value autonomy.
Detail-Oriented or Visionary?
Because of the negativity associated with micromanagers, they tend to be pigeonholed as fitting only junior leadership roles. That is largely because they are not seen as leaders who can look past the minute details and think broadly about strategy — the visionary trait associated with more senior leaders. Musk is not merely a micromanager: His grandiose vision for space travel or electric vehicles is one reason why employees and investors are willing to follow him.
This does not mean micromanagers are necessarily destined to stagnate in their careers, however. Their detail-oriented, controlling behaviors might receive a better reception if they explain the reasoning behind them. The onus is on corporations to provide appropriate feedback and training to ensure leaders can gauge the situation and adapt their behaviors appropriately. Otherwise, they run the risk of missing out on potentially fabulous talent due to an often misguided perception that they are micromanagers.
Ultimately, the traits associated with micromanaging are both good and bad — it just depends on the context. The same could be said of Musk.
Roshni Raveendhran co-authored “(Micro) Manager or (Detail-Oriented) Leader? The Negative Effects of Micromanagement on Perceptions of Power-Holders’ Leadership Potential.”