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All Things Great and Small: Macro vs Micro Management

Friday, June 12, 2015 - 17:08

By Susan Muldowney

This article originally appeared in AIM: For Leadership and Management Excellence, AIM’s bimonthly magazine exclusively for AIM Members.

Don’t take this the wrong way, but Hannah Mason was always happy when her former manager was sick.

There was no malicious intent; it’s just that her manager’s absence always signalled a highly productive day. “It meant I could get a few things done without all the hold ups,” says Mason. The delays Mason speaks of were the result of micro management, the much maligned management style that, when taken to the extreme, can jeopardise workplace culture, reducing efficiency and employee satisfaction.

Mason was employed in a communications role within a department of the Victorian public service. Part of her job included editing a quarterly magazine. “My manager would insist on daily progress updates even though the magazine was published four times a year. She wanted everyone in the team to copy her in on all emails. I felt like she didn’t trust us.

On a superficial level she’d encourage input and ideas but she never included them in the final decision. I just put it down to her being a highly anxious person, but others in the team were really bothered by it. On a few occasions there were tears.”

Nervously sitting on the shoulder of employees, micro managers are seen as overly involved in dayto-day operational tasks, which can convey a lack of trust in people’s ability to do the job. “There is a very negative association with the expression ‘micro management’,” says Stephanie Thompson, principal corporate psychologist with Sydney-based consultancy Insight Matters. “It tends to convey a sense of interference, maybe even bullying, and just a rather unhealthy level of perfectionistic paranoia.”

Micro managers may be problematic, but their polar opposite, macro managers, also receive a bad rap. While micro managers are viewed as being too hands on, macro managers are often criticised for being so hands off that their expectations are vaguely communicated. They are seen to offer little in the way of mentorship and their absence can border on neglect.

James O’Brian has had the experience of working for a macro manager. A marketing manager for an IT company, O’Brian would struggle to get time in his manager’s diary and felt that he and his team were not a priority.

“I know that her expectation was that we were all fine and capable and didn’t need help, but if something were to go wrong, you don’t really feel that it’s a defence to say ‘well, you weren’t around for me to seek guidance’. It’s a balance between getting the time you need with them and meeting the expectations that they have of your performance,” he says.

So what lies at the root of these binary management styles? In contemporary psychology, different behaviour is credited to the “big five” personality traits – extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness and neuroticism. The last two traits often apply to micro managers.

“Micro managers are more likely to put processes in place and closely monitor people on whom they are dependent to get jobs done,” says Peter Langford, organisational psychologist and director of Sydney-based Voice Project, a consultancy specialising in employee and client surveys.

“Conscientiousness is a personality type that has consistently shown to have positive outcomes within the workplace, so it’s actually something that you really want,” Langford adds. “But to generalise a bit further, those managers who are anxious and perhaps paranoid within a workplace are likely to be micro managers in a negative way. The conscientious manager is doing it because they want to make sure tasks are done right, whereas the paranoid manager is relying too much on anxiety to drive their behaviour.”

Micro management can also be learned. “[Micro managers] may have worked in cultures with punitive managers and therefore they are very scared to make mistakes or have their team members make them,” says Leanne Faraday-Brash, organisational psychologist and founder of Brash Consulting. “They are very frightened of messing up and only trust the work they do themselves because of the fear of consequences.”

From a personality perspective, macro managers tend to be more relaxed. “If we can generalise at all, managers are more likely to be macro if they have a naturally imaginative, conceptual and holistic way of thinking, which means they are much more likely to focus on the bigger picture,” says Faraday-Brash.

While both macro and micro management styles have clear drawbacks, they are not always ineffective. In fact, highly successful management can result from both styles. Micro managers, for example, are more likely to ensure a sufficient feedback exchange. They are more likely to promote accountability within a team and to ensure progress is clearly measured.

Macro managers can bring benefits too. They tend to look at developing employee skills and are interested in helping with their broader career aspirations. Langford says a macro approach to management can only work if employees are competent and happy. “If you have good staff, macro management will give them the space to produce great outcomes.

We see that in a lot of tech-heavy companies. But you need to have staff who are knowledgeable and motivated to get the job done. If you have staff who lack those characteristics you’re not necessarily going to get the results you need with a macro approach.”

Indeed, the success or failure of each management style depends on the people being managed. “There are some sorts of independent, naturally proactive people who are driven batty by micro managers,” says Thompson. “Then there are those who may be less attentive to some of the technical or administrative aspects of their role unless they’ve got someone pushing them along and they actually tend to do better with more of a micro style.”