Micromanagement is an Ethical Issue

Micromanagement is not just a waste and an annoyance.  It is ethically wrong.

It is wrong because it causes harm across an asymmetric power relationship.  The managee receives the message: “I don’t trust you to take charge even of your own job.  You are only fit to be handed tasks one at a time.  I will decide what you do, when, and how.”  The manager is acting out of fear, ignorance, or the pleasure of manipulating somebody.  The last is deliberate wrongdoing.  The first two are inadvertent wrongdoing.

I know these are strong words.  I have come to them from so often seeing the harm done, and seeing the pervasive tolerance of so destructive a habit.

But back to basics for a moment.  Stephen Covey (the Seven Habits man) long ago distinguished between “gopher delegation” and “stewardship delegation”.  Gopher delegation is handing out tasks: “Go for this, go for that.”  It is infantilising and disempowering.  It is the way we would treat a machine, or a slave.  That’s why it’s ethically wrong to treat humans that way.  Stewardship delegation by contrast says, “This is the patch of stuff you are responsible for.  These are the outcomes we need in this area.  These are the resources you have.  You are in charge of achieving the outcomes, and I am here to help you and give you feedback.”  It is, in Covey’s terms, a totally different paradigm.

We are not talking training.  Training may well include step-by-step instruction.  We all know the difference between training and delegation.  Appropriate skill and knowledge are among the resources we must have in order to accept stewardship. Training always carries the implied promise: when you’ve got it, you can do it on your own.

I said there are three sources of the micromanagement habit.  Fear, because some people can’t let go enough to allow another person stewardship of anything, however small.  Such people will limit their teams to their own smallness.  Laziness, because you have to think to define an area of stewardship and the results needed from it, and you have to communicate carefully to delegate stewardship.  The fear and the laziness are bad habits that we can learn our way out of, if we choose.  But a few people (I’ve met some) like the sense of personal authority or indispensability that comes from micromanagement.  And that is a moral choice about conduct to other humans.  It is wrong.

Of course, there’s a bottom-line problem with the vice of micromanagement, in addition to the ethical issue.  Every time someone becomes habituated to receiving gopher-delegation tasks, they become less interested, literally less able to contribute and participate as a complete human being, with a head and a heart.  They have been treated as one-dimensional, and they will become so in that role.  They will leave it for the boss to notice and correct problems.  They have been relieved of responsibility, and their response is entirely natural.  Their boss is likely to complain that you can’t get staff any more with initiative, who act like they have a brain.  Guess what, boss.  You relieved them of their initiative, and you taught them to park their brain at the door.

On the other hand, stewardship delegation builds the team’s capacity to achieve and improve, because everyone is responsible for their own contribution to the group’s performance. It also builds the team’s resilience, because everyone has both the understanding and the motivation to adapt their task to new pressures or challenges.

That’s what I think.  You?

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