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Back to Archives | Back to August 2008 Contents 

Micromanagement: Dealing with RED PEN Supervisors

By Lieutenant Tracey G. Gove, West Hartford, Connecticut, Police Department


any well-intentioned, hard-working law enforcement supervisors and managers have been condemned as “micromanagers.” So culturally taboo is the label within the workplace that many supervisors will go to any length to avoid the accusation and reputation. Although it is an apt title for some, there are misconceptions about what it means to be a true micromanager.

The term is often mentioned in private-sector management literature; however, the criminal justice field remains conspicuously silent about the definition of the term, what can spark the accusation, root causes, when it is appropriate, how to avoid the behavior, and how best to handle micromanagers. Most police personnel believe they have been micromanaged to some extent in their careers; uncovering the hidden truths about this management style will better enable organizations to recognize true micromanagement and will help supervisors cultivate ways of avoiding this behavior.


What Is Micromanagement?


The most common meaning associated with micromanagement is to provide supervisory oversight with excessive control and attention to details that are best left to the operational personnel. A micromanager is typically one who is obsessed with control and is overly concerned with all aspects of employee work. Micromanagers tend to dictate every detail of the work for which their subordinates are responsible, and they truly believe that their way is not only the best but also the only way to accomplish a goal. Rather than help, true micromanagers impede work progress and risk stifling the growth of subordinate officers as well as the police agency as a whole.

Studies have shown, however, that micromanagement is effective over the short term.1 Simply by virtue of their position, supervisors are best suited to select an immediate course of action, provide direction, and oversee results ensuring that vital tasks are completed on time and without error. But if such stringent management is left unabated for a longer period, it will have several destructive effects.


Effects of Micromanagement


Micromanaged employees become disengaged from their work, leading to lower productivity, a behavior that spreads to colleagues. 2 Consequently, motivation is lost, quality drops, and esprit de corps can be irreparably damaged. Officers, the agency, and ultimately the community suffer.

Employment professionals have found micromanagement to be one of the top three “misery factors” that lead to employee resignation. 3 In the current era of staffing shortages and the attendant difficulty in filling open vacancies, this should be of utmost concern to law enforcement leaders.

The micromanagement approach, executed over the long term, is generally seen as ineffective, in that time better spent on assigned work is lost in overattention to detail. In addition, spending an inordinate amount of time on tasks that should be delegated can cause burnout and leave little time for managers to build a vision and focus on the future. Studies have shown that such negative behavior can lead to career derailment.4


Is Micromanaging Ever Appropriate?


As key players in the success of their agencies, it is the responsibility of law enforcement managers to monitor progress, control quality, evaluate performance, make decisions, provide instruction, and offer advice and guidance. 5 To this end, there are times when supervisors might need to provide more intensive oversight and intervention. In other words, in police work, there are certain situations that require micromanagement.

High-Profile Cases: When subordinate officers or supervisors are working on a sensitive or high-profile investigation, managers will need to know explicit details to ensure a thorough and proper investigation, to implement an immediate change in direction when necessary, and to report to the agency’s administration on the case’s progress.

Time Constraints: When time constraints dictate the quick completion of an investigation or other project, managers will need all of the explicit details. Managers hold the key position in gathering all facts, making rapid decisions, acquiring the necessary personnel and resources, and reporting to stakeholders.

Inability to Perform: When subordinate officers or supervisors are not able to perform at the basic level of competency, managers must involve themselves to develop their subordinates’ competency.6 For example, a new officer might not yet have acquired the necessary skills to complete tasks, or a veteran officer is building new skills in a new position. In both scenarios, the subordinates will require a great deal of direction and coaching from their supervisors.

Unwillingness to Perform: Subordinate officers or supervisors who are unwilling to perform the work required of them also need micromanagement.7 For example, employees who are disgruntled, apathetic, or burned out from years of stress might need close monitoring or discipline, when appropriate, to get them on track.8

Marginal Workers: Subordinate officers or supervisors whose work quality is marginal or who face performance issues need special attention and guidance. This type of oversight, usually formal in nature, is often only temporary, until the marginal employees elevate their performance to at least a satisfactory level.


False Accusations of Micromanagement


A claim of micromanagement is often a false accusation. Law enforcement supervisors must remain aware of instances when proper oversight may be misconstrued as micromanagement. The following scenarios provide examples of times when this is likely to happen.

Some supervisors monitor and evaluate the work of their officers more than other supervisors. This, by itself, does not indicate a clear-cut case of micromanagement; rather, these supervisors might have a management style that takes a more interactive approach than does that of their peers.

Other supervisors monitor and evaluate the same as their colleagues but come across as more controlling. This may be due to personality, style, or a lack of what has been termed “process fairness.” Simply put, process fairness is taking the time to communicate with employees, explaining actions and decisions, making time to answer questions, and treating workers justly.9

New or less experienced officers might be more accepting of their supervisors’ input. However, conversely, a squad of seasoned officers with many years of experience are more apt to reject, and might even resent, the same amount of supervision. Furthermore, it bears mentioning that police officers typically possess so-called type A personalities, which serve them well on the street. This same temperament, however, can cause them to find even reasonable levels of oversight troublesome. It also makes them more likely to speak up.

Employees have been known to use the accusation of micromanagement as a “smokescreen” or an attempt to undermine authority.10 Nobody likes being called a micromanager, since the term carries a negative stigma that conjures up images of a meddlesome boss bereft of any concern for employee independence or competence. Some workers are aware of this and will use the term inappropriately as a means to deflect attention from their own performance issues or to stave off discipline.11 Legitimate supervisory oversight becomes maligned into something more sinister. When an officer says, “My supervisor is a micromanager,” many times what they really mean is, “I want to be left alone” or “No one should question what I’m doing.” New supervisors should be keenly aware of this tendency, as their authority will likely be challenged at some point.

Inconsistent decision making by supervisors faced with similar situations can also be to blame for an accusation of micromanagement. Some supervisors become less concerned with doing things right and more concerned with making friends and building personal camaraderie. Supervisors with this style refuse to hold officers accountable for their actions even in the face of obvious issues. They subscribe to the philosophy of “going along to get along” rather than doing their jobs properly. Unfortunately, this makes the jobs of more conscientious supervisors much more difficult, as they are perceived to be micromanagers compared with the more lenient supervisor.

The agency’s overall management culture might run contrary to the supervisor’s particular style. When top executives demonstrate a laissez-faire style, this top-down management culture pervades the agency. A supervisor who strays from this culture will likely be seen as a micromanager. Lastly, there might be a lack of support from middle or upper-level managers at times when a supervisor holds officers accountable. This too will skew perceptions. If an individual supervisor is not provided with the proper support, the supervisor might appear to be overly concerned with developing issues and might cast the shadow of micromanagement.


True Micromanagement


Not all supervisors who micromanage do so intentionally or even knowingly. Most are acting on what they perceive to be the best interest of their agencies and are unaware that their workers are discontent. In this regard, there are circumstances and other factors that may unwittingly cause supervisors to engage in micromanagement.

Pressure from the agency’s administration for better performance can often lead to supervisors taking excessive control. These supervisors believe that a failure to increase productivity, quality, or quantity will reflect poorly on their ability and will therefore have a negative impact. Too often in organizations, supervisors are rewarded for results rather than the process.12 Ideally, consideration and evaluation would be given to both. In addition, administrators who micromanage tend to develop and promote those most like them, thereby sending a message that to be promoted or gain influence, supervisors should micromanage.13

Newly promoted supervisors might have problems adjusting to their new responsibilities. The attention to detail, control, and autonomy that was important as an officer before promotion follows into the new position. The new supervisor fails to see the “big picture” of the responsibilities attendant with promotion. As such, there can be problems with delegation and teamwork. Many will return to what is comfortable and familiar, performing tasks themselves to ensure that the work is done properly.

There may be a lack of trust in subordinate officers. This can result from previous performance issues or simply from unfamiliarity with the work histories and ethics of officers under a supervisor’s command. It may also stem from the supervisor’s own insecurity.

Similar to a lack of trust, some supervisors believe in their self-perceived “superior” ability compared with that of their subordinates. In this situation, there is a failure to empower subordinate officers, thereby stifling creativity, job knowledge, and professional development.

Finally, some well-intentioned supervisors erroneously mistake micromanagement for mentoring. Rather than utilizing mentorship strategies (such as setting goals, building a vision, offering counsel and support, and modeling appropriate behavior) these supervisors strictly direct, control, and assume subordinates’ work under the flawed belief that officers will benefit from a more hands-on, direct approach.


Symptoms of Micromanagement


A supervisor who strictly adheres to the philosophy, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself,” runs the risk of micromanagement. It is important for supervisors and managers to take an honest look at themselves to determine if they engage in this behavior. The following are telltale characteristics of micromanagers:

  • They are overly critical of subordinates; when reviewing work, they tend to find something wrong every time—suffering from what is called the “red pen” syndrome.

  • They are easily irritated if decisions are made without their input.

  • They spend an inordinate amount of time overseeing simple tasks.

  • They seldom praise and never seek out opportunities to provide praise.

  • They pride themselves as being “on top of” their officers’ work.

  • Subordinates appear frustrated, depressed, and/or unmotivated.

  • Subordinates never take initiative, instead seeking permission from their supervisors before doing anything.14

The first step away from micromanagement is for supervisors to admit being micromanagers. Only then can a conscious effort be made to work toward a more inspired management style. Awareness and commitment are crucial to successful change.15 A rapid transformation is unlikely; committed supervisors are best served by focusing improvement efforts on one or two specific characteristics that are causing the micromanaging tendency and then building momentum from incremental successes.16

When delegating responsibility, upfront communication becomes essential. Time should be spent detailing tasks and expectations at the outset rather than saying nothing and critiquing at the end.17 As with most remedies to micromanaging, communicating at appropriate times and in the proper manner is crucial.

Open-ended questions that spark problem solving should be used when employees are uncertain on how to proceed or when mistakes are made. For example, rather than stating, “This was not handled properly—here is how it should be done,” the supervisor should ask, “What are some ways this situation could be handled differently in the future?” The phrasing of the question evokes discovery, action, and creative problem solving as the subordinate looks forward in time.18 Conversely, supervisors should avoid the use of the word why when phrasing such questions. This style of questioning (for example, “Why was this done?”) is typically perceived as an attack on a decision. Subordinates do not have the opportunity to explore other options, as they think to the past and immediately attempt to defend their behavior or motivation.19

Progress reports should be requested at predetermined intervals for more complicated tasks. This way, subordinates do not have to guess about when to provide updates, and supervisors do not have to badger employees for information. Regular updates not only allow for better communication; they also allow for early adjustments when problems are found.

Praise is a necessary part of supervisory feedback, as micromanagement is often mistaken for a simple lack of social support. Too often, supervisors look to correct behavior rather than to provide praise.20 New supervisors are especially prone to this trap. When an evaluation is given only after mistakes are made, the shadow of micromanagement is cast. Seeking out praiseworthy actions will change the perspectives of both supervisors and subordinates, each seeing the other in a more positive light.

Coaching ability should be developed, and supervisory style should be consistent across situations and among officers. Special attention should be given to avoid what is termed the “halo effect,” in which supervisors base their opinion of an officer on only one aspect of the officer’s performance. For example, an officer who has been a poor performer in the past is expected to continue making mistakes. The officer’s supervisor then notices only negative factors about the officer’s work and overlooks or minimizes any successes.

Supervisors need to maintain an open mind, be flexible in thought, and engage in participative management, whereby officers are allowed to provide input. In this manner employees are most likely to buy into their supervisors’ management style and feel empowered to make sound decisions themselves. There also needs to be an allowance for and an acceptance of mistakes (to the extent possible in law enforcement work). Errors will happen, and when they do, an appropriate response is critical.


Advice for Subordinates


The advice from career consultants on dealing with micromanagers is mixed. Some recommend that subordinates use assertive communication, whereby they confront their managers, point out the specific micromanaging behaviors, and ask for the opportunity to gain their managers’ trust.21 Others say that this approach will not work and that it could make things worse, as micromanagement is a “personality aberration of insecure individuals.”22

One common thread, however, is that subordinates cannot change micromanagers. The focus of subordinates when dealing with this type of behavior should be on adapting their own style to meet managers’ expectations. Effective strategies should not involve trying to “fix” micromanagers.23 Some practical strategies follow:

  • First, false accusations of micromanagement, as previously discussed, should be ruled out. If a supervisor is not a true micromanager, other strategies might be more successful in improving the supervisor-subordinate relationship.

  • “Battles” should be chosen carefully, as micromanagers feel a need to “win” all the time.

  • The source of managers’ controlling behaviors should be identified.

  • Heavy preemptive communication, involving frequent updates and activity reports, should be utilized to ensure that managers are fully aware of progress on assignments or projects. Micromanagers crave information.

  • Hypothetical questions and options should be used when discussing alternative solutions to a problem, as this allows for a nonthreatening approach to collaborative decision making.

  • A clear understanding of the priority and importance of each task should be ascertained and occasionally confirmed in case of unknown or unexpected changes.

  • The “best practices” of others should be considered. Micromanagers tend to back off with some more than others, and astute subordinates will watch closely to learn the secrets of those who are given more slack.24

Others recommend that subordinates perform the following actions:

  • Carefully document their own daily performance to prove success as an effective independent worker in an attempt to gain trust and in case of a dispute.

  • Keep a record of managers’ requests in case they say one thing and do another; this can be pointed out.

  • Seek help from the department head or human resources to resolve serious issues. Outside sources, such as the agency’s employee assistance program or a career counselor, can also be consulted if employees are feeling particularly frustrated.25

Law enforcement officers hold the community’s trust, something that must be earned every day. No other job has the potential to spark a conflict or cause public outcry as does police work. Although it would be easier to take a hands-off approach to supervision, law enforcement supervisors have a broad range of accountability, including officers, the administration, the police organization, the municipality or government served, and the community. Media headlines are awash with examples of police misconduct and civil litigation. Often, these issues are the result not of too much oversight but rather of too little. The courage to do what is right and hold officers accountable without micromanaging is a delicate but necessary balance that law enforcement supervisors must strike. Armed with the knowledge of what specifically constitutes micromanagement and strategies for avoiding the behavior will help supervisors and managers ensure healthy productivity without overstepping the bounds of good leadership. ■


Notes:

1Florence Stone, “Micromanagement: How to Think More Strategically and Less Operationally,” Performance and Profits (American Management Association) 1, no. 4 (April 2006), http://www.amanet.org/performance-profits/editorial.cfm?Ed=251 (accessed June 11, 2008).
2Christina Bielaszka-DuVernay, “Essentials: Micromanage at Your Peril,” Harvard Management Update 12, no. 2 (February 2007): 3.
3Susan K. O’Brien, “Managing Your Micromanager,” cited in Richard L. Porterfield, “The Perils of Micromanagement,” Contract Management 43, no. 2 (February 2003): 21, http://www.ncmahq.org/files/Articles/5531D_micromanage.pdf (accessed June 11, 2008).
4Craig Chappelow, “Is George Guilty of Micromanagement?” in Bronwyn Fryer, “The Micromanager,” Harvard Business Review 82, no. 9 (September 2004): 9, http://dorawood.com/viewFileNavBean.pdf (accessed June 11, 2008).
5Steve Lemmex, “What Is Micromanagement? And What You Can Do to Avoid It,” Global Knowledge Training, 2007, http://images.globalknowledge.com/wwwimages/whitepaperpdf/WP_Micromanage_Lemmex.pdf (accessed June 11, 2008).
6Ibid.
7Ibid.
8Ibid.
9Joel Brockner, “Why It’s So Hard to Be Fair,” Harvard Business Review 84, no. 3 (March 2006): 122–129, http://www.hbsp.harvard.edu/hbsp/hbr/articles/article.jsp?articleID=R0603H&ml_action=get-article&print=true (accessed June 11, 2008).
10Adam Hanft, “Grist: Micromanagers, Unite!” Inc.com, December 2004, 128, http://www.inc.com/magazine/20041201/ahanft.html (accessed June 11, 2008).
11Ibid.
12Wally Adamchik, “Supervising Employees: When Your Supervisors Micromanage,” The Sideroad, http://www.sideroad.com/Leadership/ supervising-employees.htm (accessed June 11, 2008).
13Josephine Rossi, “Micromanagement: Necessary Evil, Evil Incarnate, or Something In-Between?” T+D, July 2005, 18, http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa5366/is_200507/ai_n21375269 (accessed June 11, 2008).
14Lemmex, “What Is Micromanagement?”
15Mike Toten, “What If You Are the Micromanager?” WorkplaceInfo, August 16, 2005, http://www.workplaceinfo.com.au/nocookie/alert/2005/050816530.htm (accessed June 11, 2008).
16Ibid.
17Joan Lloyd, “Are You a Micromanager?” Joan Lloyd at Work, August 22, 2007, http://www.joanlloyd.com/articles/open.asp?art=/articles/1227.htm (accessed June 11, 2008).
18Laura Whitworth, Henry Kimsey-House, and Phil Sandahl, Co-Active Coaching: New Skills for Coaching People toward Success in Work and Life (Palo Alto, California: Davies-Black Publishing, 1998).
19Ibid.
20For additional information, see Tracey G. Gove, “Praise and Recognition: The Importance of Social Support in Law Enforcement,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 74, no. 10 (October 2005): 14–19, http://www.fbi.gov/publications/leb/2005/oct05leb.pdf (accessed June 11, 2008).
21Jeff Davis, “Tips for Coping with a Micromanager,” TechRepublic, July 9, 2002, http://articles.techrepublic.com.com/5100-1035_11-1043727.html (accessed June 11, 2008).
22Ibid.
23Harry E. Chambers, “How to Succeed with a ‘My Way’ Boss,” Career-Intelligence.com, 2004, http://www.career-intelligence.com/management/Micromanager.asp (accessed June 11, 2008).
24Ibid.
25Beverly West, “Manage Your Micromanager,” Monster Career Advice, 2007, http://career-advice.monster.com/conflict-management/Manage-Your-Micromanager/home.aspx (accessed June 11, 2008).

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXV, no. 8, August 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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