I’ve led thousands of teams and executives, and the micromanager is one of the most toxic leadership to team performance. It’s a slow cycle that creeps into the organizational culture and performance.
What is the core cause micromanaging and toxic leadership? Trust – either trust in self or trust in others is lacking or broken.
Background – Trust as the Core of Influence
We have many resources on trust and leadership. I will recap some of the critical components of trust here as they relate to the cycle of toxic leadership.
Trust is Dimensional
You can trust someone in one area but not another. Additionally, there are areas of your work and life that are easier for you to give trust.
Consistency & Trust Have a Direct Relationship
We build trust when we see in others what we deem as desired behaviors and attitudes. They think and act in the desired way, and that ‘way’ is individually defined.
Even in our personal lives, we build trust with others when we experience a pattern of consistent and desired behaviors and attitudes in others. As soon as we stop seeing that consistency, trust diminishes.
Once trust is built, it grows to empowerment and eventually inspiration, with the latter being rare.
Trust & Control Have an Inverse Relationship
A lack of trust results in the desire to control or ‘micromanage.’ There is an inverse relationship between the need to control and trust.
An extreme lack of trust leads to fear, especially in leadership roles. My father was a USAF pilot for huge aircraft. He practically squeezed my hand off as a kid when we would be rolling down the runway for takeoff as passengers. Why?
He needed to be in control – even when he wasn’t the leader.
The Birth of Toxic Leadership & the Micromanager
I’ve seen the cycle countless times. When leaders lack trust, they will often work to control. This irrational need to control eventually leads to diminished team performance and lack of trust in the leader.
Let’s use the story of Steve, a call-center supervisor. Steve has a fantastic record as a leader and a great leadership following. Due to some recent changes in the business and operations, Steve’s team performance suffered. Steve’s leadership style was participative up until he met with his manager and was given a warning.
Steve – once a great leader – fell into a slow cycle of micromanagement and toxic leadership.
Here’s how it happened.
Steve Began to Lack Trust in His Team
A stern warning about his team performance crushed Steve. He was the star leader. Steve developed a short-term plan to become more hands-on with his team.
For this time, Steve felt a desire to take more functional control to quickly increase team performance.
Sadly I've lived it. So destructive. When leave one of these positions it feels like you've been sprung – Time off for good behavior! https://t.co/crlKfa8r4C
— Susan Woolner, CPXP (@susanwoolner) January 26, 2017
Steve was losing his understanding of the difference between the functions leadership and management.
Steve Increased His Control
What we don’t know we often fear. What we fear, we work to avoid or control. Suddenly, Steve felt he no longer knew how his team was doing work. Steve became more involved in each of his colleagues’ work, and he realized each of them could do it in a better way.
Because of the time-pressure to raise team performance, Steve found it easier to take some of the work himself. It was easier for him than explaining how it should be done.
Steve’s Effectiveness as a Leader Diminished
At first, Steve felt a sense of calm and accomplishment as team performance quickly improved. Although his tightly-controlled plan was designed for the short-term, he kept the approach.
Instead of showing people how to do the work and helping them understand the reasons why, Steve told them how to do their work. In reality, Steve was taking much of the work for himself.
He was no longer growing his team members for the long-run. Steve was micromanaging them for immediate team performance gains.
Steve’s Team Lost Self-Sufficiency
One of the goals of leadership is developing self-sufficient people and teams. The first result of toxic leadership is teams losing self-sufficiency.
Steve put into place a regimented twice-a-day inspection of each team member. He would review their work and then tell them exactly what to focus on and how to do the work until the next meeting. This worked in the short-term to raise team performance.
Steve’s team was normally self-sufficient so they used his feedback as a guide as opposed to a checklist. Some of them were reprimanded publicly by Steve to ‘just do what he tells them to do.’
As this process continued, team members stopped seeking solutions themselves. They waited for Steve to tell them exactly what to do and how to do it.
Steve’s control moved his team from self-sufficiency to being entirely dependent on Steve’s lists and direction.
What happened next absolutely perplexed Steve.
Steve’s Team Performance Diminished – The Beginning of the End
Up to this point, Steve’s plan was successful. His team performance quickly improved. Eventually, the opposite began to happen – team performance diminished.
Steve couldn’t understand why this was happening. His plan was working up to this point. He was in a reactionary mode and couldn’t see past what was actually happening. Steve transitioned from a leader to a boss.
- His team was no longer self-sufficient. They waited and depended on him for everything.
- Steve was no longer teaching them which builds team growth. He was telling them.
- Steve’s daily capacity of his key resources – time, energy, talent and patience – were over-allocated.
- As the business demands grew, he could no longer meet those demands.
The Death of Team Performance Begins
Once this point is reached in the cycle of toxic leadership, two critical things occur:
- The leader – Steve – begins to lose trust in himself as a leader.
- The team begins to lose trust in Steve’s leadership.
Unless both are identified and corrected, the micromanager cycle of destruction continues. Each cycle amplifies the results of the previous cycle.
Diminished Trust in Leadership – A Two-Way Street
Steve received pressure to increase team performance again. He was losing confidence in his own ability to lead. He strengthened his original plan and brought tighter control to his team. Steve once had confidence that his team would pull through for him. He was quickly losing trust in his team.
His team felt the pressure.
Steve’s team lost faith in him as a leader. More destructive is they lost faith in themselves as a team.
Team Performance Symptoms of Toxic Leadership
As team performance continued to diminish, people became fearful of their positions, careers and future.
The team became more dependent on Steve and terrified of making mistakes. During this phase of the toxic leadership cycle, you’ll see more absences, more tardiness, more attrition, decreased engagement and employee satisfaction.
What do I see business do to correct the trends? They implement processes and programs that address the symptoms as opposed to the core issue – micromanagement.
Steve’s once great and proud team stood by watching other teams become more successful. The other teams were confident and trusting of their leaders so they were willing to take the risk needed to grow the business.
The morale and once positive culture that Steve’s team experienced plummeted. Decreased morale, combined with the other effects of micromanagement, further decreased team performance.
Resentment built in both directions.
The Repeating Cycle of Toxic Leadership
Steve never caught the cycle of his micromanaging to stop it, so it continued. With the last team performance dip, he trusted his team less and they trusted Steve less as their leader.
The next cycle was even more detrimental to both Steve and the team.
Steve was demoted and moved to another department. Eventually, he left the organization.
Nobody helped him and he never helped himself.
Changing of the Leadership Guard – Choose Your Own Adventure
Sara is a superstar who was on Steve’s team and is replacing him as the leader. I see the Sara’s in these situations choose one of a few paths:
- Sara will replicate the toxic leadership cycle because that’s the only leadership style she has been exposed to during her career.
- Sara will take the 180-approach and immediately stop the tight control because she saw the destruction. However, the team is dependent on the control and an immediate withdrawal of it could add more harm.
- Sara will take a breath, take the time to evaluate the situation and then develop an individual approach to stop the cycle of micromanaging.
Sara decides on door #3, calls me to help her build a leadership plan to put her new team on the right path to success.
Strategy for Stoping the Micromanaging Cycle & Team Performance Impacts
From a high-level, here is the plan that Sara and I developed. It’s the same plan I would give Steve to help him get out of the toxic leadership cycle.
- Assess the team together. Do a couple of roundtable exercises and gauge team dynamics. The goal of the first roundtable is getting the team open and comfortable to the leadership change. There are numerous ways to do this based on the situation. For Sara, it’s a fluid outline of to open up discussion. The goal of the second roundtable is to identify team issues and where they think the priorities as a team should be to get back on track.
- Assess each individual team member. Sara has meetings with each team member. There are thousands of questions she could ask. The main question is, “If you were in my role and situation, what would you do?” The answers Sara receives indicate the biggest fears that her colleagues have now. Sara looks for trends of both the team meetings and individual meetings and prioritizes those. She quickly shows small change by doing something with the feedback.
- Build team confidence. Sara’s team lacks confidence and morale. The WORST thing she could do is to immediately relinquish all control – they now depend on that control. That’s like immediately ripping off the training wheels with absolutely no other support. You’ll immediately fall and be less likely to try again. Based on individual assessments, Sara slowly builds confidence while providing more autonomy. They must be done together to repair the impacts of toxic leadership.
- Meet with peers to discuss a plan, get feedback and incorporate into the plan. Many leaders miss this one. Sara must regain the confidence of her peers in her team. She’ll use this as a ‘PR’ move, gather valuable feedback, incorporate parts into her plan and demonstrate the use of the feedback. The last part promotes team success and builds confidence in her peers that Sara used their valuable feedback.
How to Prevent the Cycle of Toxic Leadership
It better to prevent becoming a micromanager than to fix the cycle. Here are some quick points to keep in mind.
Check yourself and approach periodically to ensure you aren’t trying to control:
- People through processes. This starts the cycle of micromanaging and builds operational bureaucracy. Don’t standardize behavior, rather work to make behaviors consistent.
- Areas that should be influenced. In other words, focus on leadership not control as it relates to your team members. As soon as you try and control every outcome of every team member, you become Steve – the toxic micromanager.
- Areas beyond your direct influence. Keep your scope clear and don’t go too broad. You’ll stretch yourself too thin.
- Tasks managed by others. Let your team do their work. Guide and coach them, but don’t start doing the work for them.
Build Consistency to Build Trust
Given the priorities of trust (fears) received from the team and individual meetings, periodically ask yourself these questions:
In what areas should I become more consistent?
What haven’t I been consistent in these areas?
How should I make those behaviors more consistent?
The WHY is especially important for sustainable change – and to avoid becoming another toxic, micromanaging Steve.
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