Micromanagement vs. micro-information

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Christoff Gaub
  • 341st Mission Support Group Deputy Commander

A leadership concern I've heard throughout my career is that bosses can be "micromanagers."  I understand the concern and have wrestled with it myself.  I wonder, however, if at some point leaders who are responsible for a mission, objective or task have an inherent right (I did not say "necessity") to make any decision or know about any resource, decision or information required to accomplish that mission?  It was retired Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who helped me understand this issue of micromanagement versus a manager's "right to know."

Gates, in his book "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War," wonders why he, as the SECDEF, was responsible for everything in the Department of Defense, yet if he asked for information to better understand a policy or resource debate, he was labelled a "micromanager."  He explains how he finally made sense of this.  More commonly, people were actually accusing him of requesting micro-information, rather than being a micromanager.  Micromanagement is making decisions normally made by subordinate offices.  Micro-information is detailed information that can only be obtained or developed by subordinate offices, but is required by the manager to make informed decisions. 

Since our jobs and the information we hold is not about us, it's healthy if we assume that our bosses have a valid reason whenever they ask for information, even "micro-information".  Leadership can trust us to do our jobs (unless we prove otherwise), while asking for information about the mission they are ultimately responsible for.  It's a two-way street: if we ask our bosses for support, how can they support us if they don't have the information to make decisions on resource allocation or to advocate on our behalf? 
Managers must also sometimes, but rarely, micromanage.  If a subordinate leader has failed in making good management decisions, the manager must temporarily step in.  Or, if the subordinate manager does not understand the larger picture, he/she may be making decisions that make sense only to his or her limited perspective (not a fault; just a fact).  Why is that "go do" from our boss so important, when it doesn't fit our conventional priorities?  Trust is important, and realizing we don't always understand the bigger picture, no matter what organizational level we're at. For example, the President's and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force's perspectives are likely somewhat different.  Gates, per his memoir, had to micromanage the Air Force to get additional unmanned aerial vehicle and remotely piloted vehicle capability to Afghanistan because the Air Force simply failed to recognize the larger picture. 

Management systems including people processes, computer work management systems, etc., can't accurately make every decision.  Even the best systems only handle about 95 percent of tasks via normal day-to-day processes. The other 5 percent of tasks involve direct management involvement, for example, the Air Force is not a machine turned on and left to run with no management input.  Imagine we own a house and we're getting the basement remodeled.  Unless we're naïve, we don't simply tell a contractor to do a good job and we'll pay him when complete.  We get involved, ask a lot of questions, and provide guidance on what the basement should look like.  We may make decisions the contractor disagrees with because something is important to us but maybe not to him.  We ask for progress and cost updates.  We ask for micro-information.  We're the owner, so we're entitled to know anything about the project.  We may trust the contractor, but we still ask for micro-information and, only when needed, we may micromanage. For example: "I know you think the window should be installed here, but I want it over there." 

Dozens of books address micromanagement, but maybe this short article will encourage some healthy mentoring discussions.  And here's my mentoring note: I suggest reading Gates' book.  It would be well worth your time, and besides, research has shown one common factor amongst all successful senior leaders: they are voracious readers (and we're not talking about reading the latest sci-fi or romance novel).