June 18, 2018

Micromanaging Library Leaders Rarely Know the Damage They Do | Leading from the Library

Steven BellLeaders are advised to relinquish control in favor of empowering staff. Giving up that control can be hard for some, especially when they are apt to micromanage workers. The key is to recognize it and then work on behavior change.

When librarians get together to talk about their organizations and how they are managed, the discussion often turns to the plague of the micromanaging supervisor. Library workers all too willingly express their disdain for leaders who constantly meddle in their work, telling them how to do their job and showing little respect for their talent. This behavior, in addition to insulting workers, undermines their commitment to the organization and likely lowers their confidence levels. It’s little coincidence that micromanaging bosses lack the basic self-awareness to know the damage they’re doing to staff morale, because they are often completely unaware of their own micromanaging behavior. The good news is that it may be possible for the habitual micromanager to do something about it, but recognizing it must the first step to change.

You’ve probably been micromanaged

In a previous position I was responsible for the access services operation. Things ran well enough except for the occasional and unexpected glitch that resulted in a disrupted workflow or a disgruntled community member. Whatever it was, the team dealt with and corrected the issue soon enough. That rarely kept the library director from stepping into the situation with some variation of “here’s how I used to handle that” or “why aren’t we doing X instead of Y?” These issues typically mattered so little to the overall success of the library, I wondered why the director even bothered to pay attention rather than trust my judgment and ability in leading the team to deliver a great service experience. Good leaders should ask questions, but the type of question and its intent makes a difference. Is it within the purview of a high-level library leader? If it’s substantively connected to strategic matters, then ask away, and get involved as needed. However, if the stakes are low and clearly of little consequence to the overall operation, let alone the future of the library, it sounds more like micromanagement.

It’s a control thing

Why do leaders do it? Pick a reason. No one knows how to do the work as well as they do. Jobs will fail to get done without their direct involvement. Fear of delegation. Needing to oversee every team.  Getting ego boosts by diving in to save the day. In her article “Signs That You’re a Micromanager,” Muriel Maignan Wilkins shares a list for leaders. It includes:

  • Rarely satisfied with the work of employees
  • Desire to step in and tell subordinates how to do their job
  • Enjoy pointing out the need for corrections in a work process
  • Demand to get constant updates from employees on their projects
  • Paying attention to details when outcomes are of minor consequence

The reasons are myriad but in the end, micromanaging is largely about leaders being unable to relinquish control. They feel an undeniable urge to oversee every operation and the people in their portfolio, no matter how minor. Of course, leaders need to know what’s happening across the scope of the entire organization. But maintaining awareness and an irrational need for control are two different things. Leaders need to know when to relinquish control and allow their subordinates to do their jobs. They need to resist the urge to impact the outcomes—or even influence how tasks are ultimately accomplished—and instead accept that staff will do their jobs well and make the right decisions. When the outcomes are less than satisfactory, good leaders effectively provide guidance and support for better results in the future. Put simply, they treat staff like responsible, trusted adults.

Time to change

Library workers who have experience with a micromanaging boss can tell leaders everything they need to know about its dangers. Start with the destruction of trust. If leaders fail to demonstrate trust in their staff by constantly second guessing their work, how can they expect to gain trust? Rather than apply themselves earnestly to projects, staff will make a half-hearted effort waiting for their micromanaging boss to take over and tell them what to do and how to do it. Leaders whose followers have no trust in them need to change. It can be done, and Wilkins offers four strategies:

  • Get over yourself. Micromanagers want to believe they are the organizational linchpin, that nothing gets accomplished without them. Recognizing and overcoming one’s own narcissism is a difficult first step, but instead of taking control, consider looking at the potential positive outcomes of relinquishing control to others.
  • Let the “micro” go. Start with a basic to-do list and identify anything that’s below a strategic activity where your leadership is of less value and importance. Let direct reports know when they need your direct involvement, but that they are otherwise trusted to make the right decisions.
  • Give the “what,” not the “how.” Leaders can certainly direct subordinates about expectations for outcomes and deliverables. It becomes micromanagement when leaders dictate how to get the results. If there are concerns about those results, leaders should ask staff how they plan to go about getting the job done, share thoughts if appropriate, then step back and allow them to go about their work.
  • Anticipate something positive. Fear of failure underlies micromanaging. Taking control is the micromanager’s way to ensure success, even if a toxic workplace is the price to pay. Instead of being driven by failure, focus on a positive outcome based on leadership support rather than control.

Is it possible that something will go wrong? Absolutely. Stopping micromanagement behavior requires the ability to both relinquish control and accept that something may go differently than it would if the leader did it. Even in the worst-case scenario of project failure, I am unable to imagine anything much worse than the damage a micromanaging boss does to the culture of a team or entire organization. In the short run, micromanagers may get the desired results. Over time, though, micromanagement leads to a dysfunctional organization where there is no trust and the product suffers because staff take no pride or joy in their work. If this column’s depictions of a micromanager sound vaguely similar to your own leadership style, take time to ask serious questions about your inclination to exert control over people and projects. If you’re an aspiring leader who works for a micromanager, learn what not to do and make a personal commitment to do better with those you’ll be leading in the future.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. Libertarian Librarian says:

    Micro managers are often bullies. They care less about the health of the organization than their own perceived power. With a former director I always made sure that I had a witness for any approval of program/action because she would swear that she never gave her okay. At one point 1/3 of the staff were actively looking for other positions to get away from her.

    • Thanks for your comment Libertarian Librarian.Your personal experience supports what we know about how destructive micromanagers can be to their organizations. I did not speak to the issue of micromanagers being bullies, although you might say that the bully wants to be in control of situations – but probably with a much meaner and power hungry attitude. It sounds like your library organization, because of this director, was a toxic and dysfunctional workplace – so no surprise that employees were looking to get out. No doubt this had a significant impact on service delivery. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    • Joneser says:

      Yep. Been there, done that. Had the breakdown.

  2. I’ve had much the same experience as Libertarian Librarian. Micromanaging is endemic in library management. In addition to bullying, insecurity is a huge factor. If a library manager feels like they are on shaky ground with their bosses, or if they have a strong case of impostor syndrome, then the easiest thing is to try to hyper-control their direct reports.

    What’s to be done? It often does no good to complain to upper administration, because these awful managers are adept at keeping their bosses happy. There is training and professional development available for managers that can help them let go of the urge to control, but the micromanager, as Steven points out, is blind to the fact that they are driving away talented staff. The only recourse seems to be document, document, document. Have witnesses, save emails and voicemails, and talk to other staff about the problem. Perhaps a group intervention is in order?

    And, sadly, keep your resume up to date and stay subscribed to library job lists, in case you need to exercise the nuclear option. We would all like to feel secure in our jobs, but sometimes the grass truly is greener on the other side.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience and perspective Caroline. Your suggestion that this is endemic in our profession is along the lines of what I am hearing. Your observation that insecurity is a factor is one I had not considered – so a good addition to the conversation in trying to understand this.

      Perhaps moving forward, if you want to give your micromanaging supervisor a hint, you can leave a copy of my column on their desk.

    • Joneser says:

      I wouldn’t risk putting a copy of this column on anyone’s desk – it will backfire. I totally agree with the insecurity thing as it is rampant in the profession. The pace of change everywhere is so much faster than it was when many managers started as librarians. They may be higher on the food chain, but they are not the “experts” when it comes to what’s going on now (all part of the specialist vs. manager issue). Thus, any hint that they aren’t on top of things and/or what they did 15 years ago isn’t working anymore will trigger those insecurities. The younger, newer librarians see this quickly and move on. And as Caroline says, it does no good to try to kick it upstairs, as there is never any true two-way communication and evaluation.

  3. Karen Scattergood says:

    I understand the disastrous results of micro managing. It demoralises staff and leaves them washed out and exhausted and devoid of hope. The only thing is to get out and move onto better things and pastures new. I would advise people to do this.

    • Thanks for sharing your advice Karen. It would be a better outcome if staff could focus their energy on making a difference for community members, but if a manager or leader is particularly toxic – and there is no hope – yes, moving on when you (and if) you can is for the best.

  4. Anon Manager says:

    The problem is if you don’t do many of the micromanaging things you mention as a manager, staff members will complain when it comes time for your review that you are detached and have no idea what is going on. It is definitely a balancing act.

    • Another manager says:

      Sure, you could go to the other extreme and be very hands-off. But there’s a third path: be an engaged, supportive manager. Regular check-ins and discussions with your direct reports, in which you *both* talk about expectations and progress towards goals, is really important! If your report is having challenges, you want to help them. And if there’s a serious problem, you want to intercede.

      Rule of thumb: if anything in an annual performance evaluation surprises the person being evaluated, there’s a communication breakdown in the organization.

    • “Another Manager” beat me to the punch. There’s rarely an excuse for micromanaging. Good managers have strategies and techniques for being engaged with staff in ways that don’t turn into micromanagement. As I said in the column, it’s about having to be in control of everything in your portfolio. Good managers know how to balance being on top of things with giving their staff members the freedom to do their work without constant nitpicking about how they do their jobs. There’s a big difference between knowing what’s going on and micromanagement.

  5. Unemployed Librarian says:

    I am happy to say I have only had a few micromanagers throughout my career but they have made me appreciate the supervisors I have had that don’t micromanage. I am now unemployed after a very unpleasant tenure under a narcissistic micromanager that made me ill and then I was terminated due to my boss claiming something that wasn’t true. Did he feel threatened by my calling him on it? I know a lot more now about how to handle it, but he got to keep his job and I didn’t. There is also a lot of gas lighting going on with micromanagers. True in my case anyway.

    • Sorry to hear you lost your job b/c of this micromanaging boss – sounds like the typical toxic leader. A costly lesson, but thanks for sharing that it made you more appreciated of other leaders that were more supportive. I hope you find a new and better job soon.

  6. C. Chadwick says:

    Worse than micro managing directors are micromanaging Boards. In their defense hopefully directors are experienced librarians but the Board is clueless about how the library runs. I was subject to an extremely nasty micromanaging board I never saw it coming. It was the worst experience of my career. I am not in any way shape or form minimizing the detriment of micro managing directors.

    • I’m assuming you refer to your public library board of trustees. Absolutely. Effective boards leave the day to day management of the library or organization to the director and staff. They shouldn’t meddle in how it’s run or staff management. Good boards stick to policy matters, fundraising, strategic visioning, etc. I was on the board of a major library association and that’s the first thing we learned about good board practice. Different than a micromanaging boss, but will definitely contribute to a toxic leadership situation.

  7. Early in my career I had a nightmare micromanaging director. She once took me into the break room and showed me how to turn a light switch on and off. It was just your typical light switch, up and down, and she actually slowly said to me “On…Off” while demonstrating. Needless to say, I got out of there as soon as I could.

  8. None Given says:

    I think labeling someone a micromanager shuts down all communication and is a way of absolving yourself from responsibility. Is there a reason the boss is up in your business telling you what to do? What if you listened and asked yourself what is this person trying to tell me? What if you just got a thicker skin, listened and asked questions for understanding instead of bristling under their guidance? Is there something to be learned from this so called micromanager? Could you just as reasonably be labeled a difficult or non-performing employee? Not every boss is going to butter your biscuits and some of the toughest ones are the best ones because they hand it to you straight with a good dose of reality. I usually like your column, Mr. Bell, but this one missed the mark from an emotional intelligence viewpoint.

    • There are no doubt some situations where an underperforming employee takes offense to a manager who offers guidance – and rationalizes the situation by claiming their boss is a micromanager. But there’s a significant difference between a manager offering guidance and having an unstoppable need to control many aspects of their staff members’ work. I believe that many employees, and this is reflected in other comments, who come into a work situation, do give their supervisor the benefit of the doubt and attempt to get along, only to eventually realize they will never make their supervisor happy. If you go back and read JoAnn K’s comment – and though it’s hard to believe what she’s sharing – let’s take it as the truth – should someone in that situation just develop a thicker skin?

      Sorry “None Given” but I don’t think it’s my emotional intelligence that should be questioned here.

    • Pigbitin Mad says:


      I worked with the poster boy for “Set Up To Fail” management. There’s even a book about him called “The Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome: How Good Managers Cause Great People to Fail” See my comments below. This manager always had a favorite who was showered with everything heaven could provide. He also had a “goat” that could do nothing right. When his goat was bullied out finally, I became the goat (after some stellar performance reviews which quickly went south).

      It’s well documented and provable. The big problem was his supervisor who was well aware of his micromanaging always talked a good ball game with the subordinates he tortured (“the good cop”), but she always sided with him when push came to shove.

      The thing is, after I left, they lost even the favorite after HE stormed out in a huff (because the fact that he was the favorite was so obvious it must have been intolerable to be viewed as such).

      I really do feel like this guy cost me my livelihood and 5 years of my life that I will never get back. I will never be able to be friendly to coworkers and I always think I am going to get stabbed in the back, or I won’t be believed when this TOTALLY obvious psychopath is picking favorites. I did everything I could to discredit him when I was there, but the bottom line is, he was successful and I am not.

  9. library manager says:

    I have worked with staff who have come from being micromanaged to the point that they requested approval for everything they did. Slowly I let them know that I did not need to approve every aspect of a program or project they were doing but that I trusted them to make the right decisions. We were about to lose these very qualified people if they had not transferred to another location. Very sad.

    • Joneser says:

      I’m in that position now. It’s hard to readjust to a much better manager but it’s certainly easier than the previous situation.

    • Joneser says:

      So much of this is about control (for whatever reason). The book LEAD MORE, CONTROL LESS does an excellent job of describing this situation.

  10. pigbitin mad says:

    “I am unable to imagine anything much worse than the damage a micromanaging boss does to the culture of a team or entire organization.”

    I am wondering if you know about the one in your own organization? He works right downstairs from you and if you ask anyone who it is, they will tell you without the slightest hesitation….and yes he is toxic with his little gang of snitches to point out every typo someone makes. [I will not name names here because I am not that stupid]. However, that jerk ended up costing me thousands of dollars in raises that I did not qualify for (and it was done on purpose because of your performance reviews graded on a curve). You at Temple think you have your employees over a barrel and that they will stay in a humiliating and demeaning situation forever, but believe me, I got out.

    Everyone else there still hates his guts. For once why don’t you take a stand against someone like that instead of blaming the victim (like I got blamed). And the reason I am saying all this after so many years is that I never forget. There is no statute of limitations and if I can do anything to get revenge I will. People who cross me, very rarely get away with it without at least some collateral damage.

  11. When people ask me how I survived 8.5 years with I micromanaging bully, I tell them I gained a lot of weight, lost a lot of hair and took a lot of anxiety meds.

  12. This is a very poignant article to me at this point in my life. I realize that I have been extremely fortunate with the quality of managers I’ve had up to this point, and now that I’m in a new job with a micromanaging boss I realize that not all bosses are created equal.

    A good manager is not always a buddy to you, but they will hear out your ideas and trust you to get things done. They give you a clear idea of the results they want, but let you decide how to get there. They also encourage questions and will offer advice when needed.

    After having so many wonderful managers, it was a big shock to me when I started a new job recently and found that the person who seemed so reasonable in the interviews turned out to be awful as a manager.

    At first, I attributed it to the fact that I had made a bad first impression when I came in very late while I was still new–I had set my alarm wrong. It was dumb, and I admit it was completely my fault, but eventually, it became apparent that it was more than just a bad first impression.

    Anything I did beyond basic data entry was always wrong. Any correction they gave me was always behind closed office doors and included accusations of insubordination and threats of write-ups. I would triple check any emails I had to send to try and ensure that they didn’t remotely sound like I was telling them what to do, otherwise, I’d receive a lecture about how I was being bossy. I was so thrown off by the accusations that I started having anxiety issues and had trouble getting to sleep some nights.

    Eventually, in order to keep the peace and my sanity, I focused on doing data entry tasks. If I ever had to teach library classes I would use their notes as close to verbatim as I could. I didn’t try to improve anything. I didn’t try to better myself. I didn’t try to be creative at all. I just gave up and I kind of hated myself for it too.

    Eventually, I made sure to document all our conversations to prove that I was actually trying to do as he asked and was not, in fact, trying to be insubordinate. I was working up the courage to take my case to HR if things didn’t change; I often wonder if I should have made a case to HR long ago.

    I ended up getting another job 5 months later.

    I feel like there are different levels of micromanaging, and what happened to me is probably the most extreme example. There is also the flip side where maybe it’s not the manager, but the employee may feel the manager is nitpicking when they are not because the employee has their own personal issues; I’ve seen that happen too. Some people may even wonder that about me when they read this post; you can never really know what really is happening unless you get to witness it yourself. Regardless, I’m glad to be out of there, and will definitely think twice about taking a good manager for granted for the rest of my life.

    Good luck to those of you in similar, toxic situations.

  13. I suffered under a micromanaging library director for nearly two years. When things first started getting bad several employees wrote a letter to her gentling expressing our concerns about the way things were going and asking for a meeting to have a discussion, she accused us of insubordination. Complaints made to HR accomplished nothing except to put a target on the backs of the employees who filed the complaints. The director interpreted all complaints about her performance as “personal attacks” yet she ironically accused employees of being thin-skinned. The union even got involved, but the city manager refused to fire the library director. We lost numerous staff who found better jobs elsewhere, including a new hire who had been there just a few weeks. The situation became very toxic and stressful until finally the staff took a vote of no confidence and threatened to take it to City Council, which finally forced the city manager to fire the director. I will never again take a good boss for granted.

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