Here’s a management riddle for you. “What does nobody do and yet someone does to almost everyone?”  Tough one, right? Some might say impossible. How can something be done by someone but not by anyone?

The answer is micromanage.

No one does it? I’ll bet you can’t find a boss that says he micromanages. No one thinks the questions they ask are about trivial details. Their questions are about important aspects of the operation and their subordinates might not have considered them.

On the other hand, there are few of us who haven’t been micromanaged at some time in our career. I look back fondly on those bosses who didn’t micromanage. In retrospect, I was far more productive working for them than I was working for the boss that questioned everything I did and didn’t do. When that happened, it seems to me I spent more time working on the answers to their questions than on making the operation better.

What is micromanaging? According to a dictionary, to micromanage is to manage with great or excessive control or attention to details. Those of us who have experienced it know it’s the boss asking question after question about insignificant aspects of our responsibilities, doing parts of other peoples’ jobs, and not allowing actions to be taken without his approval.

There are two basic reasons why someone micromanages. The first, and most benign, is that the boss is being micromanaged by his boss. It is pretty easy to understand why someone being micromanaged has to do it to his people. If he is being constantly asked about details of things under his overall control, he needs to know the details from his people in order to answer those questions.

Unfortunately, the other and more common reason for micromanaging is that the boss doesn’t really trust the subordinate. Since no one micromanages, I don’t have to listen to people deny this reason. If someone would admit to doing it, they’d deny this being the reason. As an Assiniboine Indian proverb says, “Deeds speak louder than words.”

The boss asks all sorts of questions because he doesn’t believe that his subordinate has thought of the important ones. He believes that if the employee doesn’t care enough or know enough to consider all of the important factors, he must do the thinking.

What’s so bad about micromanaging? The initial detrimental effect of it is the demoralizing effect it has on the employees. Answering all of those picky questions is frustrating. The boss isn’t really directly saying you’re not capable of doing your job, but he’s doing it in a way that you can’t even discuss it with him.

In some cases, it can make a capable employee shut down. The employee gets frustrated answering questions about details that he had already either considered or did not feel were significant. The capable employee either leaves or ends up saying, “Why should I waste my time thinking about it? The boss will do the thinking anyway, so why should I bother?”

Another big problem with micromanagement is the waste of time. If you’re the boss, there’s your and the employee’s time spent going over your questions. There’s the time that the employee is spending preparing the answers to the questions that you’ve asked or, possibly more time consuming, the questions he thinks you might ask.

Perhaps the worst thing about micromanaging is if you as the boss are spending your time thinking about the details your employee should be concerned about, you’re really doing your employee’s job. Who’s doing yours? 

If an employee is in over his head, micromanaging may be necessary. On the other hand, if you’re the boss, you should be making a plan so that he won’t be. Is the employee in over his head because of lack of training or knowledge? Are there classes available to get the knowledge and training he needs or do you have to develop a plan to see that it happens in-house? Granted, if he’s the right person for the job, it will most likely happen by the slow process of exposure, but can you wait that long?

If you don’t feel the employee will ever be up to handling the requirements, you need a plan to handle that situation. What are you going to do with the current employee? More importantly, what are you going to do differently so that you won’t end up in the same situation with the next?

Since no one thinks they micromanage, you might need something to look for to see if you’re doing it. Do you ever say, “Why do I have to do everything around here?” Or, “Am I the only one who can make a decision?” If so, there’s a likelihood you’re micromanaging.

Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks, gave great advice when he said, “Hire people smarter than you are and get out of their way.