In his classic work on understanding the four human loves, CS Lewis tells a very interesting tale of a mother named Mrs. Fidget.
The story starts out at Mrs. Fidget’s funeral.
What Lewis writes really caught my attention:
The faces on the members of her family had all “brightened up.”
The drawn look from her husband’s face was gone and he was laughing again.
The young, embittered son who caused such havoc it seems was quite human.
The daughter who seemingly was out all hours of the night, if she ever came home at all, was seen organizing the garden in the middle of the day.
Another daughter you didn’t even know was around because she was treated so delicately was off taking horseback riding lessons.
Even the dog, who was never allowed out except on a leash, was seen from time to time wandering around the neighborhood with the pack.
What Lewis describes next is what I found to be so profound and so applicable to our thoughts on leadership today:
“Mrs. Fidget very often said she lived for her family. And it was not untrue. Everyone knew it.”
She did all the laundry. She did it poorly and they could have afforded to send it out. But she did it. They begged her not to, but she insisted.
There was always a hot meal for anyone who was around. At all times of the day or night. They implored her not to do it. They even told her they liked cold meals once in a while. The pleaded with her to just make a sandwich once in a while. But no. She insisted. She was living for her family.
She always sat up and waited for you to “welcome” you home no matter what hour of the night; two or three in the morning. It did not matter the time of day or night, you always came home to that vey tired, weary face awaiting you like a silent accusation. This meant, of course, that you just didn’t go out very often, or if you did you just didn’t come home at all.
In addition, she was always making things, as she fashioned herself as quite the amateur seamstress. And Lewis says, unless you were a heartless brute, you wore what was made for you. (It was said by the minister at the homeless shelter that her family had donated more clothes on one day than all the other families in town for an entire year…and we all know ministers don’t lie or exaggerate).
Mrs. Fidget was often heard saying she would work her fingers to the bone for her family. There was nothing she would not do for them. In fact, there was so much to do that she needed help.
So, they pitched in and helped.
According to Lewis, “They did things for her to help her do things for them that they didn’t want done.”
At her funeral, the minister said Mrs. Fidget was now at rest.
Lewis laments, “Let us hope she is. What's quite certain is that her family are."
You probably don’t need my comments after reading the highlights from the story above, but I feel it is my duty. So here goes...
In my executive coaching practice I am called on at least twice a year to work with someone who turns out to be a micromanager.
I am also honored to teach at Concordia University in the Executive Coaching program where I facilitate the Internship course. In this course, students learn the executive coaching process from start to finish, including collecting 360 degree feedback. What I have observed is at least 40% will end up with a client who is in some way a micromanager…A Mrs. Fidget.
As I process 360 degree feedback with my clients and listen to my students stories, there are three pretty consistent themes that emerge:
Shock - I think the emotion I see expressed most often is surprise. The person who is seen as the micromanager had no idea that people on the team felt that way. “Who me?” they say…”... I would, and in fact do, sacrifice so much for this team. There is nothing that I would not do for any of them. I am as close if not closer to them than my own family.”
Dismay - The emotion that follows the initial shock of the feedback is denial. “No, this can’t be right. Something is missing here because I would never intend to harm or control anyone. I just want what is best for them and to keep them out of trouble with senior management."
Overwhelmed - As the emotions continue processing in the feedback session, the micromanager becomes overwhelmed and there is a real sense of loss. A feeling of "what do I do now?” The knee jerk reaction is to control the situation by pulling the team together and coming up with more strategies and tactics that no one is asking for.
Embarrassment - As the feedback is slowly processed, the shame starts to set in. This is why you need a professional coach to help process this kind of feedback. People who want to change have to process loss before they can turn and move to a new future.
Stuck - "Okay, now what do I do? I don’t want to be seen this way, but obviously my desire to help is being misinterpreted so I feel like I am in quicksand. The more I might try and move to get out, the deeper I sink in.”
What’s to be done?
At the core of micromanagement is a need to give to others. Some may call it control, as that is at times exactly what it feels like. However, the micromanager who has good ethical boundaries rarely has an evil desire to control others. Rather, they have a real GIFT. The gift they have is that they care. They care so much and they have such a strong need to give the gift of caring the only thing they desire in return is that their gift is needed.
Hence the cycle of micromanagement is established:
Manager has a gift
Manager needs to give the gift
Follower doesn’t need the gift
Follower feels need for peace at all costs
Follower “accepts” gift
Manager feels needed as gift is “accepted"
Those on the team end up enabling the micromanagement. This thought of the team having some culpability in enabling the micromanaging behavior is often left out of the solution on how to fix the problem. No one needs the boss hanging over their shoulder telling them exactly what to do and say, but they don’t want to tell them for fear of causing the boss to feel rejected. After all, a rejected boss can be more difficult to live with. With all the passive-aggressive behavior, it is better to just tolerate it. So, the culture becomes one of fear and control and neither the leader or the followers want it to be this way.
It was never anyone’s intention. It is the explicit culture that describes the team.
This is also why those who have strong, independent streaks in their nature, (like the daughter who stayed out all night), will feel like such an outsider on the team. They would rather just stay away than get sucked into the dysfunction.
This micromanager needs to learn that there is a time that the gift they have is valued. And that the proper use of the gift is to put teammates in a position where the gift of control is no longer needed. It is like, in some respects, teaching a child to dress themselves. You teach them, and then you celebrate it when they can do it on their own. You as the parent begin to think about what the next skill is that the person is going to need to be able to be successful in life.
But wait…the micromanager says, if they can dress themselves…now what do I do? What about my need to give?
Here are some thoughts for you to consider after you have taught them to dress themselves:
Get them ready for the future. Turn your face to what lies ahead. Start working with your peers on developing strategies that your organization is going to need in the future. What talent is missing? How can folks on your team start to fill those gaps?
Coach to their strengths. Find places where you see teammates really shining and celebrate them with everyone.
Create a culture of delight. Who doesn’t like the feeling of delight? That sense of being pleased to the point of desiring it. Make the place where you lead one that people can’t wait to sign up to work in.
We all have gifts. Why not use yours to become a MacroLeader rather than a MicroManager?
Do you know someone who needs to read this? Why not send them a link and then invite them to coffee for a chat?