In my career path as an engineer and then - as an operations manager for a tech company, I’ve come to believe that there are two worst types of managers - those who don’t care at all and those who do too much.
I’ve noticed that the shift to remote work made both lines of behavior even more pronounced and detrimental to employees.
The first case is the one where managers don’t check in on their team at all. They show no genuine interest in people’s work and are slow in responding to red flags.
At first, employees might enjoy the freedom of lackluster management - no one is standing over you to check if you are writing code or scrolling through Reddit. The work is so scarce you can wrap it up in five-ten hours a week, and no one is asking for more.
That typically holds up until the C-Suite notice that a lackluster manager’s department is underperforming, at which point, the entire team can be disposed of.
Since there are so many absentee managers in remote workplaces, I am sure most people here had at least one leader in this category. Still, I’ll illustrate this behavior with a short example provided by a Redditor:
“I have an 'absentee boss' - genuinely nice guy, but he mostly works remotely and we're lucky to see him in the office 2-3 times a month. He's largely disengaged and has a go-along-to-get-along management style. As a result, it's pretty much the inmates running the asylum these days, bullying/harassment goes unchecked, no plan, no focus, status quo - no news is good news, but you'll hear from him if someone has a complaint over some petty slight.
E-mails, IMs, and calls don't get responded to unless you pester him relentlessly - and when he is in the office, the door is closed as he's in meetings most of the day. The rare time you do get his attention, his mind is in 20 different places.”
The second type of manager is a micromanagement nightmare. Such leaders are absorbed in productivity to the point of not accepting employees at their low and not intervening when burnout is creeping up. On their teams, people are scared to show a moment of weakness and make a mistake.
After a while, pent-up stress and exhaustion drive employees to a dead end. Some leave (a fitting expression would be GTFO) the toxic workplace, others might end up exiting the workforce or switching industries. Letting highly skilled professionals perish because of micromanagement is a loss to organizations and to the economy at large.
In my opinion, this story a software developer shared on Reddit shows how damaging micromanagement is to a confidence of a top performer. I didn’t post the full story (you can read it here) but the general picture comes across.
_“The boss I'm currently working for asks tons of confusing questions. The boss also has an uncanny memory, perhaps even perfect recall. Boss can recall word-for-word conversations from months ago. YEARS ago. And can remember large tree directories without even glancing at the interface. It's kind of spooky…
So boss and I have regular tag-ups. They are intense. I have to give a summary of my week, sometimes my day. A lot of times, it feels like a confessional, but it normally feels like an interrogation.
I don't think I'm special. Boss does this to everyone. We've lost some really talented people over it, but everyone is scared to speak up because it's really just not worth the outcome.”_
In both cases, the overwhelming majority believe it’s better to leave both a company with an absentee manager and one with a controlling leader.
So, for leaders, the question is: how do you strike a balance between disinterest and shattering your fist around the team? Now that remote work and hybrid work are growing in popularity, finding the middle ground is getting harder by the day.
What used to be seamless in the office (for example, daily catch-ups) quickly verges on the edge of over-bearing when done in Slack or video conference.
That’s why managers have to be all the more careful about not being overbearing while showing genuine interest and involvement in their team’s work.
Based on my working history as a programmer and a manager, I outlined 10 aspects that define both absentee managers and micromanagers. I will examine extreme behaviors in each of these and explore the ways to find a middle ground.
Absent manager: typically has no process for reporting. Such leaders can sporadically ask subordinates about project status updates but are easily satisfied with whatever answer they get. Absent managers have no desire to track month-on-month progress, pinpoint bottlenecks, and encourage their subordinates to proactively seek out ways for improvement.
Micromanager: these leaders need everything to be reported. They have a policy of “If it wasn’t reported, it hasn’t happened”. As the result, the rest of the team feels like they spend more time writing reports than doing the work they are paid for. For micromanagers, reports are not necessarily limited to updates on ongoing tasks but might include all interactions - they would want to know who and when teammates have talked to and have a detailed record of what was discussed.
Absent manager: often prefers asynchronous communication over in-person interactions. Such leaders often take a lot of time to answer and have to be continuously pinged for a reply. Absentee managers also tend to have a reactive approach to workplace communication - they rarely show initiative and intervene only when it’s time to put out fires.
Micromanager: expects employees to be always on and report whenever they are offline. Even the slightest delay in response triggers a micromanager, especially if the team works remotely. To make sure teammates are always available, micromanagers stack their reports’ days with meetings and catch-up calls, leaving people no time to focus on work.
Absent manager: on first glance, it would seem that a manager’s lack of interest is proof of trust in the team. However, it is often a display of indifference - absentee leaders do not really care if the team is underperforming or putting out subpar projects until their managers or clients call them out.
Micromanager: doesn’t trust anyone, least so in a remote environment. In a micromanager’s mind, everyone on the team can do a better job but has an inherent tendency to slack off. In extreme cases, the lack of trust gives rise to questionable employee monitoring practices (often unconsented).
Absent manager: generally is hesitant to start discussions because they would require such a manager to take up extra responsibilities. On the rare occasions such a manager gets together with the team, there’s little willingness to show proactivity. A disengaged leader typically goes with the flow, hoping that the rest of the team reaches consensus independently.
In discussions, an absent manager has no filter to separate ideas that are and are not worth pursuing. When wrapping up the meeting, such a leader will often try to make it look like everything went incredibly well even though no action plan was created.
Micromanager: will often simulate discussions to get the entire team together and have a sense of control. However, micromanagers are extremely reluctant to accept ideas that interfere with their way of doing things and typically listen to what they want to hear, tuning out out-of-the-box suggestions.
Since having the last word in discussions is crucial to controlling leaders, they would flip out when employees criticize them openly and turn ideas down for obscure reasons like “This is not the way things are done in this company” or “I have more experience thus we should do as I say”.
Absent manager: typically follows one of the two patterns. Such a manager can either be too engaged in IC work that leaves no time for communicating with reports or have not enough skills to understand and contribute to ongoing projects.
Micromanager follows a similar trajectory. For some, micromanagement is a way to mask their own incompetence. They feel like, by controlling and gaslighting others, they shift the focus from their lacking skillsets. Others are high performers who expect everyone to give their best at work.
They are generally used to seeing their reports doing subpar work and tend to redo the tasks employees submit. As the result, such a manager is always busy and frustrated with the team. “If I could, I would clone myself and do all the work properly” - such a manager thinks.
Absent managers: these are often visionaries with little willingness to focus on details and plan operations. They see the picture so big that individual details are blurred out and seem insignificant. However, the devil is often in details, and errors in minute tasks can nip promising ideas in the bud.
Micromanagers: as was the case for a leader in the Reddit story referred to above, micromanagers often have excellent attention to detail (though it doesn’t necessarily have to be perfect recall).
The problem is they are so absorbed in operations that the bigger picture is lost. What’s worse, micromanagers are often stuck in their ways and can’t reconcile with the notion that, through automation or a creative approach, some tasks can take less effort while others can be discarded with no impact on the end product.
Heavy focus on the “how” of a task: the look of the code, the organization of the codebase, the timelines of releases - rather than the “why” - creating a product that delights the end-user - is a common behavior pattern in this manager category.
Absent managers often take the approach Kim Scott, author of “Radical Candor” adopted at the beginning of his career in management:
_“In an effort to create a positive, stress-free environment, I sidestepped a difficult but necessary part of being a boss - telling people clearly and directly when their work is not good enough”. _
An employee who hears only praise and no constructive criticism should start suspecting his manager of disengagement. No one is perfect, so if every outcome your employees produce seems amazing, you either don’t know any better or don’t want to risk a confrontation because handling it is too much work.
Unfortunately, outside of the workplace, disengaged leaders often have excellent relationships with their reports making it harder for employees to call out the shortcomings of their supervisors.
Micromanagers, on the other hand, go big on the stick and completely disregard the carrot. They are quick to point out failures but slow to praise successes. At their worst, micromanagers have no tolerance for errors - they want teammates to “go big or go home” which is a bar too high to be humanly possible.
Absent managers expect employees to be fully in charge of their tasks. They would emphasize the importance of being a self-starter and taking the initiative and will offer teammates no feedback on their ideas or a second opinion when it’s needed.
More often than not, disinterested managers have no organizational structure and have no idea what they expect from someone in a specific role. In such teams, employees are used to waking up to a blank workday, scrambling for tasks to put on their to-do lists, and battling the impostor syndrome.
Micromanagers, on the other hand, give employees zero control over their routines. From the number of tasks to the deadlines and priority - everything is decided by the manager. Employees feel trapped by their roles, so rigid that they fail to accommodate changing priorities, desire for career growth, or occasional plateaus.
Absent managers sweep failures under the rug to protect their well-being. Even when employees are alarmed and point out red flags, managers overcompensate for incompetence or inertia by trying to instill false optimism. With their concerns ignored or not taken seriously, subordinates can feel helpless and lose trust in their leaders for not noticing challenges and risks.
Micromanagers often deal with failures by scapegoating their reports. Since they think everyone is underperforming, it follows that every bad news is someone’s fault. As the result, teams don’t want to let their leaders know about bad news because they don’t want to see the havoc a manager will undoubtedly wreak.
Absent managers are rarely seen in action, so it’s common for subordinates to question the skillsets of their leaders. Disengaged leaders are usually removed from their organizations and show no passion for the company’s product, strategy, or mission.
Micromanagers are often the managers who are micromanaging themselves. Buried neck deep in tasks, they feel overwhelmed by all too many to-do lists and are driving themselves into a crisis. When they become managers, overworked employees are at risk of micromanaging their teams because they don’t know a better way to do things. To them, working means working a lot and they will have a hard time trusting teammates who are not putting in long hours.
Micromanagement, as well as lack of interest in the team, is not exclusive to remote teams: it’s just as common at the office. However, the transition to remote and hybrid models exacerbated management challenges across both extremes - recent Microsoft survey data shows that 85% of leaders struggle to trust in the productivity of their employees.
How should leaders approach manage remote or hybrid operations? Here are a few practices we adopted at oVice and find life-saving in managing an over 100-people international team:
- Create a space for communication even in a remote workplace. One of the biggest challenges remote teams face is the inability to quickly reach out to someone with a quick question or ask teammates for updates. Heavy reliance on asynchronous communication leads to people losing track of their discussions, bottled-up issues, and stalled projects. On the other hand, video conferencing isn’t the best solution for synchronous communication, especially when data shows teams are already swarmed with meetings. For us, oVice, the platform we built for internal and client use, was a way to create a space where people can communicate in real-time or work side-by-side without feeling the pressure of being on camera eight hours a day. The ability to quickly connect with colleagues gave my team the ability to instantly solve problems and speed up project completion. We also saw significant improvement in engagement and retention: a virtual office space helped interconnect teams and streamline interactions between departments.
- Focus on task-based, not time-based performance tracking. Trying to see how much time people spend at their desks in a remote environment is a fool’s errand. To begin with, time spent at the workstation doesn’t equal productivity - haven’t we seen people surfing the web during their office hours? That’s why I believe that the future is not in time tracking but in task-based progress tracking. The tricky part is in accurately estimating which workload is manageable for an employee and overloading your team - but you can learn where to set the bar by connecting with other players in your industry or conducting monthly employee surveys.
- Make it easier for people to ask you for help. A manager who drops by an employee’s desk every 30 minutes with a “How can I help you” will come across as annoying and irritating. On the other hand, if you remove yourself from the team, you will never know when people need help and will be surprised to see that there was no project progress. For me, the middle ground is to step in when people need me but make sure it’s easy for them to reach out. For one, during my working hours, I log into my virtual office space to make sure my teammates can come by and ask a question. Other than that, I have a Calendly page teammates use to book 30-minute appointments.
Although micromanagement seems to be highly popular, I am yet to see managers who admit to going too hard on their teams. Similarly, I’ve seen few leaders recognize they don’t give their teams enough attention.
But, as they say, the first step to fixing a problem is admitting you have one. So, if you spotted some of the red flags listed above in your behavior, don’t beat yourself up and start looking for ways to either build up employee trust through setting realistic expectations and refraining from policing your team or increase engagement by creating more opportunities to connect with your subordinates.