Where Logic Meets Love

Are You a Micro-Manager or a Teach-a-Man-to-Fish-er?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

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Are You a Micro-Manager or a Teach-a-Man-to-Fish-er? | Faith Permeating Life

When I was in high school, we had two choir directors. One taught the choirs I was in my first two years, the other taught the extracurricular choir I was in that sang music from around the world, and they co-taught the top-level choir I was in my junior and senior years.

The first director... Let's just say he had a high opinion of himself. He was very focused on getting all eyes on him during rehearsal and while we were performing. He seemed to believe that if we looked away from him for a second, to glance at our sheet music or look out at the audience, the performance would fall apart. How would we possibly know what to do next unless we were watching him for direction?

The second director, by contrast, was a humble, soft-spoken man. He took a very different approach. You'd think, for both the extracurricular choir that included students with zero prior musical experience and the top-level choir that was singing the most challenging music, he too would have felt the need to give a lot of direction and keep everyone's focus on him. But he regularly taught us songs with the intention that he could start us singing and then walk off the stage. He taught us to be responsible for knowing our entrances and how to adjust our tempo and volume at the appropriate times.

I was thinking about this contrast the other day, and how it mirrors that proverb, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." And then it struck me how much this plays out in other areas of life.


Nowadays we hear about "helicopter parents" who want so much for their children's path in life to be smooth that they'll hover over them, trying to ensure their children are making the right choices at all times and that no one's treating their children unfairly. It's as if they believe that if they let their children loose to make mistakes and deal with the consequences, all hell would break loose and their children would be forever ruined.

When I have children, I don't want to be the kind of parent that does everything for my children. I want to be a model and help them along the way, but my end goal is that they are able to make decisions for themselves.


Here's another realm where teachings can go either way. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that each person has a moral conscience to guide their decision-making, and even goes so far as to say (quoting Pope Paul VI's Dignitatis Humanae), "[Man] must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters." Yet I shared with you last month the article about the Minnesota archbishop who insisted priests agree with him or say nothing. Some religious leaders seem fearful of letting people have too much control over their own lives.


Mike and I were just talking about this tonight, about how as a manager he tries to train his employees to be self-sufficient so he doesn't feel the need to micro-manage them. This is one of the things I greatly appreciate about my own boss; he trusts me to get things done and rarely follows up or reminds me. My previous boss went even further and asked me to never cc: her on anything; if she asked me to do it, she would assume I did it, and didn't want me adding to her overflowing inbox.

I've thankfully never had a micro-managing boss, but I did have a coworker one time who had held my job previously, and she kept reminding me to do things before I'd even had a chance to do them. I finally had to tell her that she would never be able to see that I knew what I was doing unless she backed off and trusted me a little. Did I make mistakes? Sometimes. Were they catastrophic? Never.


Do you remember when I gave up nagging Mike for Lent? That was SO hard! I wanted to be that controlling choir director, reminding him of his appointments and the errands he promised to run and making sure he did the dishes every night.

Of course, what did I find? Mike stepped up to the plate, big time. He took complete responsibility in the areas where he'd allowed himself to rely on me and my reminders previously. And it took stress off both of us: I wasn't stressing about having to remind him all the time, and he wasn't stressed out from constant nagging from me.

As you can probably tell, I'm a proponent of the teach-a-man-to-fish philosophy. I try to avoid being overly controlling (or controlled) wherever possible. I'm sure most people probably fall somewhere in the middle -- not micro-managing, but not explicitly trying to help others become self-sufficient -- but the extremes help to show the comparison.

What's your philosophy? Do you think there are times when it's better to micro-manage?


  1. I can't stand micromanagers. I've had a couple of them at different jobs, and it's a nightmare. Especially as I sat next to them both times. It was amazing how the team dynamic changed when they weren't around - everyone was much happier and everything got done in half the time!

    Our concert band conductor used to use the same theory as your awesome choir conductor - she'd start us off, and then leave the room to check that we could keep going without her, and to see how it sounded. And I'm pretty sure that's part of the reason that we got gold shields in the Melbourne School Band Competition a bunch of times - she gave us the knowledge that we COULD do it ourselves, and that it wasn't all about her.

    I try to be the same with my niece, partly because I think it's good for her, and partly because her mother is most DEFINITELY a helicopter parent! *shudder*

  2. @Melbourne on my mind
    I really do think many, if not most, people are more productive when the responsibility is placed on them, and they're not being hovered over. That's awesome that your band did so well! I like what you said about how knew you could do it yourselves... so even if she was still conducting you, you felt a personal responsibility for it. That's kind of Mike's philosophy as a manager--he said he wants his employees to know where things are and how to do things even if they're his responsibility normally, so if he's ever not there for some reason they know what they're doing to keep things running smoothly.

  3. When I was little, even though I was (and still am) a major extrovert, I played by myself a lot because no one could ever play "right." I would come up with these elaborate stories for my paper dolls or Polly Pockets or whatever, but since I knew the story and everyone else didn't, I would always tell them what they're doll needed to say so no one would play with me for very long. >.>

    I sincerely hope that my micro-managing tendencies from my childhood don't translate into the way I one day parent my children because I know that I have always learned and performed much better when I'm not being micro-managed.

  4. In theory, I'm let them learn on their own. But as I really look at how I handle things (especially at work) is more micro-managing- AND I HATE IT. It's something that I'm working on. I want the youth and the youth board to be able to function without me having to be there all of the time.

  5. My last boss was a micro-manager, and she drove me crazy! I'd been doing the job for a year and a half before she became my boss so it was beyond irritating to have her trying to control everything I did. A few ideas on how to improve some areas would have been welcomed (a fresh perspective is always good), but I couldn't cope with the constant interference of how I did every single thing. I agree with Melbourne on my Mind - when my boss wasn't around the whole team worked much better and got everything done in half the time! I definitely support the 'teach a man to fish' philosophy!

  6. I can't even tell you how I am a proponent of the "teach a man to fish" philosophy.
    Coincidentally, I just got finished writing a post about this with regards to parenting.
    It is an innocent mistake, because of course we all love our children, but sometimes we think that loving them means protecting them from everything. But like you say that you have thankfully never had a micro managing boss - why would our kids want one?
    Do I think there is ever a time to micro manage -yes, babies and pets.

  7. I'm naturally a micro-manager, something I've always known and something I realized is a big, big problem the other night at work when I was standing over a coworker's shoulder going "you know you have to __ in order to do __, right? Did you do __ yet? I didn't see if...". To a *coworker*. I realized what I was doing and promptly made a joke about how I was going to follow her around all night and micro-manage everything she does from 3 inches away from her ear.

    I think the hyper-vigilant type of attention can be good and necessary for tasks that require both help and precision, when your help isn't as precise as they need to be, or when it comes to life-damaging mistakes children might be making. In this, I'm thinking of teenagers who, somehow, just can't help but sabotage their futures (drugs, crime, self- and other-harm). The ones who, despite having been taught how to fish, knowingly break their rods in half and choose to fish by closing their eyes and shooting a pistol into the pond. Or something. I'm not so good with extended metaphors.

  8. @Sarah
    Oh my gosh, I was horrible about micro-managing my friends growing up. Like you, I would create these elaborate setups and then want everyone to follow my plan. And I wrote a lot of plays and then tried to make my friends act them out.

    Thankfully, I eventually realized this was a bad strategy for, like, being a good friend.

  9. I wanted to add that I think I micro-manage others partly because I'm ever so slightly a control freak, but also because that's sort of how I prefer to be directed. Being told exactly what I need to do, how I need to do it, and in what order is a huge relief to me. Being told "eh, just get it done" freaks me out...what if I do it wrong?

  10. @Emily Hornburg
    Ah, you got me--I probably tend to micro-manage more than I'd like, given how much I don't like it being done to me. This was especially true in college because I was in student organizations where all the time people would just completely fail to do the things they promised to do, and so I would send lots of reminders and try to track what everyone was doing. It's hard to trust people to follow through in an environment where people often don't follow through, and it left me more distrustful than I want to be. I've gotten a lot better, though!

    Are there specific things you could do--like writing out directions or explicitly delegating responsibilities--that might make it easier for the youth board to function more independently? That's what Mike has been doing at work recently.

  11. @Fire Fairy
    That's a good contrast to make--receiving some constructive feedback once in a while, as opposed to being constantly monitored. I mean, unless a mistake on the job is going to be life-threatening to someone, it's OK to let people make some mistakes first and then provide some feedback. The benefit is that you're able to see what is a pattern and what is a one-time occurrence. I'd much rather be told something I need to work on in general than to be criticized for something that was just a one-time fluke.

  12. @Shayna Abrams
    Yes, some people do think loving means protecting from everything! And it doesn't help when we get that message from the media often: "How to Keep Your Kid from Getting Abducted! Check that Your Children's ______ Isn't Carrying Poison! Do You Have the Safest Car Seat Ever Invented?" etc. etc. As if being a "good" parent means protecting your children from every single danger.

    Pets are an interesting case. I think it depends on the animal and how well-trained they are. The book I recently finished about human-animal relationships talked about extreme cases where pets couldn't be left home alone or they'd destroy everything. Obviously that's not the case for all pets, and some can be very well-trained. Our two rats provide a contrast--one has been trained to sit on our shoulders with no problem, but the other refuses to obey, and you have to watch him or he'll try to divebomb onto the nearest surface!

  13. @Cathi
    I like your extended metaphors!

    It's a tough situation if you have a child who is out of control in their behavior. I understand the logic behind placing tight controls on them, but I think it would have to be done in a way that you knew was likely to be successful, or it could completely backfire. And in that case we'd probably be talking about interventions beyond just telling them what to do (which I don't think is that likely to be successful!).

    I'm not sure if it's "micro-managing," per se, but I do like having constant supervision and feedback if I'm learning to do a brand-new task, particularly one that is physical/manual. But once I've learned the ropes, then the constant hovering becomes annoying and even rude.

  14. Do you think there are times when it's better to micro-manage?
    Here's one that I never thought of until someone pointed it out to me. My coworker's son is has autism; one day she and I were talking about kids and chores. I don't remember most of the conversation, but she said that for her daughter she could say "clean your room" and she'd do it pretty well. Not perfect, she's only 10, but she knew what she needed to do. Her son, on the other hand, while knowing what cleaning is and what the end result should look like, had to be prompted each and every step of the way. "Pick up your books and put them on the shelf. Put all of the clothes on the floor in this basket."

    At first, I was thinking that this was only applicable to parents of special needs kids, but then I thought, what about lazy kids who need a little prompting? I know my parents might have been micro-managing my brother with certain tasks since he was often not interested/acted lazy. Or a kid who is learning to do something for the first time. It could be seen as teaching OR micro-managing, depending on how it's done or what is being learned. Also, if the kid knows how to do what you've asked, let them do it on their own! If it's a new thing, you might need to hover a bit, especially if machinery or power tools are involved!

    At work though? HAAAATE IT. Fire Fairy said: My last boss was a micro-manager, and she drove me crazy! I'd been doing the job for a year and a half before she became my boss so it was beyond irritating to have her trying to control everything I did. This is almost my exact experience right now. My boss has been here 1 year, I've been here almost 5.5 years. I don't need him up my butt every two seconds about things. I'm competent! It's YOU who's anxious or nervous about something. Have faith and go sit down! :D

  15. @Rabbit
    I hadn't thought about this until your comment, but sometimes Mike needs my help like your friend's son. He is very much a big-picture thinker, whereas I am more detail-oriented, so if, say, his desk is covered in papers he gets too overwhelmed because they all need to go in different places. So he needs me to go through each piece of paper with him and ask, "Do you still need this? Where should it go?" He's actually gotten way better about this, but I can understand how even if you know what to do, you might need someone you trust to walk you through it step-by-step if you feel overwhelmed.

    What you said also reminded me of the book Click, which argues that sometimes people need to actually be given a script, literally or figuratively, to be able to make change. So launching a campaign that says, "Eat healthy and get more exercise!" does nothing, but one that says, "Buy 1% milk instead of 2% and walk for 30 minutes a day!" has much bigger results. It's not exactly the same as micro-managing because no one's following you around making sure you do these things, but they are giving you very specific directions even though, theoretically, you're perfectly capable of making decisions about what food to buy and how to spend your time.

    Really good point about your boss: "It's YOU who's anxious or nervous about something. Have faith and go sit down!"

  16. @JessicaThat is hysterical. Maybe the divebomber needs a little extra micro managing :)!

  17. As a teacher I find there are certain students who need to be "micro-managed" as they grow and develop habits in self-control, responsibility, attention and obedience. However, as they develop these habits, I really try to stand back and let them see the natural consequences for their actions, even if it is painful - so painful sometimes! It hurts, but I know I'm helping them in the long run.

    I wish I could say I was that good at home with the hubby. Sometimes I nag...but sometimes it's the only way he will do something. If I ask something once and don't stand and wait for him to start it...well, I'll be waiting awhile. He has good intentions, but can easily be sidetracked. What I've realized is I need to make sure I'm saying "please" with requests. I didn't realize I stopped doing that with him, and one day he told me he says "please" way more than I do. So, I've made a conscious effort to say it EVERY time. And you know what? It's working more effectively than nagging. Sometimes one word can go a long way.

  18. @Lauren
    Mike also has trouble following through on things sometimes, but he's gotten a lot better, especially after I told him last Lent I wasn't going to remind him about anything. Now I try to make a distinction between what's vital and what I can allow to fall apart; for example, he kept forgetting to order his asthma meds and would get really screwed up going off and on them, so I asked if I could put a regular reminder on my calendar and bug him to order them. But I've learned (over time) that most stuff isn't that important, so I can just let things happen as they happen. And you're right, saying "please" is definitely helpful!

  19. I think about this a lot. I think about that often I can slip into treating my husband like one of my fourth grade students! My default is definitely a micromanager, but when I stop and think about how my husband is not, in fact, one of the ten-year-olds who I normally spend my days with, I let go and choose my battles. It's definitely made things better in our home! (And as always, I love your posts--they always seem to resonate with me so much!)

  20. @Katie
    I've actually heard that from a lot of people who spend their days working with kids, that it becomes very difficult not to treat their spouse the same way. Good for you for being conscious of it and trying to be purposeful in how you act toward your husband! (And thanks!)


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