As the knowledge worker economy continues to transition to more agile, more remote, more dynamic and more empowered, your classic micromanager is a dying breed; and for good reason. Micromanagement gets a deservedly bad reputation because of the pernicious effect is has on retarding the growth and productivity of teams. If left unchecked, it can calcify entire organizations.

But a phenomenon that I see all the time but is never mentioned, is the prevalence of team members who refuse to think, lead, share, strive, own and by being like this, open themselves up to and even encourage micromanagement. These types tend to want to have their hands held when doing even the most trivial task. I call them microfollowers.

Oh, so they need training? But even when you answer their questions, walk them through tasks up to thoroughly training them on certain skills they tend to not internalize this knowledge and instead just constantly ask more and often repeated questions.

These people have a philosophy that a manager is actually a line supervisor that will essentially control them as if they were a machine, inputting instructions for every task, no matter how small or trivial. They also believe they are responsible only for the effort and not the results, so that no matter the output from their labor, the quality of it isn’t their responsibility. These ideas can be deeply ingrained and difficult to change, especially as people get older.

How to spot a microfollower

  • They ask an inordinate amount of questions, often without applying basic thought or logic. Many of the questions are non-sensical and/or could easily be answered themselves with a modicum of thought
  • They tend to repeat the same questions that they had asked previously, even a day or two before
  • They don’t tend to retain information. They forget answers to questions, responses to emails, instructions that they supposedly read
  • They never read instructions aka RTFM, procedures, guidelines on their own
  • They tend to make the same mistakes over and over again
  • They never take responsibility for their actions
  • If a mistake is made they always “Screw down” vs “Screw up”
  • They constantly complain that nobody has trained them and/or their training is inadequate, yet when trained, even formally, they tend to retain very little of the knowledge
  • They don’t take criticism well and tend to personalize everything
  • Micro followers tend to use loser-words

Where do microfollowers come from?

Unfortunately, many schools and universities, particularly in Eastern Europe, specializing in graduating micro-followers. I wrote an article on one such case where, when a student attempted to display independent thought, he was basically kicked out of the college.

These students arrive in the workforce and they get paired off with micromanagers, and tethered together, they weigh each other down as their careers move at a snail’s pace, if at all, while their more nimble peers who learn to show initiative move ahead by leaps and bounds. Best case, by working long enough and gaining experience just through pure attrition, they somehow move up in an organization to themselves become micromanagers, and the cycle continues.

Can they be salvaged?

Some, and perhaps many, can. Early in their tenure at an organization, you can work with them and attempt to break them of these tendencies. We created a values statement specifically designed to empower and encourage people to show initiative. It is amazing to see the reaction, when people realize that they can actually step out and think for themselves; that they are powered to take the initiative and make their own decisions. In fact, some team members who started out as microfollowers became some of the best leaders I’ve ever worked with.

Sadly, others will resist this with their every being. After much back and forth, you may determine that this person will always be a microfollower and the only recourse is to let them go. Their are many companies that will be happy to have such a person, and assign them to a micromanager, who will be fulfilled supervising such a willing supplicant.

Radical concepts

The opposite of micromanagement is holocracy, where essentially everyone manages themselves. I don’t believe true holocracy is possible, but we came very close. Our values statement was meant to highlight that fact that we were free of schedules, fixed work locations and bosses.

Even though I was the CEO, my internal title, and that of my COO was “Facilitator”. That meant I was there to help people do their jobs, not tell them how to do them or do them myself. This only works if you have a company full of self-starters, ready and willing to take the initiative. Microfollowers need to be quickly identified and converted to microleaders, or encouraged to find roles in more captive-employment type environments.