Why MicroManagers Drive Us Into Disengagement
Last Update: Aug 24, 2020

“Oh no, not him again,” shot through Michael’s mind when answering the project owner’s call. He was with his operations team, just checking in on a technical issue the security experts believed to have stumbled upon. Unfortunately, the news of a potential problem had already made it to Michael’s project sponsor. In his typically controlling tone of voice, his boss was raising questions on the phone that nobody had answers for at that stage.  

Michael tried to calm his manager carefully down. He assured him that he was already on the case and that it was way too early to be concerned. Neither the issue nor a potential impact on the project could be confirmed yet. But Michael’s common sense arguments fell once again on deaf ears with his manager, who insisted on an immediate full-blown status report including risk analysis and mitigation plan. 

Before turning back to his team, Michael took a deep breath and tried to compose himself. With his enthusiasm and motivation gone, and energy depleted, he felt he had reached his limits. He wondered whether he would make it through the remainder of the project.

How come that even the strongest among us get so severely impacted by the behaviors of micromanagers? Self-determination Theory, the leading motivational science, gives us the answer. According to SDT, our motivation, engagement, and well-being depend on whether our three basic psychological needs of autonomy, relatedness, and competence are sufficiently supported

To understand Michael’s frustration, we need to tune in to Michael’s daily project experiences through the lenses of the three basic needs. What we will witness is a disengagement drama that unfolds itself in 3 acts.


Act #1 Being Overly Controlled

Michael was warmly welcomed as the project owner’s leading project manager during the first planning session. But over time, the manager’s initial cooperative style gave more and more way to an increasingly directing behavior. Weeks into the project, Michael had to realize that he had almost no leeway to steer the proceedings. The one who set the tone was the project owner. As a result, he felt like a pawn and not the origin of his actions. His need for autonomy got frustrated.

MicroManagement - Controlling

Act #2 Being Overly Monitored

From day one, the project owner had made it clear that he wanted to be on essential project meetings. It was something Michael could get along with. But meanwhile, his boss attended every conference call, and besides, he expected to be put in cc in every outgoing email. Michael sensed an increasing amount of distrust on the manager’s side. Consequently, his initial feeling of relatedness with the guy who so nicely welcomed him started to erode.

MicroManagement - Correcting

Act #3 Being Overly Corrected

Michael brought an incredibly educational and experiential background to the project. All his credentials pointed to his unique competence and aspirations to make a difference. He loved to receive feedback as long as it was informational and helped him learn and grow further. But he had growing difficulties with his boss’s attitude to suggest corrections and changes to all the documents he produced. Being challenged continuously, nagged on his keen sense of competence.


All three basic psychological needs upon which Michaels’s motivation and well-being depended got severely frustrated. No wonder that the curtain of the drama might fall long before the project ends, with Michael considering quitting and leaving the stage behind.

But who believes this to be an interpersonal drama-only errs. Michael leads a huge cross-functional team with dozens of highly skilled experts. Any impact on his motivation will have immediate consequences on the engagement of those doing the actual work. Project delays, budget overruns, and lower product quality might be the final results. Michael’s manager should have known that there is only one way to avoid all of the above: meeting Michael’s needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence.

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