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The narcissistic side of micromanagement

Micromanagement and narcissism as a personality


Micromanagement is the tendency for wanting to control every detail or process. The damaging effect of micromanagement on employees and productivity is well documented across various sources. From employees suffering from severe health complains to low engagement which in turns fuels the increasing rise of employee’s turnover. Perhaps, one of the most shocking stats on the matter is a study that reported an association of a micromanagement style with employees increased chances of death by 15.4%. Although micromanagement is usually imposed by the leadership in an organization, sometimes, factors independent to the leader’s characteristics are the primary cause for this management style. At the very least, these factors may sometimes act as facilitators making it easier to adopt a control and demand working style. Time constraints and a poor company culture quickly come to mind but are by no means the only two facilitators. However, we are only going to be discussing the matter from an idiosyncratic perspective in this brief article. The evidence against micromanagement is mounting while attempts from most organizations to tackle the issue is yielding low to moderate results. In this article, we focused on a less-discussed side of micromanagement by discussing briefly some unconscious motivations underlying this management style.


A narcissistic personality disorder is characterized by a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, a constant need for admiration and a lack of empathy. Interpersonal exploitativeness and entitlement are also common narcissistic traits. Unlike clinical psychology, narcissism is seen as a personality factor in the field of work psychology. The difference is that those diagnosed with the clinical disorder will score significantly higher on the narcissism scale than the non-clinical population. So, the prevalence of narcissism in the workplace should be as common as extraversion being a common personality trait at work. Furthermore, people scoring high on the narcissistic scale are usually extraverts, confident and socially skilled. A mixture of all the good ingredients that would make a person excel in the work environment. It is no wonder then that many narcissists are naturally drawn to the workplace and the accompanying recognition.



The narcissistic side of micromanagement


By looking at some of the shared personality characteristics, we can begin to see how closely these two leadership topics are intertwined.


Trust – The most obvious sign of a micromanager is the lack of trust that a manager has on their subordinates. This lack of trust prevents employees from being creative or exerting control over their work. However, what is less obvious is the manager’s lack of trust in him/her self in the search for self-enhancement to boost their sense of self (grandiosity). A micromanager is too busy trying to avoid negative outcomes as this will reflect badly on one’s core competence. In the search for continuous grandiosity, subordinates are seen merely as a means to achieve this feat rather than people with values. The end results in doing so is an attentional shift from task and colleagues to an on-going internal battle with oneself. Over time, people feel neglected, uninspired and stripped off their moral values of wanting to feel appreciated.


Control – Where there is a lack of trust, there will be control. The manager’s continuous distrust of self and the environment while in search for self-enhancement opportunities leads to the manager keeping a close watch on their surroundings. This is to safeguard from anything that could reflect negatively on the manager while controlling for something that may potentially reflect positively on the self. In some cases, the leader with this management style recognizes the aversive effect this has on employee morale and productivity. Nonetheless, the motivation to feel competent trumps everything else and even more so when this is also supported by an external factor (e.g being part of an “elite” group in a divided company culture). Because the narcissist micromanager lacks empathy, they’ll fail to recognize or will be careless when their subordinates are suffering as a result of their actions.


Lack of reflection – Individuals scoring high on the narcissistic scale typically will lack empathy and awareness due to being too focused on their own benefits. This is particularly important as it has strong implications on most attempt to develop better leaders. Leaders practising a command and control style tend to avoid reflecting on their own actions and behaviors. This forms a barrier for training programs because the trainee will be oblivious to the consequences of their actions which makes it harder to develop better habits.


What can be done to prevent or limit the impact of a narcissistic leader?


Recruitment – It is essential to control for narcissism when recruiting for leadership positions to find the best-fitted candidate. Secondly, recruiters should become more aware of behaviors that do not contribute to performance but are capable of influencing the decision process.


Most recruitment processes lookout for personality traits such as “confidence” – “charisma” – “sociability” in combination with performance information gathered on the day of assessment. Although such an approach to recruitment has its positives, the downside of it is that individuals high on narcissism will likely outperform their counterparts on the day of assessment even when their counterpart may be better suited for the job. This is because narcissists overestimate their abilities which makes them more likely to perform better in the short term – especially in a social environment.


Decentralize power – This is particularly efficient in a company where the micromanager is acting within a selected few that has majority control. By decentralizing power, you reduce the urge for the micromanager to be at the forefront of everything because they no longer have to internalize any potential failure.


Group incentives – Narcissistic micromanagers personally perform better when there is some sort of recognition to be gained. This means that as a result of decentralizing power – they may end up feeling incompetent and subsequently end up performing worse. To counter this from happening, a form of recognition tied to group incentives must be put in place to promote a more team-focused approach to management while simultaneously motivating the micromanager to produce satisfactory individual results.


Many of us can think of someone at work who would fit the description of a narcissist. What strategies did you implement to deal with this person and how effective were your strategies?


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