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BrainDeath by Micromanagement: The Zombie Function


The most important function for a manager is X = -Y, where X is employee brain use and Y is degree of management. To use the horse whisperer's advice, The more you use your reins, the less they'll use their brains."

If you asked 100 managers which they'd prefer--employees who think, or mindless zombies who respond only (and exactly) as ordered, you'd get 100 responses of, "What a ridiculous question. We hire smart people and stay out of their way so they can do their jobs." And if you asked 100 managers to define their management style, none would claim to be micromanagers. Probe deeper, though, and the truth begins to emerge.

Ask managers if their direct reports can make decisions as well as the manager can, and they hesitate. Ask if the manager could step in at a moment's notice and perform the employee's job, and too many managers would say--with pride--"yes."

Do you have a micromanager? Are you a micromanager? Are all micromanagers clueless or and/or evil? Of course not. Most micromanagers I've known (or had) were driven by one or both of the following:

1) Not enough time
Taking the time to give employees the same data, knowledge, and skills needed to do things right can be a luxury many managers just can't afford. Or so they think. While it's oh so tempting to just step in and DO IT, micromanagement doesn't scale. Better to:
Take the time it takes [now] so it takes less time [later]."

2) Concern for quality
Micromanagers often believe that they know more, and more importantly -- care more. Often they're right. But it's a downward spiral--

Micromanagement creates zombies.

Of course micromanagers don't actually create zombies--they simply inspire (or force) zombieism on the job. Follow those work zombies home, and their zombiness vanishes. Thier eyes light up, their brain kicks in, and their passion for playing with their kids, championing a cause, or just playing their favorite after-work hobby emerges. You see the side of them that micromanagement crushes.

Do you have a micromanager?
Or are you a micromanager? If you demonstrate any of these seemingly admirable qualities, there's a big clue that you might be making zombies.

1) Do you pride yourself on being "on top of" the projects or your direct reports? Do you have a solid grasp of the details of every project?

2) Do you believe that you could perform most of the tasks of your direct reports, and potentially do a better job?

3) Do you pride yourself on frequent communication with your employees? Does that communication include asking them for detailed status reports and updates?

3) Do you believe that being a manager means that you have more knowledge and skills than your employees, and thus are better equipped to make decisions?

4) Do you believe that you care about things (quality, deadlines, etc.) more than your employees?

Answering even a weak "yes" to any one of these might mean you either are--or are in danger of becoming--a micromanager. And once you go down that road, it's tough to return. A quote from Dune (can't remember exactly) applies here, and goes something like:
"Be careful of every order you give. Once you give an order on a particular topic, you are responsible for always giving orders on that topic."

What can you do if you have--or are--a micromanager?

Admit it, and deal with the two driving forces: concern for quality, and need for speed. Take the time it takes today. Invest in the time and training to give your employees whatever they need to make the decisions or complete the tasks you find yourself needing (or wanting) to do. And if caring is the big concern, well, you get what you create. If you treat employees like zombies, then zombies is exactly what you'll get. Sometimes all it takes is giving people a chance to develop more skill and knowledge, the space to use their brains, and a worthwhile challenge.

"But, but, but--they don't care as much as I do -- that's why I'm the manager and they're not." Bulls***. You might be the manager simply because you wanted to be a manager. Nothing wrong with that, but it doesn't necessarily mean you're better at the job than those you manage. It might even mean you're simply better at the details and support work than the actual work.

The companies I love to hate are those that allow only a single career path--the "management track". One of the things I liked about Sun was that Scott McNealy made a clear distinction between "Individual Contributors" and "Managers", and didn't penalize those who wanted to be--and stay--kick ass individual contributors. Sun knew the value of not taking their brightest engineers and forcing them to choose between doing what they love vs. moving up the pay scale. Both tracks were recognized and rewarded. (Of course, when the bubble burst, all bets were off...)

Doing everything right doesn't guarantee passionate users, but if we--or those we manage--don't have passion, how can we expect to inspire our users?

And here's a parting thought... this obviously doesn't apply only to employees. What about parents who micromanage their kids? Teachers who micromanage their students? Ministers who micromanage their memebers? Political leaders who micromanage their, well, us? Or what about developers who micromanage their users? Hmmm....

Posted by Kathy on December 26, 2005 | Permalink


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Re: "Micromanagers often believe that they know more, and more importantly -- care more. Often they're right."

I would say that "Often they're wrong", especially about the caring more. Removing autonomy is a very effective way of destroying motivation though.

Posted by: Jason Yip | Dec 26, 2005 2:41:52 PM

Brain numbing effect is even more scarier.

These guys (http://www.total-performance-scorecard.nl/)apparently talk about performance in organizations in great details. Check out the "What Managers Should Unlearn" article.

Posted by: Mismanaged | Dec 26, 2005 4:34:59 PM

Kathy ... it's all well and good to say these things. Lots of people say them, and there's a whole industry -- rather loosely called "executive coaching" these days -- devoted to this. Still, I'm reminded of the scientific catch phrase of "a beautiful theory murdered by a gang of brutal facts".

Brutal fact number one: Most of us work in an organizational structure best described by the phrase "accountability hierarchy". Those two words are important -- people are *accountable* for their actions and business results, and the structure is *hierarchical*. Your boss is accountable to his or her boss for what you and your teammates say and do.

Brutal fact number two: The financial success of a business depends more on the *customers'* perceived quality of its products and services relative to the competition than it does on the way people inside the organization treat each other.

These brutal facts don't excuse or even explain outright abuse, of course. They don't excuse or even explain micromanagement. They don't in any way imply that change is impossible or that wanting change is futile. And they certainly don't make narcissistic behavior acceptable. They simply mean that if one wishes to change an individual manager-employee interaction, one needs to work within those constraints.

A "micromanaged" employee needs to understand that his or her boss is almost certainly accountable to a higher-up for business results. And an employee wishing to change something -- anything -- must demonstrate how it ultimately affects the perceptions of products and services by *external* customers, not *internal* ones.

Posted by: Ed Borasky | Dec 26, 2005 6:13:59 PM

Who is to say that being a zombie is a bad thing? You make it sound like they are. Lots of people love zombies ;)

Posted by: Sascha Ebach | Dec 26, 2005 6:21:55 PM

Hey Kathy,

I'm guessing at the uncanny timing of this post; are you like me, in receipt of this great zombie game for Christmas? http://www.stubbsthezombie.com/

Posted by: Julia | Dec 26, 2005 8:23:07 PM

Hi Kathy,

I absolutely love this blog! It really makes me think about software development in different ways. I'm a fan :-)

Not to micromanage you ;-), but in order to avoid "Creating confused users": Do you really mean X=-Y ? That is the same as X+Y=0. That is, no matter how much brain use or management, you'll always end up with a big zero! The graph shows (roughly) X=1-Y (in arbitrary units), which actually implies that you can compensate for the lack of brain use by micromanagement.

Posted by: Mikkel Rasmussen | Dec 27, 2005 12:17:45 AM

Kathy - I answered 'NO' to questions 1-5

I'm a great believer in articulating a clear purpose and deliverable, managing by exception, challenging people to figure it out, complimenting their work, and giving them full credit when others compliment me for the work my people did.

I've found too many people rise to management positions only to discover some insecurity about what it is they are actually 'managing' and then constantly working to maintain the perception that they are in charge.

The only real obstacle to managing the way I do is having readily available information for anyone with a stake in what is being performed. Information bottlenecks create both confusion for the team and the opportunity for insecure managers to control the flow of information, thus solidifying their management approach.

Posted by: kris | Dec 27, 2005 5:57:28 AM

A big issue in management is that while a part of our brains are involved in higher-order stuff like making cool products or providing useful services, other parts don't get that at all and are trying to establish a place in the primate troop hierarchy. There is a big element of the silverback in the modern day CEO. And many managers are silverback wannabees.

So while micro-managing may not be helping the business much, I think it offers some nice short-term emotional rewards to the manager. See the manager striding about the office, collecting "status reports", and at the same time getting lots of little social deference clues. Feeling sufficiently juiced up by the little signals of dominance, he strides back to his office with a peculiar sense that all is right with the world. At the same time the workers feel both a little bit more secure (my troop is well ordered and safe) and a bit less motivated to actually do anything (I'd better just wait for my next order).

I think the monkey-brain thing is also a big factor in the "glass ceiling" effects at many companies. The women execs just aren't getting and receiving the primate hierarchy signals, so they aren't really in the game. Also, their approval doesn't count for much in the monkey-brain reward scheme, so a woman doesn't have as much currency to make deals with.

Posted by: Charlie Evett | Dec 27, 2005 11:11:39 AM

By contrast, the model of a manager I've always liked is that of Jean-Luc Picard from ST:TNG - he listens to his subordinates where it concerns their areas of expertise, sets them clear and realistic goals based on their claims and advice, and then steps back & lets them do what they do best. He's also quite stern & doesn't suffer fools or failure gladly, but at the same time he's understanding if failures occur for a good reason, as long as lessons are learned from that failure & it doesn't get repeated.

Having been micro-managed in the past, I can confirm, even though I'm a fairly intelligent, independent sort, the fact that I simply could not succeed at any task set unless it was done exactly according to my manager's methods (even when those methods were long-winded or doomed to fail) made me by degrees abdicate all autonomous thought, responsibility or emotional investment in what I was doing. It also stressed me out beyond belief, till in the end I almost danced for joy when I was fired because I "wasn't the person they wanted for the job".

Posted by: Matt Moran | Dec 28, 2005 12:23:10 AM

The problem that we're facing today is that we're not at war! huh...what do I mean by that? Well outsourcing hasn't hit you yet but it has killed enough jobs while we were micro managing each other. Actually I call this lull before the storm. The invisible bubble is expanding and engulfing us while we're sleeping on the job.

You can strut around like a goose picking up reports (BTW not all of them do that, they assume that putting things in place, like setting up a *system* that will generate reports..duh, will give them what they need)and reporting to your boss (who's apparently micro-managing you), but REAL cracks in the wall only the acute and perspicacious can notice.

Now the *zombies* who optimized their lives(even expertise, whatever that it may be) know EXACTLY how the bail them out yet again, can play
o Zombie
o Not help/advice
o Not contribute
o Play hard to get (Not smart, just play dumb)

The problem is that such a situation is a NO win (LOSE-LOSE, for those who'll just read the *win*)situation for EVERYONE, as the ship WILL sink!

So get up and start talking to everyone before it gets to you and save your jobs.

Posted by: Tarry Singh | Dec 28, 2005 5:07:05 AM

In the equestrian world, micromanaging the horse is a sign of the inexperienced or even the incompetent. It points to an equestrian skill set that is unrefined. Sometimes, it demonstrates that the trainer is afraid of the 1,000 pound horse whom he perceives as a threat. The micromanaging horseman may lack confidence in his own horsemanship.

What's the result? Often, the immediate responses you see in a horse who is being micromanaged by his trainer are pinned ears (a sign of being angry) and a wringing tail (more anger, frustration, angst). Micromanaging the horse is the ideal way to make him numb, to the point where he'll simply tune you out.

Micromanagement in the workplace is also the result of inexperience, incompetence and a lack of finesse with employees. Often it's fear driven. A good manager harnesses all the good know-how of her employees. She doesn't have to know everything or even be as talented as her employees are in their particular domain. She's not threatened by one thousand plus pounds of talent but knows how to put it to work towards her organizational goals instead!

Not only will talented micromanaged employees tune out, numb out, possibly even become zombies. They're probably also looking for another job.

Posted by: Kimberly | Dec 28, 2005 8:24:54 AM

Re: Ed Borasky's "Brutal Facts" comment above

Sounds like Kathy's hit a nerve here. Bravo. Ed, the thing is, that your "brutal facts" don't change anything. The theory about external customer satisfaction seems irrelevant and one-sided. All employees, including management, have that responsibility and almost all employees, including management, have somebody they report to that should deal with their mistakes, either by firing or by teaching.

If she's right, and I think she is, then it doesn't matter what your reasons are for micromanaging. Your result will be inefficient employees who are afraid to make a decision without your approval. I don't think she said that this is always a bad thing. I think it would work well at a McDonald's. In software, though, I have my doubts.

Posted by: Chaz Haws | Dec 28, 2005 12:41:53 PM

True Chaz, and by god in IT (and I'm sure in other fields of profession too*) it really means life and death. If you employees start shutting down one by one, well you better shut down the freakin' shop!

* Can only talk about maritime profesion (having spent most of my colorful time there) but there the ball game is very very different.
o You mess up, you go home literally (meaning you pay for your fare!)
o Your contribution is a MUST (No micro-maanaging here)
o You're rewarded with a good salary
o No time to mess around with each other

Posted by: Tarry Singh | Dec 28, 2005 5:02:42 PM

Another good point. I would also like to point out that it's not always micromanaging that stops full autonomy. Sometimes existing system constraints, business requirements, and sub-divided microteams can stop full developer involvement.

For example, at a project currently under construction at Disney (The honorable Eric Freeman presiding!), we've found ourselves limited by system restrictions and capabilities in what we can accomplish. We're trying to remain proactive about it, but it's difficult when you can only do so much with the system you're developing on.

Posted by: Jimmy | Dec 28, 2005 7:21:06 PM

Oh, I love this post.

Posted by: olivier blanchard | Dec 28, 2005 10:56:39 PM

I presume Dogbert would have something to say about this post ;)

Posted by: Game Producer | Dec 29, 2005 1:19:10 AM

I had a role as a pure manager that lasted several years. Not being very into telling other people what to do, I gave my direct reports a very long leash. As long as they were doing their jobs, I didn't bother them except for weekly verbal status checks. This worked fine except for one guy. I quickly learned that he would underperform or even "forget" his tasks unless he was prodded daily. I had other responsibilities and more important things to do than constantly supervise him, so the result was constant poor performance on his part. I certainly let him know what a subpar job he was doing, but without active supervision, he just couldn't perform. Interestingly, he spent the first part of his career in the Navy. Point is, everyone agrees micromanagement is bad, but the principle of giving all your direct reports maximum autonomy assumes that they are competent and motivated.

Posted by: Paul Hamill | Dec 29, 2005 9:33:07 AM

It's interesting to see such a wide perspective in the comments. Since I deal directly with these managers and the resulting organizational numbness that is derived from their actions or actually inaction it is noted that all of the above to a certain point is applicable. However the one really outstanding cause of the micromanager has been left out.

In today’s business world the reliance on IT and its resulting automation of report systems and selective analysis, the modern manager (oxy moron) has been de synthesized to the functionality of real management and its impending results on customer service. Instead of IT making everything cozy and nice like it has, the business IT solution industry has actually created a super dependency by management and has caused huge lapses in management capability driving much of the micromanagement and inarticulate decision process seen in today’s businesses.

Reports are now more important than real management. The result employees are suffocated by false goals and performance targets, customers are ignored and business approval ratings are on the skids. Management needs to stop buying into the developer hype and realize that IT solutions, such as CRM, are far from being a cure all. They are a tool to assist business processes not replace smart management decision making. They have literally taken the employee out of the creative zone, removed them from the decision process and regulated them to mundane robotic existences.

Hmm, so much for the safe and profitable world of business, it does leave you wondering. Small businesses are an exception to this for the most part. Not that the small biz owner won’t micromanage, it’s just there isn’t enough time to, and they are a lot more dependant on team or shared decision processes with their employees. Plus most small business haven’t the funds to buy into the IT mentality.

Good and timely article.

Posted by: Tim Whelan | Dec 29, 2005 11:26:27 AM

"The theory about external customer satisfaction seems irrelevant and one-sided."

Well ... there's solid statistics behind this theory. I'm not sure it's still in print, but there's a wonderful book by Buzzell and Gale called "The PIMS Principles" that lays out the research behind this. Amazon shows it at


Management fads come and go, theories abound, and people claiming to know "the" answer will make it more complicated than it really is. IMHO business is about people first, goods, services, money and time second. Another "brutal fact" is that financially successful companies are usually more fun to work for than unsuccessful ones, though.

"I presume Dogbert would have something to say about this post ;)"

As the saying goes, "Don't get me started on Dilbert!" :) While Scott Adams is a brilliant cartoonist, I find in some cases "life imitates art", and Adams' art of exaggeration for the sake of humor ends up with a distinctly cruel streak. There's a lot funnier stuff out there. :)

Posted by: M. Edward (Ed) Borasky | Dec 29, 2005 6:23:16 PM

I love this blog too and I can tell you as someone fresh out of a startup with a micromanaging boss who was accountable to no one but his own *virtuous* view of the world that a micromanager can take down a company much faster than the hands-off sort would. Especially if you hire great people and then change their job/task on a daily basis.

Thanks for your post Kathy!

Posted by: Mismanaged Number #2 | Dec 29, 2005 10:02:01 PM

Re: brutal facts comment

"Well ... there's solid statistics behind this theory."

Ed, I didn't intend to dispute the theory itself. I'm not familiar with it.

However, I don't think your comments have explained your case well, at least to me.

For instance, you mention hierarchy and accountability. I read your statements as an attempt to justify micromanagement by saying that a manager is accountable for his workers. Similarly, a CEO is accountable for his managers. Is the CEO thus obligated to micromanage his managers? I would suggest that instead, you hire "competent and motivated" managers.

I also note that you put the question in terms of what a micromanaged employee must do if they wish to change something. I think I read that situation a little differently. We're talking about what management should do to benefit management, and not what employees should do to benefit employees. I gather you don't agree with the Zombie Function but at least I think we can agree that she's speaking to management about ways to increase efficiency.

Since you brought it up, though: An upset employee always has the same options that an upset manager has: Frustration. Communication. Negotiation. Termination.

On that note, the number of terminated relationships in the comments suggests another potential downside.

And lastly, there's many, many places where drones are fine. This is only relevant if you value your workers' brainpower. Of course there is a balance between too much supervision and not enough that depends on any number of factors, and nobody is saying otherwise. It's just one factor, and I don't think anybody has presented it as "the" answer.

Posted by: Chaz Haws | Dec 30, 2005 8:07:48 AM

So I am being micro-managed by a manager that does not have as much education as I do nor the amount of experience as I do and it offends me that she thinks I have to be told every little detail. It is as if I am not given the chance to do my job. What do I do?

Posted by: micromanaged | Jan 6, 2006 9:46:35 PM

This article is interesting in that it deals with one situation for leadership (not management). When dealing with an experienced & motivated team member then all they generally need is big picture goals and general direction and they take off running.

But not every team member is going to be in that situation (and depending on the area being worked the same individual may need different styles of leadership). So someone who is brand new to a team/organization may in fact be very excited/motivated but they generally don't know what they don't know. Leading this individual requires a different style than the first example. More defined goals & direction is necessary with an expectation that eventually the individual will become both motivated & experienced enough to give them general goals & direction and let them go.

This type of leadership is called Situational Leadership. For more information see http://changingminds.org/disciplines/leadership/styles/situational_leadership_hersey_blanchard.htm

I have been a participant in Situational Leadership organizations and it was a good experience.

Posted by: David Tannen | Apr 12, 2006 10:09:24 AM

Very important post for me.
I live now in Shanghai China for one year. Being french,I am sure you will understand my poor english... this said, I realize that it's not only the professional environement that can creat zombies...micromanagment is part of all eduction in China. Kids strat to be micromanaged right from the start. and you grow a nice zombie nation this way. It was not so obvious to me before I red this article: even as a manager if you manage by objectives (as I have learned in Europe)my coworkers are in the zombie part of the curve...innovation is almost impossible and becomes critical for problem solving. the general feeling is "better do nothing than doing a mistake...". recently our managment changed to a local boss. I knows what micromanagment means. he is an expert. in two weeks my fellow coworkers feel so relife to find at last someone you will show them the way! they are zombies ok...but they are happy zombies now! and it seems( short term) that's the surest way to get things done in this part of world. i feel a bit depressed about it...
thanks for blogging
meta.julien (in Watzlawick way...)

Posted by: meta.julien | Apr 16, 2006 8:34:31 PM

Enough is enough in this buzz word, management fad,"passion" driven world of business. Let's get back to common sense. As Jerome Alexander states in his book "160 Degrees of Deviation: The Case for the Corporate Cynic" - The only thing that successful businesses have in common is that they are successful. Alexander has the right idea. He's been there (and still is). This is a great read!

Posted by: graves | Dec 10, 2006 11:55:58 AM

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