Lessons learned: Micromanaging

A few people have asked me what I’ve learned in my first 17 months on the job as Director of Libraries.  The short answer is : A LOT.  But I can share a few more useful answers, and I will, as the mood strikes me.  Here’s one.

I have one staff member who has specifically asked to be micromanaged, as a solution to self-identified time-management problems.  It was a smart request, and I understood where it came from.  The problem is… I’m not sure I’ve been a big help, because I’m not very good at micromanaging.

I have a dozen other staff members who have started, slowly, over the course of many months, to come to rely on me to micromanage them.  It was a stealthy process — a process question here, answered willingly.  An “is this a good idea?” question there, answered willingly.  Which have transformed into “can I”, “how do I”, and “should I” questions, all of which I can and sometimes should have a role in answering, but some of which… I should not.  And they’ve added up, and now day after day I’m getting shotgun blasts of questions that I can’t see my role in answering, and I find myself wondering how I ended up here, in an administrative role yet directing the daily work of people who really shouldn’t need that kind of direction from someone in my position.  And because I’m not very good at micromanaging, I find the whole thing incredibly stressful.  I’ve made approximately zero progress on a few projects I set for myself, and have blown well past the deadlines I set for a few others, mainly because of the workload attached to the perceived need to have me manage the work of others.  And why is that?

I said I’m not very good at micromanaging.  I meant it, but I mean it in a more nuanced way than you might expect.  I am, in fact, very very good at micromanaging. (Once upon a time when I was Just A Librarian I would have said “I’m not very good at delegating.” It’s the a symptom of the same disease.)  I love project management.  I’m excellent at starting things, at seeing the big picture, outlining the steps, setting benchmarks and progress goals, and adjusting  the plan as new information comes in. I could write up a work plan for everyone who works for me, for each of their major projects, and do it joyfully. It’s the kind of work I find enticing.  Alluring.  It’s magnetic.  I can see all the pieces, floating about, waiting to come together, and I want to grab them and start sticking them in place.

The problem is that I can’t do the job of the administrator and be a project manager for the daily work of all 23 of my staff.  I simply don’t have the time management skills to do both well, and even if I did, I don’t think I have the time.  I, Jenica, can’t separate my project management instincts from the question being asked well enough to answer the question and move on mentally.  I answer the question, and rather than moving on, I think about the subsidiary questions, and I ask for follow-up information from other staff and I meet with the original requester again and… I end up doing work that someone else should be doing, not because they can’t do it, but because I can’t help but do it.  I’m not doing it wrong, I just shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. And so sometimes, when it’s clear what’s happening, I try to shut down my instincts, which often leads to a leadership void on a project, or not giving as much guidance as I could to staff who’ve specifically requested it.  I don’t have much functional middle ground in my skill set on this one.

In short:  I’m as much the problem as anyone else is.

My job — as the chief administrator of our unit — is to advocate for the libraries, set the course for the library staff based on our service goals,  manage the budgets, personnel, and intangible resources (like political goodwill, alumni affection, student support, etc) of our libraries, all while supporting the work of the staff who make our goals a reality.  I am the only person tasked with those goals, and I must do them and do them well.  Other staff are tasked with other goals, and I know they can do them well.  I simply cannot do my job if I’m managing the daily work of the people who report to me as they do theirs.

And I don’t want to.

So my challenge for the rest of this academic year is to reverse that trend.  To step back from the people who want me to make decisions that they need to make themselves without completely shutting down the guidance they rightly expect from their Director.  To fight my own instincts toward comprehensive project management when I’m asked necessary questions.  To figure out how to empower the staff to appropriately take the lead, and to also trust that they’re going to do it well without my involvement.  And then start whacking some big advocacy projects off my to-do list with the time I’ve freed up.

Wish me luck!


  1. Oh how right you are . . .it’s so easy to get sucked into that trap because those projects generally have more tangible goals and consequently more sense of accomplishment at the end of the day because you can see physical evidence.

    I’m a problem solver by nature, so I have to constantly remind myself that when I am asked a question by my staff the right answer needs to be “What do you think you should do?”


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