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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.           Vol. 32, No. 9 * May 15, 2000

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Some supervisors, and that includes some elected officials, have taken “micro management” to a new level — a very low level. The HR Doctor refers to these world-class micro managers as “nano-managers.” “Nano” is a prefix meaning a billionth. It is a much smaller scale than “micro,” meaning a millionth.

The symptoms of nano management include an inability to trust a co-worker, including subordinates and supervisors. The nano-manager accepts no one’s word without personally checking and doing so at a great level of detail. The maxim of President Reagan, “trust but verify,” is altered by the nano-manager to read “in personal checking we trust.” This obsessive compulsive checking or testing behavior makes colleagues crazy within a several hundred feet radius of where the nano-manager sits.

These behaviors are not good for the organization and, in the long run, are not good for the nano-manager. All executives deal with huge amounts of information and are no longer personally able to keep up with all of the materials which may come across her or his desk. For that reason, we all create various kinds of filters or sources of help. Some may be electronic, such as Palm Pilot™ type devices or our office computers. A great source of help is the professional secretary or executive assistant, such as the wonderful Paulette Jules upon whom the HR Doctor depends so heavily.

The manager who does not trust others will also have trouble relying on others. In turn, this ultimately loads down nano-managers and contributes to their ultimate failure.

We all also rely on co-workers, and especially subordinates, to perform their work effectively and, as a result, contribute to our success. Constant interference by a nano-manager disrupts and depresses subordinates. The behavior of this manager becomes organizational folklore, usually generating head-shaking and expressions of sympathy to those colleagues who report to the nano-manager. Even the supervisor of a nano-manager will begin to feel paranoid that her work is being watched, and that she may be set upon while walking by an office door by the nano manager anxious to report the latest discovery of a mistake by someone else.

A great tragedy results when a nano-manager is elected to office. It is hard to have a policy-making, strategic view of the world amid regular lapses into demands for unnecessary details. True, a directive for detail from such an elected official will send subordinates scurrying around madly, staying late, and muttering incoherently, but the product will not make a difference in the strategic sense of public policy development.

On the other hand, if elected officials recognize the hard work of their appointed staff and make it clear the staff is depended upon to do good work, honest work on-time, the subordinates will take that statement of trust and work even harder to honor it. In both the short and long runs, this approach of trust and gratitude is far more effective and enjoyable than issuing straightjackets to subordinates with the county logo on it.

What to do with a nano-manager? The HR Doctor suggests that this manager’s behavior is a problem which the supervisor should not “walk by.” Sit down with the person and indicate clearly that allowing subordinates more authority and responsibility is important to you. These are factors which will be used in evaluating the performance of the nano-manager. Be clear with this person and set clear expectations. Meet regularly with the nano-manager as a mentor and review the manager’s draft evaluations of other people to provide advice on how to express to subordinates that they are valued and how their work is progressing. Show your own trust in the nano-manager to reform. An Employee Assistance Program chat may also help the nano-manager if the symptoms don’t improve.

If the manager in question is your own boss, a particular dose of patience and diplomacy is necessary. Sit down with the boss over coffee or perhaps lunch. Be tactful but open about your desire to show your ability to contribute more to the organization by being allowed to stretch and manage a project with greater independence and bottom-line accountability. Most supervisors will respond in a positive way. If nothing good happens despite these efforts, the HR Doctor recommends that you look elsewhere for employment for the sake of your own sanity, enjoyment and career growth. The nano-manager risks losing excellent subordinates and ultimately his or her own security becomes threatened. So take a nano-manager to lunch and offer to help. On the other hand, just to be safe, get an itemized bill and hold on to it for at least two years.

Best wishes! Don’t hesitate to visit the “office” at


Phil Rosenberg,
The HR Doctor

(If you have questions for the "HR Doctor," e-mail him at Rosenberg is the Human Resources director for Broward County, Fla.)


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