The Problem of Micromanaging


The best villains on the small or big screen are the ones who make me viscerally angry, even though I know it’s not real. That’s the mark of a successful villain: Because you made me mad at you anyway. As I’ve previously mentioned on here, I’ve been catching up on the last few seasons of Criminal Minds, one of my favorite original shows since 2005, airing on CBS.

If you’re not familiar with Criminal Minds, the show follows special agents with the Behavior Analysis Unit of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, tasked with profiling killers and catching them. They assist local law enforcement with those efforts by providing them the profile and actually engaging with the killer often to talk them down from further killings.

The team has changed over the years but the current lineup consists of Emily Prentiss, the BAU Unit Chief (played by Paget Brewster); JJ, an agent (played by A.J. Cook); Dr. Spencer Reid, an agent (played by Matthew Gray Gubler); David Ross, a senior agent who helped to found the BAU within the FBI (played by Joe Mantegna); Penelope Garcia, an agent who mostly works with the technical side of things (played by Kirsten Vangsness); and the three new-ish members of the BAU, Dr. Tara Lewis, an agent (played by Aisha Tyler); Luke Alvez, an agent formerly with the fugitive task force (played by Adam Rodriguez); and Matt Simmons, an agent who was originally on the spin-off series Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders as an international agent (played by Daniel Henney).

I have to say, I’ve quite enjoyed the additions of Matt and Luke, particularly Luke. Rodriguez plays the balance of cool butt-kicker with being a sensitive, attentive guy well.

Anyhow, mid-way through Season 13, the antagonist of the series isn’t a psycho killer or anything; it’s someone within the FBI itself: Linda Barnes, the FBI’s assistant director (played by Kim Rhodes).

She’s the one who made me angry because in an ostensible yearly review, she instead has the motive of micromanaging the BAU and doing so to such an extent of shutting it down. I’m not sure why other members of the FBI brass want to shut down the BAU. They solve a lot of cases! And save a lot of lives! All over the country!

Nonetheless, in one example that blew my mind, Barnes went into the field with the team and first, treated the local police department like they were beneath her and with no respect, unlike how the BAU normally operates. Then, more drastically, she went against the strategy JJ, who was appointed the BAU unit chief after Emily was suspended indefinitely, had implemented.

They were trying to catch a family annihilator, someone who has killed most members of a “family” (in this case, roommates) in order to impress and gain the love of one of the members. Given that he was profiled as a narcissist, JJ knew that they needed to talk him down. They already had the lone family member in a safe space, the affection of which the killer sought, and JJ knew that bringing her into the scenario would result in the killer shooting her. Welp. This ridiculous Barnes brings the woman into the scenario anyway and wouldn’t you know it, she gets shot! Luckily, she was wearing a bulletproof vest, but still. The result was the killer being killed rather than apprehended. And if I was that woman, even though it’s probably futile, I’d start a civil suit against the FBI for putting her in danger.

And then, Barnes had the gall to blame all of it on the rest of the BAU! She’s the one who went rogue! She’s the one who messed up. And yet. She then used that “mistake” to split the BAU into re-assigning them into other departments and forcing Rossi into early retirement. Womp womp.

In the next episode, JJ has to present each case to Barnes on whether the BAU ought to pursue it. She keeps shutting down JJ’s pitches because Barnes believes the BAU ought to only take cases that would reflect well upon the FBI in the media. It’s disgusting. JJ notes that in the time Barnes has sidelined the BAU, 26 people have died.

When Penelope uncovers a new psycho killer case while with her new assignment in the FBI handling cybercrime, JJ again pitches the case. Barnes, who has no experience in which to make this estimation, thinks the photos the unsub (the suspect) took of the victims are “fake.” When JJ says that’ll make 27 people killed, Barnes had the gall (yes, the gall again!) to say she will take those odds!

Joke’s on her because it turns out that the latest abducted victim is the daughter of a United States Senator and he didn’t like that one bit. He gave Emily her power back, which resulted in hiring JJ back (JJ was fired after Barnes learned she was going after the case anyway). I’m not sure how a United States Senator has so much power in the way shown in the show to affect personnel matters at the FBI, but I didn’t care because I couldn’t stand Barnes.

Which, all of this is a long-winded wind up to indirectly, and now directly, blast the idea of “micromanaging.” I’ve been a fortunate person for most of my working life since I started at the age of 15 at a local restaurant to not be micromanaged. Nearly every job I’ve had, I’ve been fortunate to have a great deal of autonomy, flexibility and self-direction.

I’m not a businessman. I’ve never owned a company. I’ve never dealt with company finances. But I have a hard time understanding the thinking behind micromanaging. Take again the aforementioned case of Barnes here. Where micromanaging manifests most ugly is the top brass thinking they know better than the actual people on the ground who do know better … because they’re on the ground! Top brass or not, there’s nothing that can replace actually being close to the ground and knowing how things work. Management inevitably has to make decisions from afar because it’s literally not possible to always be on the ground, but there’s gotta be a line somewhere between those decisions and micromanaging.

On the flip side, to be charitable, I also understand that just because those close to the ground have always done something a certain way doesn’t mean it’s the best way or that that in itself justifies continuing to do it that way necessarily. I believe people, on the ground and at the brass level, ought to always be open to change and doing things a different way. That’s hard. I’ve pushed back against change. I’ve worried about change. But I get it and often, the change isn’t as bad as feared.

I just wonder what happens in the phase between when someone is an on-the-ground type and when they become the brass that they lose sight of how it worked when being an on-the-ground type. Instead of losing sight, they ought to be enveloping that insight into their leadership style. That’s my perspective.

And yes, in full transparency, aside from the show inspiring my thinking on this, my own current professional situation reflects some of the pitfalls and follies of micromanaging. I will write more about that soon and in a more formal setting.

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