Help managers break the habit of micromanagement

As organizations figure out what their version of hybrid working looks like, talent leaders need to help managers learn how to empower their employees.

Despite our best efforts to eradicate it, micromanagement is still a bad habit that persists in today’s work environment. However, the lessons of the past two years of remote working may finally signal the end of micromanagement — especially the hard evidence of how employee autonomy leads to high-performing teams. One such proof: Gartner found when employees have a choice on where, when and how long they work, the percentage of high performers jumps from 36% of employees to 55%.

Micromanagers are not one-dimensional villains

Four out of five people claim to have been micromanaged. Before judging too harshly, chances are we have been micro-managers ourselves. It’s easy to dismiss micromanagers as “bad,” but the cause is more nuanced than that. Micromanagement can stem from good intentions.

Remember: managers are usually promoted because they are high performers. “These are people who know how to get the job done,” shares Katie Wiesel, leadership coach and consultant. “They don’t want their employees to fail or let the organization down. And it’s natural to show others how to do a job. Often these managers view what they do as training.

We can help our managers break this bad habit by changing their management approach. Once they realize how gripping the reins too tightly negatively impacts team performance, the next step is to figure out how to relax while making sure they’re heading for the business goals. To do this, the manager must learn to let go of how something is done.

Manage to results…

A manager’s natural reaction is often to tell their direct reports how to do their job and then observe them to see if they are following the process. But Brian Kropp, head of Gartner’s HR research practice, says that’s the wrong approach. “As a manager, I’m not in the best position to know what the job should look like and I don’t see them doing it,” Kropp says.

Scott Gillum, founder of Carbon Design, a marketing agency for freelancers, shares an anecdote from the start of his career: “I remember walking into an ad agency and seeing a ‘creative’ in the lobby bouncing a ball off the walls. He was there the whole time, when I arrived and when I left an hour later. That was his style, that’s what he had to do. Trying to handle somebody one like that to a process just doesn’t work.

According to Kropp, managers have to make do until they reach their destination. Rather than asking for proof of the process followed, ask to see specific results. This is not a new idea; more than 30 years ago, Stephen Covey called it stewardship delegation. More recently, Daniel Pink’s book “Drive” talked about the power of ROWE, a results-only working environment.

Gillum’s freelance management style embodies this approach. It emphasizes high quality deliverables and deadlines and pays no attention to how a freelancer spends their day. “I buy deliverables, so I don’t really care how long it takes to create them, I only care about the quality and speed of the outcome,” says Gillum.

But managers shouldn’t completely neglect the process. This is where coaching comes into play.

… And a coach to treat

“Managers need to remember that a lot of people want to do good and they want to achieve their goals,” Kropp says. To help direct reports develop more autonomy, managers need to reorient their coaching efforts to enable self-discovery on how to improve their process. Focus on what direct reports have or haven’t yet mastered as they strive to achieve specific results.

In their HBR article, Colin Fisher, Teresa Amabile and Julianna Pillemer talk about aligning the pace of manager involvement with people’s needs. Managers can do this by focusing their coaching based on where an employee is in their job:

  • Planning when clear results, resource requirements and actions are needed
  • Execution to keep projects on track while resolving issues and working with key stakeholders
  • Evaluation learn and recognize contributions and impact
  • career development to identify development needs in real time

Kropp’s mantra: “Coach to process, manage to get results. Managers should coach direct reports on the process, but not shadow them on the process. Instead, managers should focus on the results of their direct reports – no matter how well they do it.

This brings us to another essential skill for managers to both reduce their own micromanaging tendencies while increasing their team’s autonomy: creating a shared understanding of the desired outcome.

Give a (very) clear orientation

Managers must be able to clearly communicate expectations and how success will be measured, and then let people follow that direction. Instructions need to be clear – employees can’t always walk down the hall and ask extra questions in a hybrid work environment. And while that seems like a surprisingly obvious point, research reveals only half of the employees indicate that they clearly understand what is expected of them at work. If people don’t know where they need to go, how will they get there?

The way of communicating is just as important: to be heard, a manager must adapt to the different communication styles of employees. Gillum says, “One size doesn’t fit all; someone I work with is very detail-oriented and incredibly thorough. My communication of expectations to this person is different than other team members who just want the big picture.

One channel of communication doesn’t necessarily fit all either. Managers must be open to adapting to where people want to communicate. Email isn’t always the answer, with tools like Slack, instant messaging and video calling available to keep employees in touch with managers numerically.

Don’t expect everyone to hit the ground running

The biggest mistake a manager can make is to let go of the reins completely. If being a micromanager tops the list of harmful behaviors for managers, being an absent manager comes second. Gallup reported that 47% of employees received feedback from their manager “a few times a year” or less. Managers should avoid over-correcting previous micromanagement habits and going too far in the other direction. The transition to greater independence is a gradual process that requires focus and attention.

“Some employees will get it right off the bat. They will evolve and know how to check in proactively,” says Gillum. “Others may not be. They might take time. There is also an element of maturity; in some ways you have to earn the right to work independently.

Gillum encourages a “trust but verify” mindset. Managers need to empower direct reports and give them more confidence while holding them accountable for deliverables and deadlines. Some employees will need more coaching and verification than others. The goal is to achieve a bottom-up feedback loop where direct reports initiate conversations to let managers know how things are going, rather than the manager always reaching out.

Helping our managers break the bad habit of micromanagement and learn how to encourage more autonomy within their teams has several benefits: fewer burnt-out managers, happier people, and higher employee engagement and retention. Perhaps more importantly, it also helps break the chain to reduce the risk of this bad habit being passed on to the next generation of managers.

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