Leadership and Micromanaging

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I kind of enjoy interviewing. I think it is because I like to talk, and as you may have ascertained from my last blog post, my interview style would be best categorized as “conversational” in nature. That doesn’t mean that I don’t ask questions, because I do. But unless I am interviewing for an HR position, I don’t know a hill of beans about the technical aspects of what I am interviewing for. What I do usually know is the style of the manager that I am helping with the interview, which is why one of my go to questions is: “describe for me your ideal manager.” I get varying answers to this question, but one that is told to me fairly regularly is “I don’t like to be micromanaged.” In fact, I can honestly say that I have YET to ask someone that question and have them say that they DO like to be micromanaged.

First up, let’s state the obvious. Leaders do not micromanage. There is a reason why “microlead” isn’t a thing. If you are leading something, and I mean truly leading, you are setting the direction, expectations, maybe a few guide posts and guard rails, and then working with the team to get it done. Sometimes that means getting out of your own way (which, incidentally is a pretty good U2 song). You trust your team that they know how to accomplish the tasks assigned to them and if they don’t, you get in there and do what you can to help – which sometimes means making dramatic changes to the team.

So, if micromanagement is bad, why do people do it?

Because it is easy. It is ineffective, inefficient, and usually career limiting, but hey, it is easy. You see, often times someone is promoted into a supervisory position because they have demonstrated success at whatever it is that they are asked to supervise. Have you demonstrated a keen ability at making widgets faster and with fewer defects than anyone else? You should manage the widget makers! Makes sense, until you insist that all the other widget makers do things exactly the same way that you do and start writing them up when they don’t. Then when they do comply (out of fear), you start writing them up for quality issues, or because they aren’t churning out the number of widgets they were before. Then the widget makers get fed up, vote to join the International Brotherhood of Widget Makers and on and on.

Now let’s look at this from a leader’s lens. You are the fastest, best widget maker in the widget factory and get promoted. You meet with your team members and set your expectations for widget production and quality. You let them know what is and isn’t acceptable – no working off the clock, follow all safety protocols, etc. then you monitor output. You find someone who is falling behind, you meet with them one-on-one and talk through what you are seeing and try to figure out what you can do to help. Perhaps at this point you offer up how you did the job and how that worked for you, but you do not insist that they do it exactly that way. If your efforts do not yield fruit, you sit down with your business partners (hint: HR) and evaluate the business need, the risks, and the costs (including the cost of recruiting and training someone else) and you make a decision as to whether to continue to retain this person or not.

Now, as with so many things HR related, sometimes there is a caveat. I will tell you that even good leaders micromanage sometimes, or at least their actions look an awful lot like micromanaging. For instance, let’s say that you are the team member who is lagging behind the rest of the group, and the leader pulls you aside and starts working with you individually. Is this micromanaging? It may be, but I may be inclined to argue that it is necessary to ensure that the work is getting done at an acceptable pace and to an acceptable standard. This is where development takes the form of micromanaging. The difference is that development ends, or at least changes once the standards are where they need to be. Micromanaging typically keeps on going and going and going. It is important to know the difference – regardless of whether you are the manager or the subordinate.

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