Back in 2014, I decided to step out of the family business I had built up with my husband and start my own company centred on trust (Trustologie®).
If there is one insult that a manager dreads, it would have to be being called a micromanager.
When a leader micromanages an employee, it sends an implicit message that they are not trusted. This in turn makes them less likely to trust their boss. Creating a vicious cycle of distrust between employee and manager that results in poor performance and high turnover.
Micromanagement occurs for various reasons. In my line of work, I often see it rampant among technical people who feel validated by their technical prowess. They often have trouble letting go and having others do the work well. Sometime this is because they tend to not train their direct reports that well or communicate unclearly. The result is that they get frustrated and have to step in and save the day.
It can also be a symptom of leaders under pressure to deliver in an environment of blame and shame. The need to get it right or be on the firing line can create a culture of micromanagement. Which is extremely damaging to morale and getting results.
If you talk to a leader who has been labelled a micromanager, they will say they have trouble dealing with the tension between attention to detail and letting things go. That they want to do the best work for clients and struggle with how to balance their expectations on people.
Such a perspective makes it hard to know what to do if you have a tendency to have high standards of work. But there is good news.
Micromanagement is not a personality or leadership flaw. It is not even a leadership training issue. It’s a failure in the basics of delegation.
In other words, it's a communication problem.
Steps to Avoid Being a Micromanager
Reducing micromanagement tendencies requires working on two different areas. The first part is learning about how to trust others and loosen up the reins, while the second is to learn how to delegate more appropriately.
Micromanagement is a choice. It’s up to the manager to break the habit of micromanagement and control. It involves learning to empower others to do their best work and give them the autonomy to do tasks the way they think best within some clearly specified constraints. It's about learning to foster ownership rather than default into micromanagement.
Developing the right mindset is crucial and it requires self-awareness of your own communication style. I use Drake’s P3 tool when I coach leaders. It provides in-depth reports on communication style with suggested behavioural adjustments a manager can take toward a more open, positive relationship with team members.
The second part is learning how to delegate more effectively. I use what I call a briefing framework. When I left University, I started my career as a market research consultant. Every project I worked on started with a brief that stated the research objectives, methodology, client deliverables and due dates. Micromanagement was never an issue because everyone knew exactly what to do because they had a brief.
I have used this framework in all of my subsequent careers and in pretty much everything I need done in my business (including building a home!) It has never failed me.
Delegation Briefing Framework
The benefit of a brief is that it removes uncertainty and ambiguity in a task. When people don’t know what’s expected of them or get confused, they tend to go off in the wrong direction or freeze. Essentially a briefing conversation is an opportunity for open and honest two-way dialogue between the manager and direct report to get to a shared understanding of the project. Clearing away any potential derailments or confusion.
- Start with writing the brief - This will get you are clear on expectations - objectives, constraints, milestones, what success looks like, how they should achieve the task (with input from them) and how you’ll measure success. The goal here is to ensure you both have the same shared understanding and that they are very clear on your expectations. Avoid vagueness or fuzziness.
- Discuss the brief - Schedule in time to go through the document. It should be an engaging conversation where your direct report gets to ask questions and you can check in with them to ensure they are on the same wavelength. One of the most important components is often around what good looks like. A wonderful technique that has come up repeatedly in research that I do from stakeholders is that they want to know what pre and post success looks like. Say someone is working on a client report. The sponsor needs to define the client world now (including strengths of the situations, issues and limitations) and compare it to what their world will be like afterwards. You can also define what success looks like for them, in terms of how you’ll reward them. eg: more work, promotion or more client opportunities.
- Reduce risks. Make sure that you are not setting people up to fail (or yourself). Check in with them to make sure that they have the right level of capability and confidence. Often, delegation goes awry when managers and employees are both overly hopeful. If the work is new to them, ask them about how confident they feel about whether they have the right skills or resources? Ask them what they feel might be missing and then create a plan with them to fix any gaps. If the gaps are too big or the goal is unrealistic, delegate to someone else. Better to do that now, than regret it later. If this is your first time working with them, make sure you are not putting them on a high stakes project. Start with low risk.
- Bake in progressive feedback. Sometimes direct reports can be afraid to ask for help or an unseen issue pops up. During the briefing conversation, schedule regular check in points to ensure that they are on track. If any of their targets slip, you have time to fix it immediately with their input. With clear measurements and expectations in place, it should be easy to see if they are delivering on their commitments. Feedback is two-way and provides a perfect opportunity for you to offer more support and advice. Asking "What can I do to help?" or "Is there anything you are stuck on?" goes a long way to ensuring they know you are there for them.
- Clear consequences. This is what a lot of leaders forget to make clear, assuming consequences are implied. But there needs to be clarity around what happens if they fail to deliver the goods on time or at the right level of quality. Ideally, it's also tied into how it will personally impact them. It might be that if they fail to get the work done well, it can impact the relationship and revenue associated with a client. The impact being that they will not be able to get stretch assignments. Of course, if they do well at the task, you can let them know that you will reward them with opportunities to understand the business and customers better or more important work. Whatever it is, make sure they are aware of the meaning and importance of the work involved - both to customers and themselves. And don't forget to celebrate and recognise their success, if they do well
Micromanagement often originates from the desire to do exceptional client work. But it can do a lot of damage to relationships and reduce productivity. Learning to reduce control freak tendencies and how to delegate work effectively are critical skills of high trust leaders.