We have all heard of micromanagement - and how negative it can be to building trust in teams. But what about under-management?
Under-management and micromanagement are both on the opposite sides of the management spectrum. But they are both devastating to team and company performance.
Under-management occurs when a manager does not supervise their direct reports enough. It's when they avoid performance conversations, fostering accountability and ignore conflict in their team. They communicate and train people infrequently and are noticeably absent - a lot.
Sometimes it's because managers don't particularly like leading people (but won't admit it) or prefer doing the technical work themselves. Other times it's because they are overwhelmed with work and don't have the leadership competencies to build trust in the workplace. While sometimes it could be that the leader feels uncomfortable calling out poor performance issues and doesn't want to be labelled a micromanager. They just want to be liked - by everyone.
On the other hand, micromanagement is when a manager keeps checking in with employees to see what they are doing. They tell people what to do and have an answer for everything. They keep interfering and often unintentionally cause more issues.
Typically, a micromanaged employee feels disempowered and not trusted. While an under-managed employee, who has considerable more freedom and autonomy, feels ignored, unsupported and unsure as to whether their work is right or not. The onus is on the employee to manage client expectations, engage their manager and get them involved. A leader who they don't trust to be there for them.
It reminds me of my teenage adventures working at KFC in Chapel St (opposite the famed Chasers nightclub). I remember one particularly busy Friday night when we were packing chicken lunchboxes and bacon burgers faster than we could fry them.
I called out to our store manager - Steve to help. When I heard nothing, I walked into his office to find him sitting on the ground with his dismantled racing bike - cleaning each component piece by piece. Perplexed, I yelled "We are swamped out the front - we need your help." He turned around slowly, swiped his blonde fringe out of his eyes and said calmly "I'm in the middle of piecing my bike together. I can't leave it this way because I won't be able to get it back together again."
I walked out shocked. Then, took the helm of the small team of greasy faced teenagers to face the hungry throng of drunk nightclub goers.
A few months later, Steve was unceremoniously fired by head office. Apparently, our store (which was one of the busiest in Melbourne) was also one of the worst performing. Debbie took his place. Debbie was a no-nonsense "You-cancel-all-your-other-jobs-and-parties- and-work-for-me-only" kind of boss. She told us off regularly and listened in on our conversations. I quit after a week.
While I no longer meet many people like Steve (with such little career aspiration and drive) - I do meet a lot of unintentional Steves. Managers and leaders who leave their direct reports to fend for themselves.
What's interesting is that under-management is an expensive problem that most organisations don't really understand. And the difference is trust. Under-managed employees tend to under-perform because they are not guided on how to properly care for customers. It ends up that customers become frustrated and don't trust the company to do a good job. It shows up as a reduction in repeat sales and an upswing in customer complaints. It can even mean increased liability costs. While micromanagement breaks trust with employees - resulting in poor employee engagement, low productivity and high turnover. Micromanagement is often more noticeable because unhappy employees are more vocal in a company than unhappy customers.
Last week, I spoke to around 500 clients of the Legal Practitioner's Liability Committee (LPLC). LPLC is an independent statutory authority providing professional indemnity insurance to Victorian barristers and solicitors and many of Australia’s national law firms.
The three biggest claims that lawyers face from their clients were related to property, commercial and litigation cases that have gone wrong. Typically, when a client makes a claim against a law firm there has been a lot of poor communication and a lot of process mistakes that could have been avoided. It's a result of lawyers not supervising their junior lawyers well enough. They assume that because someone has a law degree that they know what to do.
Under-management can often go unnoticed because the team leader is generally well liked. But the telltale sign is that the team regularly fails to deliver. They often get stuck in doing lots of drafts, make lots of errors or fail to plan adequately. Employees seem to lack direction or focus. But the main culprit is a manager who fails to clearly communicate the purpose and scope of projects. This is because they are not engaged in the team's work, get easily bored in understanding all of the details (particularly, from the client perspective) or are too busy working on another project.
I see under-management occurring in teams that are in the Apathy Zone - low in psychological safety and accountability. The worst performing team zone you can have and where people drop to when they are ready to leave their job. While micromanagement mostly occurs in teams that are high in accountability, but low in safety. Or what I call the Anxiety Zone. It's still a costly zone - mental health issues and burnout are the telltale signs.
In my coaching practice, I have found that reducing under-management requires managers to:
- learn how to undertake regular one-on-ones with their employees. This is the best way to check in with employees through two-way dialogue - communicating expectations, project scope and what client success looks like. And then confirming what the employee has understood and what questions they have or concerns.
- upskill their leadership capabilities. Learning techniques to better support and supervise employees with a variety of communication frameworks. Often, under-managers tend to not have the right capabilities or tools to have conversations to check in with employees respectfully. Teaching them techniques that they can use in a limited time helps them improve their confidence and self-awareness.
- Improve their communication with clients. Learning how to ask better questions and listening to the unspoken needs of customers is an important sales skill.
Under-management can be an easy trap to fall into with teams working in different locations and increasing work deadlines. It can be more costly than micromanagement because it drastically reduces customer satisfaction. And let's face it - without customers there can be no business.
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I have 3 spots available in the next 3 months. If you or someone you know, would really like to improve their communication and relationship building skills, please get them in touch with me. You can learn more about my coaching program here.