Leading without micromanaging can be incredibly challenging. Executive coach and former CIO Doug Moran writes that it takes a little work and openness to feedback.

In my eleven years as an executive coach and more than twenty years of executive leadership, I’ve observed that micromanaged employees are some of the least happy. Almost across the board, they feel unmotivated and demoralized.

No one wants to be considered a micromanager, even though closer management is sometimes required. I have started using the term “focused management” when describing healthy oversight that some might describe as micromanagement.

When is focused management necessary, and how can it be accomplished without undermining relationships and performance? What distinguishes focused management from the negative connotations of micromanagement?

Most leaders are guilty of some degree of micromanagement. Some leaders are guilty of only the occasional transgression, while others make micromanagement a regular part of their leadership routine. While most people don’t consider themselves micromanagers, my recent analysis of over 450 business leaders revealed that 39 percent identified specific micromanaging behaviors among their primary leadership challenges (e.g., over-controlling, impatient, lack of delegation, etc.). In his book My Way or the Highway: The Micromanagement Survival Guide, Harry E. Chambers wrote that 79% of his survey respondents reported experiencing micromanagement in the workplace. 

Are You a Micromanager?

To determine whether you’ve crossed the line into micromanagement, you must explore the motivation for your actions. Stop and ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?" Is there a clear and convincing benefit to be gained? The benefit may accrue to the organization as a whole and its mission. Other times, it is for the sake of the person who is being micromanaged. There will also be times when you are the beneficiary. By recognizing who benefits and what the benefit is, you can better articulate a clear and convincing case for your action. 

Our egos may keep us from admitting that we're guilty of micromanagement, but if we can objectively recognize these situations, we can quickly and effectively correct them. We do this by acknowledging our actions, stopping the micromanaging behavior, and making amends with whomever we've been micromanaging.

The more significant challenge comes with helping people recognize and understand those situations where perceived micromanagement is actually rigorous, disciplined leadership – those situations where intrusive questions and highly detailed guidance are beneficial and even necessary. The key to rising to this challenge is transparent communication.


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Examples of Effective Focused Management

Here are three common scenarios where focused management may be perceived as micromanagement:

1. Helping an associate develop new skills or address proficiency gaps

It is absolutely appropriate for leaders to provide hands-on support to a subordinate when that subordinate is not fully competent to do a task for which they are accountable. It would be reckless and irresponsible not to do so. However, many people feel they are being micromanaged in these situations. I can't remember a time in my entire career when everyone I led was fully competent in every aspect of their job. People hunger to learn and grow, so we are continually taking on new challenges. And every time we take on new challenges, we create competency gaps. This cycle for development and growth can create risks of micromanagement.

As leaders, we must be willing to provide the oversight and guidance to help associates gain competence in new areas. We may ask very intrusive questions to ensure they are becoming competent. This behavior is not micromanagement. However, asking them the same types of questions about an area of their expertise is crossing the line, and doing this can undermine our relationships and destroy trust. 

What transparent communication looks like in this scenario:

  • Acknowledge the relative strengths and weaknesses of those you lead; this allows you to be proactive. (Of course your assessment of an associate’s competence may not align with their own assessment; this is an opportunity for open discussion.)

  • Tell your associates early on how and why you will be providing more intrusive oversight. When people know what to expect, they are less likely to feel micromanaged. They need to understand there are no hidden agendas. And opening this dialogue informs you in advance about potential sore spots.

  • Provide regular, candid, well-grounded feedback and seek input from the associate. Keeping the lines of communication open will keep you abreast of progress and issues encountered. Be aware that you will reach a point where focused management is no longer necessary or appropriate in this scenario; at some point, the skill is no longer new, or there is no longer a gap in proficiency.

2. Obtaining enough information to provide appropriate oversight and effective governance

Every good leader knows they must be aware of what is happening in their realm of accountability. Great leaders know how much they need to know: Enough, but not too much. That is a tricky balance.

What's enough, and what is too much? The answer comes down to two things – culture and transparency. Every organization has its unique culture, just as every person has his or her unique character. Organizations run the gamut in terms of how deep a leader's knowledge is expected to be. What one company considers absolute micromanagement is ‘business as usual’ in another. You have to know where your organization is on that spectrum.

What transparent communication looks like in this scenario:

  • As leaders, we owe it to our associates to make sure they understand the organization’s culture. That means we establish expectations up front about how much detail we will need from them. Of course, we are not operating in a static environment; the more important or urgent an initiative is, the more detail we will need to provide appropriate oversite and control. Again, appropriateness will depend both on the culture and the importance of an initiative. Our ability to effectively communicate both will go a long way in reducing the risk of micromanagement.
  • We must also be clear that priorities change. An initiative may start as a lower priority that doesn't attract much attention. This same initiative can morph into the organization's flagship project. It is our job to communicate these changes and the inherent change in expectations. People still may not like the amount of detail required, but they will at least understand the underlying need.

3. Projects holding a special interest (Sometimes we want to geek out)

Curiosity-driven micromanagement happens all the time. There will always be projects or initiatives that get us excited, so we want to learn more. This can be a very good thing; it gives us a way to connect with the people working on the initiatives. But these situations become a problem when we aren't transparent about our motivations, or we fail to make it clear how to manage our interests.

What transparent communications look like in this scenario:

  • The best prevention of curiosity-driven micromanagement is to proactively identify projects that you (or other leaders) find interesting. Tell associates up front to expect extra attention, as well as from whom and why. Help them understand how this attention will manifest itself. Make sure they understand that requests generated by this interest are not likely to be either important or urgent.

  • At first, associates will likely love the attention (especially if it is coming from a senior leader). They will begin to hate it if it starts interfering with their ability to get things done. We must clearly communicate how to deal with this attention when it becomes disruptive. Tell people how best to push back when they feel they are being overwhelmed with interest. Let them know it is acceptable (even preferable) for them to ask us to back off. Sometimes we will need to deliver this message for an associate, especially if the source is our boss or another senior leader.

  • At times we won't anticipate our heightened interest, so we have to recognize when we have stepped over a line. Ideally, we will recognize these situations on our own, so we can take action to back off. However, there will be times when we haven't a clue that our interest has pushed us into the realm of micromanagement. In these situations, we are dependent on our associates to speak up and let us know. By establishing a culture that encourages open and candid communications, we improve the probability that people will raise their concerns before there is real harm.

Transparent Communication Tips

Identify, own, and discuss your management behaviors - especially the frustrating ones.

Most leaders recognize and understand aspects of their management style and the behaviors that define it. However, even the most self-aware leaders have blind spots, so we must constantly take inventory of our behaviors. Pay particular attention to those behaviors that frustrate others.  When we understand and acknowledge our behaviors, we can better see how they impact our associates – and this can pave the way for transparent communication, including soliciting feedback.

Be proactive. The best way to avoid problems is to get ahead of them.

Think of a situation where you’ve helped an associate develop a new skill or address a proficiency gap. Did you tell them up front what to expect? Did you teach them how to give you feedback on your leadership behaviors and style and encourage them to do so? Make sure people understand how you use the feedback they give. By making sure that people understand you and your style, your focused leadership is less likely to be mistaken for micromanagement.

Embrace the gift of feedback.

Some feedback you get will reveal micromanagement. In those situations, change your behaviors. However, much of the feedback you receive will reveal appropriate levels of management. In those situations, you must be willing to dig in to understand where and how the breakdown occurred. We must encourage our associates to be clear and direct about their concerns and perceptions about what they perceive to be micromanagement. You can then be transparent about why you believe your behavior is appropriate. Remember, when we fail to be transparent, reasonable intrusiveness often appears to be micromanagement, so be explicit.

Recognize the assumptions driving our behaviors that others may see as micromanagement. 

We are constantly making assumptions, many of them erroneous. We assume that people know their competence relative to the tasks they have before them. We assume they also know the importance or urgency of their work and how much interest that importance/urgency creates. We assume they know which projects we (or others) will find interesting. The list of assumptions is endless. When we can identify our assumptions, we can proactively deal with them.

All this transparency and communication takes a great deal of work

As you have been reading this article, you probably found yourself thinking, "I don't have enough time to do all this. There aren't enough hours in the day." But here’s the truth: you’re already spending the time one way or another. And if you choose to spend the time up front, you won’t have to spend even more time later. The early and ongoing investment of time and energy will help you lead and manage more effectively, and it will help you build stronger and more enduring relationships.

While the definition of micromanagement is clear and concise, leading and managing without micromanagement is incredibly challenging. It takes hard work and introspection. It takes a willingness to be open and honest about how we lead, while being receptive to feedback. It requires the discipline to do what we know is right when others accuse us of micromanagement, and it demands a willingness to change when we realize we're guilty as charged. Most of all, avoiding micromanagement requires transparency.

Are you a micromanager

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