To Micromanage or Not to Micromanage? A Lesson From Goldilocks

Goldilocks by Krystn Palmer Photography.jpg

You've seen it done: the manager hovers over the employee's work, breathing down her neck, and giving her specific, detailed, over-controlling instructions and corrections. It's every employee's nightmare: the Micromanaging Manager.

Or is it?

Defining Micromanagement

Let's take a closer look at this concept we call Micromanagement. According to Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary, micromanagement is "manage[ment] especially with excessive control or attention on details". Dictionary.comdefines micromanagement as "manage[ment] or control with excessive attention to minor details".

Key word: EXCESSIVE.

Employee Development and Management Style

When I work with managers and supervisors on improving their management and leadership skills, one of the theories they find very enlightening is Ken Blanchard's time-tested Situational Leadership. In a nutshell, Situational Leadership says that there is no 'one-size-fits-all' way to manage employees. Rather, managers should always gauge the employee's (or team's) level of competence and commitment as related to a specific task or goal to identify the best-fit management style for them.

Some employees are highly-skilled and self-motivated to complete a task autonomously. They need little input and guidance from their manager for that task. Other employees are new to the organization, team, or task and are still facing the steep initial learning curve. They are not yet highly-skilled and usually feel unsure or apprehensive about their ability to succeed with a particular task or goal. These employees need lots of clear, specific instructions from their leader. They benefit from frequent follow-up conversations and feedback touch-points because they feel supported and guided in their first tentative steps on a new task or project.

Very briefly, the key take-away is that different employees need differing levels of controls and guidance. What might be excessive controls for one employee may be totally appropriate for another. Therefore, the very behaviors that exemplify the much-hated 'Micromanagement' and irritate seasoned employees are the Good Manager behaviors for new employees or for employees approaching unfamiliar tasks.

So I propose that we need to be more careful in throwing that term around.

Does Office Layout Contribute to Micromanagement Behaviors?

In addition to a tendency to be overly consistent in management style (instead of tailoring it to the employee's development level and needs), there are other traps and obstacles that may contribute to a manager applying excessive controls or attention to minor details that are environmental in nature.

Some organizations arrange employees and managers in open floor plans or in modular cubicles where managers and staff are sitting together. This is great for open communication and transparency, but can be a trap for those managers with a tendency to over-control. Managers who sit among their staff are more likely to hear how employees go about doing their work, overhear their conversations, and be the target for frequent questions and requests for input and advice.

My colleague Howard Walper recently described this very challenge to me. "Since I sit in an open-floor area with my direct reports, I notice how easily I can get 'in-the-weeds' and immersed in the tactical, day-to-day details of the work with which I entrust them" says Walper, a Senior Manager of Conferences for a publishing company in Houston, Texas. "I have to consciously resist the urge to allow my 'present-presence' affect my ability to lead strategically and let staff do their work independently. I have to resist hovering and doting and let them learn and solve problems on their own, serving as a go-to resource when they need me rather than flying in and 'saving' them from thinking through challenges."

Resist the Urge to Hover; Apply Appropriate Management Style

The bottom line for any manager is: the urge to micromanage is natural. In some cases, the behavior your intuition guides you to use is actually totally appropriate and should not be considered micromanagement. In many cases, however, it is an urge you must overcome and control if you want employees to be independent, critical-thinking, high performing team members. Too much hovering will create resentful automatons at best, and an exodus from your department/team at worst. Apply the lessons of Situational Leadership and be sure to treat employees just like Goldilocks wanted to have it: just right. Give them what their current commitment and competency level calls for; no more and no less.

Have you experienced micromanagement as a manager or an employee? What are your thoughts about it? I'd love to hear them - please comment below!  

Photo by Krystn Palmer Photography via Flickr Creative Commons