Letting Go to Get Ahead
Reducing Micromanagement to Increase Workplace Productivity
By Douglas McColloch
Merriam-Webster defines micromanagement as managing “especially with excessive control or attention to details,” and while it may be easy to define, its presence in an office environment may be difficult to pinpoint because its presence can take many forms: poor communications, a risk-averse workforce, projects that never seem to get completed in a timely manner and—perhaps of most concern to a successful business—a high employee turnover rate. However well-intended, what we generally refer to as micromanagement can have a corrosive effect on an office culture and can hinder efficiency and productivity.
A recent SEMA Education webinar, “Reducing Micromanagement and Increasing Employee Self-Sufficiency,” was hosted by the SEMA Businesswomen’s Network. Moderated by Vintage Air Chief Operating Officer Allison Harding, the seminar featured Christine Ashmore, senior vice president and financial adviser for Morgan Stanley, who tapped into her experience in executive-level management, including chairing several corporate boards, to discuss best practices and to recommend employee-management strategies.
Identifying the Problem
As mentioned, micromanagement can often be recognized more by its symptoms than its cause. Ashmore suggested that managers ask themselves some basic questions about the following workplace scenarios.
Unfinished projects: “Do you have a long list of pending approvals and decisions? Do your employees feel that if they try to move forward with a project without getting your approval, you’re probably going to make them redo it? Unfortunately, that’s a real big issue with micromanagers.”
Unwillingness to delegate: “Do you not trust your employees to perform a meeting without you with people whom you consider important senior executives of the organization, your boss or key clients?”
Insistence on control: “Do you insist that your employees copy or blind-copy you on all communication to people that you’ve deemed important or on subject matter that you deem important?”
Company brain drain: “Do you have high turnover on your team, or possibly low satisfaction in the workforce? That’s a big problem when you have high performers on your team. If they feel micromanaged and feel that they can’t spread their wings, they’ll leave and find a place where they can.”
Before we draw harsh conclusions, Ashmore reminded us that what we refer to as micromanagement is, in some ways, a wholly natural impulse.
“It’s actually a very natural thing,” she noted, because “you’ve been promoted to a management position because you’ve done a really good job at your previous position and therefore want to keep doing what you’ve been good at and tend to fall back into what’s comfortable.”
That is where managers need to engage in some self-assessment and realize that an overly assertive management style comes with a long-term cost to the business:
- Poor employee development: “By engaging in micromanagement,” Ashmore said, “you’re not only hurting yourself because you’re hampering your career development, but you’re also hurting the people who work for you and their career development.”
- Reduced workplace efficiency: Another key takeaway from micromanagement is that “you’re reducing your effectiveness. If you’re caught up in the details, you’re not looking at the big picture. You’re not really steering the ship of the team in that bigger strategic direction. And then, as we said before, micromanaging really interferes with the development of your team.”
- Stagnating office culture: “One of your key jobs as a manager is to cultivate competent and independent employees so that they can naturally move up in the organization. If you’re micromanaging and you’re not letting them expand their abilities, they’re never going to be in a position to move on to higher roles within the organization or in other firms.”
Working Toward Solutions
There are a number of proactive steps managers can take to address these issues.
- Give your team clearly defined goals, with an emphasis on what each individual team member brings to the project: “The key here is really taking the time and sitting down with your team, not just on the forefront of a project or a relationship but also throughout the course of the project,” Ashmore advised. “It’s key that your employees understand: What are the larger goals? What’s the larger goal of this project? How does it fit with the larger goals of the organization? And how can they contribute individually to help you get to the goal line? Really, that’s setting the culture of the team where everybody knows that they’re important and valued employees.”
- Give your employees a stake in the work by actively seeking their advice: “When you’re sitting down, solicit input. Don’t just sit there and talk to your employees like you’re standing on a pedestal, just telling them what needs to be done. Really solicit input from the team as far as their view of what it’s going to take to get the project done.”
- Involve team members in all stages of a project, and be willing to call out their achievements: “Maybe when you’re making a presentation to your boss or senior executives or a client, you bring in someone on your team who’s done a really fantastic job. Make sure you celebrate their successes in the meeting, and they’ll tend to work harder for you. That is a way of giving them ownership in their success.”
- Instill a culture of accountability: “There has to be accountability among the team—not just accountability to the boss or the manager but accountability across the team to each other that everyone’s contributing.”
- Encourage constructive criticism, and be willing to be criticized: “A great way to start this is to make sure that you have clear and concise conversations among the team that constructive criticism is not only freely given in a very respectful way but also that it is solicited from the employee to other employees.
“It’s good for a manager to come out and say, ‘Hey, what could we have done better? How could I have supported you better?’ I think it’s really important for this process to involve everybody on the team and not just the feedback you’re giving your team members.”
- Be willing to delegate: “You might not be able to be at every meeting with your team, but pick some senior people on your team to sit down and meet with the younger people. As they say, ‘If you want a promotion, do your boss’s job, not just your job.’ By delegating a senior person who’s proven that he or she can take a project from beginning to end, give them that ownership to unofficially manage some of the younger people on the team. That gives them great experience for the time when they want to move to that next step in their career.”
- Be willing to lead by example, not by rank: “Let your employees know that you’re willing to get in the trenches with them. At the end of the day, whatever you’re working on is a team project with a team solution, and sometimes you have to throw designated job titles or job responsibilities out the window. The team needs to know that everyone will do whatever it takes to meet deadlines and produce a quality output that is of the level that we expect from ourselves and the team as a whole.”
- Be a mentor, not a boss: Put another way, find out what motivates your employees, then leverage that knowledge to increase their effectiveness in the workplace.
“I was personally kind of shocked to find out it wasn’t just purely money in compensation,” Ashmore said. “‘I get up every day to go to work so that I can get paid,’ but for some people, that’s not it. Some people are driven by a job title. They may feel that respect is given based on what their business card says.
“To a lot of people—and I think it’s especially being recognized during this time of COVID—flexibility is becoming a key driver. ‘Hey, I’ve done a really good job, and I’m going to get the work done for you. Give me the flexibility to go pick up my kids from school and either come back or log on to my computer at home.’
“So I really believe that if you can figure out what motivates people, you can help them meet their goals. They’re going to do whatever they can to get the job done in an effective and efficient time frame.”
To Ashmore, it all comes down to what a former manager once told her: “I don’t want you to think of me as your boss,” she recalled. “I don’t want you to think of me as your manager. I’m your mentor. I’m here for you. I’m here to help you grow and develop.”
“When employees look at you like that, I think it’s through a completely different lens. All of a sudden, you’re a thought leader—someone who cares about them, cares about their development, and they’ll feel more supported.”
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