As corporate leadership has begun to shift away from Command and Control, I have noticed a surge in fear around the label “micromanager”. This is an important and well-justified concern as few behaviors kill motivation and engagement faster than micromanagement. Unfortunately, even though micromanagement is the speediest way to destroy morale, managers have found plenty of other ways to achieve the same end.
Undermanagement, for example, is equally likely to result in the eventual disengagement of the team and seems to have become increasingly common as a direct reaction to the growing awareness of micromanagement’s detrimental effects. This situation is further exacerbated when the manager is disappointed by the conservative results. Often possessed of additional knowledge, experience, context, and perspective, it is common for a manager to expect grander achievements than the individual may feel comfortable pursuing without the right support.
As so often happens, the pendulum has swung back and so many of the managers described above mitigate their fear of micromanagement by remaining completely hands-off with their teams. Of course, in certain circumstances, some employees thrive under this approach. But for the majority of employees the majority of the time, some degree of support and guidance is beneficial or even necessary.
I like to compare this situation to menus at a restaurant. If you decide to try a new restaurant and are expecting a standard restaurant experience, you might be a bit cranky to sit down at your table, open the menu, and find only one option. If you have dietary restrictions that leave you unable to eat the lone offering, frustration can become devastation.
In business terms, a single-item menu is equivalent to an employee being given no leeway either in what they are being asked to accomplish or in how they are allowed to pursue the goal. In other words, micromanagement. When an employee enters into this dynamic willingly, as when a diner chooses a prix-fixe meal, there is still the potential for satisfaction. But when these restrictions come as a surprise and without prior agreement, the employee will similarly find the conditions somewhere between irritating and intolerable.
Yet the opposite experience may be equally unpleasant. Imagine sitting down at the table and your waiter saying, “There is no menu. Tell us what you want and if we happen to have the ingredients and the right equipment, we’ll make it for you”. Although there may be hints as to the available possibilities in the name of the restaurant or the cuisine advertised, few diners have chosen to eat out from a desire to play guessing games. Adding in the threat of being told “sorry, we cannot do that” after zeroing in on a choice exacerbates the situational stress.
Returning again to the workplace, asking a team member for deliverables without ensuring that they have the necessary tools, skills, and support is akin to dropping them at a table with the blank menu and hoping for the best. Some individuals will thrive with such flexibility but most people will immediately revert to a degree of extreme caution. They will set their sights on what they are certain they can accomplish with the tools and knowledge they already possess. The diner who might have delighted in trying a new protein reverts to asking for a chicken breast. The employee who might have explored a new architectural solution reuses a workable but inefficient framework from their last project, simultaneously limiting their own potential for growth and the team’s success.
In sharing this analogy, I have run into a handful of people who describe each situation as their dream restaurant. Some people are truly most comfortable when all decisions are made for them and others truly see any guidelines as chafing constraints. For most people, however, the ideal lies somewhere in the middle and a key element of the manager’s role is to ascertain and then deliver the ideal balance of freedom and constraint for each employee. Of course, once an employee’s preferred management style is identified, the manager must also have the skill required to deliver the appropriate balance of support and freedom.
This lack of universal solutions can be daunting, but the good news is that entering into an open and iterative conversation with each team member is a powerful first step. Rather than seeking to immediately deliver perfection, agreeing upon an intentional degree of involvement and then measuring employee success and satisfaction allows corrections to be made over time. As long as there is positive progress towards the employee’s ideal, most people are willing to work with their managers to find the appropriate balance.
In restaurants, having choices and flexibility within a fixed framework benefits everyone. Kitchens know what to prepare, what to keep on hand, and when a request must be politely refused. Diners can select a known favorite or explore new tastes, ingredients, and preparation styles they might never have dared on their own. In the workplace, providing guidance, training, and support similarly allows team members to dream bigger and pursue more ambitious goals without overwhelming employees. Of course, neither the first menu a restaurant prints nor the first model of support a manager uses with an employee must be the permanent solution. Both situations also benefit from iteration and refinement over time.
We have, collectively, learned the dangers of micromanagement. Now it is time to explore the pitfalls on the other extreme. What level of detail, either in menus or in management, suits you and your team best? Can you be flexible in managing your team if the result is greater engagement and productivity? Are you ready to adapt or are you doomed to forever order chicken breasts and mashed potatoes?
Belle Walker takes her clients from friction to function by aligning organizational structures and processes with strategic goals. She has recaptured lost efficiency and engagement for companies in tech, professional services, cannabis, the nonprofit sphere, and more.
While a Director of Engineering at HERE Technologies, Belle built several successful teams, including one responsible for the quality of High Definition Maps for autonomous vehicles. She also received a patent for the Quality Index, which allows digital maps to be incorporated into autonomous vehicle environment models. Belle began her career at Google, where she built a nation-wide aerial photography operation, and her experiences also include building Product Management and Customer Service organizations.
Belle has a Mechanical Engineering degree from Harvard and a Systems Engineering master’s degree from USC where her research studied organizations as systems.
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