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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Apr 3, 2020


In this week’s Leadership Today podcast we explore some practical ways to avoid micromanagement. 



Well hello there and welcome to episode 72 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we explore the curse of micromanagement, and some practical ways to avoid it.

One of the most ridiculous things I’ve done in my career was fly from my home country of Australia to Zurich Switzerland for a one hour sales pitch to a client - and we didn’t even win the work. Zurich is a lovely city to visit though - I highly recommend it. But one experience on that trip in particular struck me as unusual. The city centre isn’t far from the airport, so I chose to catch the train from the airport to Zurich Main Station. As I wasn’t very proficient in any of the four official languages, I accidentally purchased a child’s ticket. I figured this out part way through the train journey, so was becoming increasingly nervous about what might happen when I tried to exit the train station at the other end. How would I explain why I bought the wrong ticket? The train pulled into the beautiful Zurich Main Station (again, highly recommended - you really should see it). I exited the train onto the platform, made my way to the main concourse, walked a little further, and then found myself outside the station on the street. There were no barriers, no exit gates, no one checking tickets. As a foreigner I found this truly bizarre. What kind of country just trusts people to do the right thing? It seems like the Swiss treat people as adults, even when they buy children’s tickets.

That’s a long way of introducing the topic of micromanagement. A lack of trust is at the centre of micromanagement. The micromanager would have told me to catch the train, checked I had bought the right ticket, followed me onto the train, and then checked my ticket again as I left the station just to make doubly sure I had done the right thing.

We have more people working from home today than ever before. Even businesses that have been reluctant to allow working from home have been forced into this brave new world.

I’m hearing a range of stories of how that is working out. These experiences seem to fall into three categories:

  1. Going okay: Leaders are providing meaningful work, communicating clearly, they’re connecting with their people, and they’re bringing the team together virtually to keep morale up. The challenges aren’t sugar-coated - the leaders are honest but optimistic. If that’s what you’re doing as a leader, well done.

  2. Radio silence: People are trying to work from home, but leaders are missing in action. There’s no communication and the work is starting to run out. People sit at home wondering when that dreaded redundancy discussion is going to come up. Can you even be made redundant while you’re at home?

  3. Micromanagement: People are being swamped with task after task. They’re suddenly having to fill time sheets out to justify their every hour, or quarter hour. If an email isn’t answered within an hour, there’s a second email to follow up, and maybe a text message. After all, what’s the person doing? The washing? Watching a movie? Clearly they can’t be trusted. People start wondering whether they’re going to lose their job.

I think both radio silence and micromanagement are equally damaging. Both signal a lack of trust. In the case of radio silence, it seems like we can’t trust you to be part of the solution. With micromanagement, it seems like we can’t trust you to do anything.

So why might a leader micromanage? Perhaps they think the person isn’t competent. Well, either provide the training or hire better next time. Perhaps they think the person isn’t motivated. Well, has the leader taken the time to figure out what motivates the person and how to link that to the work? Probably not. Or perhaps they think the person can’t be trusted. Well, it’s pretty unfair not to give people the benefit of the doubt. You can measure whether someone can be trusted to deliver by, guess what, whether they deliver or not. 

Now the catch here is that people rarely think that they’re a micromanager. So there’s a risk that you want to forward this to your leader, when actually you’re the problem. 

Just in case let’s go through five ways to avoid micromanagement:

  1. Provide meaningful work. Importantly, the work needs to be meaningful to the individual and important to the organisation. That means you need to understand what matters to the person, and what matters to the organisation. If you’re not sure on either, then ask.

  2. Clarify expectations. Be really clear about what needs to be done and by when. Be clear about where there is room for autonomy and freedom, and where there isn’t.

  3. Trust people to deliver.  Don’t tell them how to do it. Assume that they will deliver. If that’s too big a step for you, consider including a check in point and communicate that to the person up front.

  4. Be available. Offer your support and counsel, but don’t demand it.

  5. Measure what matters. Discuss and agree up front the measures of success. Trust people to deliver and measure whether they deliver. As a consultant I routinely ask clients to imagine we are meeting at the end of the project. How would they know that things had gone really well? This question helps to reveal what really matters.

So, this week, think about how you can demonstrate trust and avoid micromanagement. And, seriously - drop the time sheets people!