It is very common for people who are competent at a job to end up promoted into a leadership role – but once they start the firm discovers they’re actually a poor manager. Organisations lose a top performer and gain a bad leader in one step. The curse of being skilled is that other people can’t match you for knowledge or performance, and in that case it’s easy for leaders to micromanage their staff. It’s also an insidious process: you gravitate towards the operational detail because it’s interesting, you correct tiny errors, pick out important details, take back delegated work if there is a mistake or a deadline looms “because I’ll get it done faster”.
In our experience micromanagement is motivated by good intentions and behaviours that drove high performance in previous roles. As leadership expert Rob Kaiser has shown, positive traits like attention to detail or a competitive drive to deliver morph into destructive behaviours if over-used. High standards and a concern to avoid mistakes is good – unless your manager is anxiously hovering at your desk or constantly messaging you for updates and giving suggestions for tweaks and improvements.
The evidence is clear: micromanagers destroy confidence and morale, sap creativity, productivity and increase turnover. There are two important and related components to fix micromanagement – change what leaders actually do and help leaders build self-awareness.
The Tight-Loose-Tight Delegation Tool
Micromanagement ends up choking employee autonomy and control – because leaders focus on the wrong part of the project. It is very useful to be clear about what has to be done and what success looks like, while leaving employees to figure out how to achieve the task to the required standard.
That’s the tight-loose-tight model. Here’s how it works:
Tight. Be really clear with the team about what the task or mission is and how the outcome will be evaluated. Make sure you explain why it matters. Take the time to ask the team to back brief you – to explain in their words what has to be done and what the success criteria are, so there is absolute clarity.
Loose. The team will get the task done. Honestly. They will. They may make some mistakes – but that’s how people learn. Empower them to learn how to deliver and get the job done. Resist your temptation to step in, take over or point out how they are making mistakes.
Tight. Review the outcomes with the team, holding them to account for the success criteria agreed in the first step. This is the time to coach, learn and elicit opportunities for improvement and training. In fact, by asking questions such as:
Did we deliver as we committed to?
What went well?
What went poorly?
What did you learn about your own performance and skills?
How can we do better next time?
Self Awareness is Key
A great deal of research has shown that people are often unaware of their own skills and tend to rate themselves as highly as people who are really good— mainly due to a lack of self-awareness. That’s why scientific tools that provide insight about tendencies to be meticulous, picky or perfectionistic are essential.
Employees thrive in an environment where they feel able to have control over their work and are supported by self-aware leaders. Micromanagers should loosen up and need not panic that they’ll be let down.
Photo credit: Michael Walter