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Micromanagement? Or Micro-interest?

We celebrate CEOs for encyclopedic mastery of every aspect of their business. We routinely ask government leaders if they knew the smallest details of an issue, and if not, why they didn’t. But are we setting leaders up for success? What if the cost of that knowledge is the loss of motivation and learning opportunities for everyone around them?

Let me tell you about a client of mine:

Hannah was responsible for one of the largest business units in a healthcare services organization. She had an organization of more than 3000 people, and $200M in annual revenues. As part of a coaching engagement, I conducted a 360 survey of her team members and colleagues. One message that came through from her direct reports was that she was too far in the weeds and did not leave her people to do their jobs. She was, in their words, “a micromanager.”

When Hannah and I sat down with her manager to review the results, he stopped me in mid-sentence. “Don’t you dare, Hannah,” he said with mock anger. “I need you in those details. You are the only one I trust to make sure your team stays on track.”

One of the most common complaints of team members regarding their manager is, “They are a micromanager – They are too deep in the weeds. They don’t trust me to do my job.” Those managers, they say, are over-focused on the details, and should spend more time on strategic issues.

For sure, some are micromanagers, dictating everything from where a comma belongs in a sentence to how often managers should hold 1:1s.

A manager and a team member reviewing a document

But in many cases, managers are showing micro-interest, not micromanagement. Micromanagement is a problem; micro-interest is an essential aspect of management.

Micro-interest means that the manager is asking questions, challenging assumptions, and considering options. These questions are not designed to criticize the presenter, but rather to make sure that the direction or decision is clear, well-thought through, and options and risks have been well-considered. The micro-interested executive may suggest that more work is needed. But they leave the person to do the work.

Stanley McChrystal put it best in his book, Team of Teams: “I referred time and again to the Visible Man during the Task Force video teleconferences. I told subordinates that if they provided me with sufficient, clear information about their operations, I would be content to watch from a distance. If they did not, I would describe in graphic terms the “exploratory surgery” necessary to gain the situational awareness I needed. They were free to make all the decisions they wanted—as long as they provided the visibility that, under shared consciousness, had become the standard.”

Micromanagement is different. Micromanagement means telling people what to do and/or how to do it. One executive I coached would routinely explain to his subordinates how to phrase an email response. Another vice president would routinely jump into negotiations with customers, taking over what was clearly the sales manager’s responsibility.

>>Micro-interest is all about challenging assumptions, evaluating risk, and considering options.

>>Micro-interest allows the manager to ensure the decision-making process was effective, and leaves space for the manager to hold their team member accountable for the results.

>>Micro-interest involves asking for the information you need to ensure a reasonable choice has been made.

>>Micro-interest is all about the work, not about the individual doing the work.

>>Micro-interest means people will either get it right or learn a lot in the process.

>>Micromanagement will ensure the decision-making outcome is one that they are comfortable with, but rarely checks to make sure the right data was used, and the options were thoughtfully weighed.

>>Micromanagement prevents the manager from holding their team member accountable – after all, the manager made the choice, so any failings are theirs, not their team members.

Of course, the boundary between micro-interest and micromanagement depends on time and experience as well. Micro-interest for a new employee may well be micromanagement for an employee with several years of experience. And micromanagement when the team member is learning a new skill may well be warranted.

Advice to Executives:

•  Make sure people know what the problem is, and why it is important. Ensure they know the mission and strategy. And sometimes, tell them what to fix.

•  Explain why you want to know the details.

•  Whenever possible, give them the trust and confidence to come up with the solution. Be sure to give them the credit when they get it right and identify the learnings when it doesn’t work out.

Advice to Coaches:

•  It is appropriate for managers to want to ask questions, challenge the work, and explore options.

•  Your clients also need to make their teams better and better at doing what your client is already doing – analyzing, challenging, weighing risks, and considering options.