Almost everybody performs better with more guidance, direction, and support from a more experienced person.
So why do managers often second-guess their own instincts and err on the side of being way too hands off? One reason, surely, is a widespread fear of the dreaded “micromanagement.” Micromanagement is a household word. Nobody wants to be labeled a micromanager. Nobody wants to feel like a micromanager.
The funny thing is that most cases mistaken for micromanagement turn out to be undermanagement in disguise. Let me show you.
Case number one. The employee must check with his manager every step of the way in order to make very basic decisions or take very simple actions. Is this really a case of micromanagement? No. If an employee is unable to make very basic decisions or take very simple actions on his own, that’s almost always because the manager has not prepared the employee in advance to do so. Someone has to tell him, “If A happens, do B. If C happens, do D. If E happens, do F.” That’s how you equip an employee to make decisions and take action. Someone has to tell the employee exactly what to do and how to do it. Someone has to make sure he understands how to accomplish his tasks and carry out his responsibilities. Someone has to equip the employee with the tools and techniques of the job. That someone is the manager.
Case number two. The employee makes decisions and takes actions without ever checking in with her manager. When the manager finds out about those decisions and actions, the employee gets in big trouble. Burned for taking initiative? Yes. Micromanagement? No. If an employee does not know where her discretion begins and ends, that’s because the manager has not spelled out guidelines and parameters for the employee up front. Someone has to painstakingly clarify for her what is within her authority and what is not. Someone has to repeatedly spell out what she cannot and may not do. That someone is the manager.
Case number three. The manager remains tangled up with the employee’s tasks or the employee gets tangled up with the manager’s tasks—in the end, you just can’t tell which tasks belong to the manager and which ones belong to the employee. Isn’t that micromanagement? No. This is failure to delegate. Some work is hard to delegate, but if the work cannot be delegated properly, it is the manager’s job to figure that out and act accordingly. Someone has to spell out exactly which tasks belong to the employee and which ones belong to the manager. Someone has to tell the employee up front in advance exactly what is to be done, where, when, and how. That someone is the manager.
All of these cases often misconstrued as “micromanagement” turn out to be cases of undermanagement. Real micromanagement is quite rare.
Of course, there are cases in which managers overdo it. For example, imagine a manager stands over the shoulder of a carpenter and tells him, “Nail number one goes right here.” BANG, BANG, BANG. “Okay?” Then he says, “Nail number two goes there.” BANG, BANG, BANG. But then he grabs the hammer and takes over: “Not there. Here.” BANG, BANG, BANG. “Okay? Now I’m going to put nail number three right there.” BANG, BANG, BANG. This is the closest I can think of to a real illustration of micromanagement. Two people, one hammer.
So, which is worse: micromanagement or undermanagement? If I had to choose, I’d risk micromanaging.
The good news is this: If you find yourself giving too much direction and feedback for a particular person with a particular task at a particular time, delegation is the antidote. Sadly, delegation is not at all about letting go of work. Delegation is all about getting work done through others—and that is an intense, hands-on endeavor.
Delegation is the true art of empowerment, but it turns out to be a rather mundane art: it is clearly articulating goals, specifications, and timelines. The real trick to effective delegation is figuring out the goals, guidelines, and timelines that are appropriate for each employee with each assignment: How big should the goals be? How far out should the deadlines be? How many guidelines are necessary with each goal? These are always moving targets. Getting the level of direction and feedback right for each person at any time is the hard work of management. That’s why the manager can never bow out of the action.
Bruce Tulgan is the author of numerous books including the bestseller It’s Okay to Be the Boss (2007) and the classic Managing Generation X (1995), as well as Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (2009) and It’s Okay to Manage Your Boss (2010). To find out more, visit www.rainmakerthinking.com/blog/ or www.talkaboutthework.com. Follow Bruce on Twitter @brucetulgan.