Why "Micromanagement" Is Not A Dirty Word—If You Do It Right

To become a more effective manager, it helps to rethink what you thought you knew—for example, that micromanagement is a sin, and that employees are the most important part of your organization.

Even the best leaders can benefit from adopting a new perspective or expanding an old one. Let’s explore and challenge a few concepts that you may have accepted as conventional wisdom but that aren’t necessarily working in your favor.

Over the years, I’ve heard many decision makers say that people are the most important part of their organization. While I agree that good organizations are made up of great people doing great work and that employees play an extremely important role in the success of any organization, the idea that people are the most important part of an organization is a wrong assumption that can actually hinder the people it intends to credit. We’ve all seen firsthand how even the most talented people turn in substandard performance if they don’t have the systems and structures they need to excel in their work. Therefore, if you make this assumption and are willing to rethink it, you can more readily capture opportunities to empower your people to achieve more successes within your organization.

In order to gain the successes that come from talent and skill, your systems and structures must be in place. The systems and structures include everything from computers, tools, and equipment to the rules, regulations, laws, procedures, and policies that govern how your staff works within your organization. These systems don’t always have to be elaborate; they just have to be appropriate. For example, in 2011, Boeing relocated passengers’ flight attendant call buttons in their new 737 aircrafts away from reading-light buttons. The seemingly small change is anticipated to reduce the number of unnecessary trips that flight attendants will have to make down the aisles of planes in response to typically apologetic customers who mistakenly press their call buttons rather than their reading-light buttons.

Having the appropriate systems and structures in place is one of the most effective ways of bringing out the best talents and highest productivity of your people. Yet it’s one of the most ignored factors in organizations today. When leaders see dipping productivity levels and low morale, they often want to address personnel and personality issues, an attempted solution known as “hugging and kissing” your people. The hugging-and-kissing approach typically yields only temporary relief, if it solves anything at all. Then conditions return to the same or get worse. Instead of fixing the real challenges, these leaders have missed the mark altogether (and they’ve wasted time, money, and resources in the process). If, after the systems and structures are remedied, leaders still have issues, then leadership would be wise to address morale, but not before.

Systems really can make the difference. In fact, the presence of a supportive system is one reason why decision makers who leave major corporations don’t always succeed when they start their own businesses. Many have been so accustomed to a support system that gave them what they needed to be successful that they either flounder or must invent new systems and structures to maximize their skills once again.

Meanwhile, micromanagement has gotten a bad rap over the years, because it conjures up images of the big boss breathing down the necks of hard-working subordinates. But in reality, that’s only one side of micromanagement and is only the case when it isn’t executed properly. It’s time to rethink the opinion that all micromanagement is this in-your-face type of suffocation that smothers people and decreases their abilities to perform optimally.

In reality, micromanagement can be one of the most effective ways to increase performance. In addition, there are some environments where micromanagement through systems and structures are necessary to ensure specific outcomes and safety.

In the stereotypical, negative view, the word “micromanagement” makes us think of leaders who are so engrossed in the daily doings of their subordinates that they get in everyone’s way and don’t get their own work done. By filling their days with tasks that belong in someone else’s daily planner, these micromanagers fail to give ample time to their own responsibilities like thinking, strategizing, and moving their organizations forward. In this scenario, micromanaging efforts ultimately hurt the organization on multiple levels, not the least of which may be employees, volunteers, or other group members reacting negatively to feelings of frustration and needless pressure resulting from the constant monitoring. This means that neither the micromanaging boss nor the subordinates are performing as optimally as they could.

By contrast, when leaders have the right mental tools to be effective micromanagers, they are able to direct their organization’s people and resources in the direction of shared goals. Effective micromanagement through setting structure, developing strategy and plans, creating reliable systems for others, and teaching people how to be independent thinkers can actually empower others to do their jobs with little involvement from you at all. Yet truthfully, they are being micromanaged; they just don’t feel it, because you’re not in their faces.

Micromanagement isn’t always a choice. You may be entrenched in an industry or sector that requires a certain degree of micromanagement, so the question isn’t whether or not you micromanage; it is how to do it correctly. Leadership in toxic waste or medical waste-management facilities, for instance, must follow strict procedures to ensure the safety of their staffers, customers, and the general public.

For decision makers, striking the right balance between being involved and letting others work independently can be a challenge. Build an environment of systems, structures, tools, equipment, etc. to support the talents and skills of your people, and you will earn their trust, gain their cooperation, and increase their productivity levels. When micromanagement is done right, you are able to achieve the results your organization needs to grow and survive.

Here’s an example of micromanagement done right. Think about when you drive on the highway. Do you feel micromanaged? Most likely you feel pretty independent. You select your destination and the vehicle you’ll use to get there. You also determine the vehicle’s air temperature, whether you’ll listen to music, who your passengers are, and what type of car you’ll drive. But if you look closer, you are actually very micromanaged. You must drive on predetermined roads, streets, and ramps. You must maintain certain speeds. You must pass only in predesignated passing zones. In some areas, you must pay a toll for using the road. However, you don’t resent being micromanaged, and you don’t feel that you’re constantly running into roadblocks due to the micromanagement, because the road system enables you to reach your targeted destinations, much like systems help your staffers to reach their targeted goals.

Systems and structures also direct your organization toward innovative solutions both internally, as organizational improvements, and externally, as product and service improvements. Consider how a restaurateur might opt to “micromanage” his establishment’s reservation process by using a proven software system—one that employees manage internally or one that patrons can access externally through the Internet—to achieve reliable outcomes. Micromanaging systemically removes the crises that erupt from inefficiencies and replaces problems with opportunities. Additionally, micromanagement done right prevents waste, so your organization has more resources to dedicate to these improvements.

Related: 4 Reasons Your Company Needs To Stop Making Excuses And Create Systems.

Rethink your leadership style with tips from the Fast Company newsletter

Reprinted with permission of David and Lorrie Goldsmith. Excerpted from Paid to THINK: A Leaders Toolkit for Redefining Your Future. Copyright MMXII David and Lorrie Goldsmith. All rights reserved.

—David Goldsmith is the president of the New York-based Goldsmith Organization, holds an MBA from Syracuse University, served on the faculty of New York University for 12 years, and over the past 20 years has founded or cofounded eight businesses ranging from distribution to manufacturing to advertising. Lorrie Goldsmith is cofounder of the Goldsmith Organization. You can download all the graphics associated with their book at paidtothink.com and they can be reached at david@paidtothink.com and lorrie@paidtothink.com.

[Image: Flickr user Luke Ma]

Add New Comment

17 Comments

  • Katrina Litz

    I love this article! I 100% agree that we can't flourish or even communicate properly unless we all understand the little details and how those details make up the big picture.

  • KateP

    This article is incredibly stupid. Completely redefining a term to make it "good" doesn't make the original definition "good". That's like saying "murder is good" because "we murder animals for meat and there's nothing wrong with that". Give me a break...

  • glad i don't work with you

    glad i don't work with you. micromanager = insecure. valuing process over people = jerk.

  • David Goldsmith

    Sorry...the formatting was from WORD and the document read clearly when pasted onto the page.  The system changed how you'll now read the full posting.

    UPDATE --- I just spent 40 minutes reformatting the pages below and after saving the page it's better but not where it needs to be. The systems and structure did not empower me to supply you with the best outcome...and I'm going swimming...If you'd like to see the charts go to paidtothink.com. I've giving them all away no charge.

    David

  • David Goldsmith

    FULL EXCERPT LESS GRAPHICS  SHOULD CLARIFY POINTS
    Rethink Your View that Employees Are the
    Most Important Part of Your Organization

     

    Over the years, I’ve heard many decision makers say that people are the most impor- tant part of their organization. While I agree that good organizations are made up of great people doing great work and that employees play an extremely important role in the success of any organization, the idea that people are the most important part of an organization is a wrong assumption that can actually hinder the people it intends to credit. We’ve all seen firsthand how even the most talented people turn in substandard performance if they don’t have the systems and structures they need to excel in their work. Therefore, if you make this assumption and are willing to rethink it, you can more readily capture opportunities to empower your people to achieve more successes within your organization!

    Imagine that you’re a rookie race car driver sitting behind the wheel of a minivan. On the racetrack next to you is Mario Andretti, revving the engine of his high- performance race car. You’re thinking there’s no way for you—a rookie driver, and in a minivan, no less—to win against one of the world’s all-time Formula One winning race car drivers. But what if Andretti’s car has no tires? Without the complete vehicle—the necessary structure—then all of Andretti’s skill and experience goes unrealized.
    In order to gain the successes that come from talent and skill, your systems and structures must be in place. The systems and structures include everything from
    computers, tools, and equipment to the rules, regulations, laws, procedures, and
    policies that govern how your staff works within your organization. These systems don’t always have to be elaborate; they just have to be appropriate. For example, in 2011, Boeing relocated passengers’ flight attendant call buttons in their new 737 aircrafts away from reading-light buttons.17 The seemingly small change is anticipated to reduce the number of unnecessary trips that flight attendants will have to make down the aisles of planes in response to typically apologetic customers who mistakenly press their call buttons rather than their reading-light buttons. Similarly, replace a hairstylist’s dull scissors
    with sharp ones and the stylist can produce better haircuts in less time. Conversely, take away the cameras from a film crew, and you’re going to shut down production quickly.

    Having the appropriate systems and structures in place is one of the most effective ways
    of bringing out the best talents and highest productivity of your people. Yet it’s one of the most ignored factors in organizations today. When leaders see dipping productivity levels and low morale, they often want to address personnel and personality issues, an attempted
    solution known as “hugging and kissing” your people. The hugging-and-kissing approach typically yields only temporary relief, if it solves anything at all. Then conditions return to the same or get worse. Instead of fixing the real challenges, these leaders have missed the mark altogether (and they’ve wasted time, money, and resources in the process).

    Think back to the lead-in example at the beginning of this chapter; as was the case
    with Sheila (the manager of a global workforce who improved productivity when she shifted her focus away from her employee and onto the task of upgrading his computer), when you encounter problems with employee performance or morale issues, a good rule of thumb is to check your systems and structures first, before you assume that issues stem from your people. If you don’t, you might just be spinning your wheels.
    I encountered one such instance years ago, when a prominent U.S. government agency hired me, along with many other speakers, to give a series of speeches as part of leadership’s plan to motivate their employees. During a pre-event phone call with a woman who would be in my audience, I discovered a major problem. She grumbled in frustration that her computer was down again and complained how all the computers would
    go down for two to three hours every day. Once the computers, referred to as “ticking time bombs,” were up and running, employees could return to work, but they were still expected
    by supervisors to get all their work done in the shorter amount of time. This complaint was reiterated by employees in one interview after another.
    Decision makers had good intentions when they invested in motivational programs, but like so many leaders, they hadn’t considered how their people were in need of bet-
    ter systems and structures. Perhaps you can look back on situations in your past where a fix to a computer system or other structural issue could have done more to improve morale than a direct attempt to “fix” people. If, after the systems and structures are remedied, leaders still have issues, then leadership would be wise to address morale, but not before.
    Another example is one I read about in an article in the Wall Street Journal, about
    the struggles that meteorologists in India experienced when they were trying
    to forecast weather conditions with outdated equipment. H. R. Hatwar, the head of India’s meteorological department, was responsible for delivering accurate forecasts for every sort of weather condition, including droughts, monsoons, and typhoons. The country’s 600 million farmers (18% of the nation’s GDP) were relying on him.
    Yet it was not uncommon to see Hatwar using tools from 1950, such as paper charts and graphs, to predict the weather in the twenty-first century. Errors were of national concern, because Hatwar and his staff ’s inaccuracies had the potential to shave 2% of annual growth from the GDP and impact the fate of the farmers and the billions of people they fed.18 In this case, however, the powers that be recognized the system error. To improve forecasting, India’s government planned to invest $620 million to establish a thou-
    sand automated weather stations and two thousand precipitation stations nation- wide, measures that empowered Hatwar and his team to be able to make new and better forecasts.

    Systems really can make the difference. In fact, the presence of a supportive system is
    one reason why decision makers who leave major corporations don’t always succeed when they start their own businesses. Many have been so accustomed to a support
    system that gave them what they needed to be successful, that they either flounder or must invent new systems and structures to maximize their skills once again.

    The Goldsmith Productivity Principle

    Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto put forth the notion of the vital few in 1906,19 when he observed that 20% of the population owned 80% of the wealth. Ninety-two years later, investor and entrepreneur Richard Koch authored The 80/20 Principle,20 a book based on an adaptation of Pareto’s concept, whereby Koch stated that “80% of output comes from 20% of inputs, not only in the business world, but also in virtually every aspect of life.”
    I’ve taken Koch’s idea one step further to form the Goldsmith Productivity Principle (GPP), which states that 80% of an organization’s ability to compete and perform is driven by its systems and structures, and only 20% is by its people. Doubt the percentages here? Accepting the exact numbers doesn’t matter as much as understanding the concept right now, because in time, you’ll probably see that the 80% is actually higher in most instances.
    Certainly, people are essential, but if yours got locked out of your building tomorrow, even the highest performers would struggle to achieve.
    In the visual representation of the GPP, shown in Figure 2.2, the largest boxed area represents this 80% that influences your productivity. Once you have determined that you have given your people the necessary tools they need to achieve success, you can directly address any personnel issues, shown as the larger inset box in the diagram. This
    20% should be assessed and assisted only after running a check on their systems.
    I want you to pause for a moment and consider what you have just read, because
    while many decision makers quickly “get it” and start seeing the GPP everywhere—
    at work, at home, during civic and religious services, at social events—others still hold on to the belief that the 80% is too high a figure to assign to systems and structures or they think they already have the best systems in place and don’t need to improve in this area. Moreover, leaders often blame others for mediocre output, when in reality, the blame lies with the leader’s mediocre systems and structures that cap the potential of individuals and
    organizations.
    To become a catalyst for progress and achievement, you may need to rethink some
    of your current beliefs and be willing to trade your opinions for new ways of thinking. Eventually, even the initial resisters come on board once they learn about ET and its activities; they realize that 80% may even be a conservative figure, and they also recognize that great opportunities can be mined from improving systems and structures.
    All people need the tools to succeed, even you. Imagine losing your computer and access to any data for a month. What would your productivity levels become? Often I hear from leaders that they’d accomplish nothing. That little box is a part of the systems and structures you need to be productive and successful.
    That said, I’m not proposing that more structure versus less structure will auto- matically produce your desired returns; this isn’t a more versus less issue. What you need is the right structure—that you or you and your management build—to secure the best talent and keep it continually performing optimally.
    Here’s an important part of the GPP to note. Take a look at the smallest inset box in the diagram. This is a subgroup of decision makers—you and other decision makers—who create the GPP’s 80%, the systems and structures. (The diagram’s separation of you from other people in your organization does not mean that you are more important than
    your engineers, designers, or customer service representatives; it just indicates that you play a different role.)You are building the systems and structures from the 50,000-foot view. The larger the picture you see, the better your systems are likely to be, because you have a better understanding of how a decision applied to one area of the organization affects another area. However, not all leaders fulfill this responsibility and follow the GPP. In fact, in instances where leadership fails to create the systems and structures, some-one who is not in leadership is apt to build the systems and structures simply out of necessity to succeed. But without this staff member having the big picture, his or her well-intentioned systems and structures are unlikely to be as effective as they could be.
    As you address challenges that arise throughout your organization, keep the GPP
    in mind and remember that you are responsible for delivering and managing the tools, processes, reporting structure, infrastructure, technologies, physical space, geographic location, and so on to enable the organization and its people to func- tion successfully.
    Only after this 80%—the systems and structures—has been fully addressed, can you then plug your people into the GPP, optimize the returns of your staff ’s collective effort, and redirect your attention to your purpose: thinking and planning for the future.

    Rethink the Notion That Micromanagement Is Bad

    Micromanagement has gotten a bad rap over the years, because it conjures up images
    of the big boss breathing down the necks of hard-working subordinates.But in reality, that’s only one side of micromanagement and is only the case when it isn’t executed properly. It’s time to rethink the opinion that all micromanagement is this in-your-face type of suffocation that smothers people and decreases their abilities to perform optimally.
    In reality, micromanagement can be one of the most effective ways to increase performance. In addition, there are some environments where micromanagement
    through systems and structures are necessary to ensure specific outcomes and safety. In the stereotypical, negative view, the word “micromanagement” makes us think of leaders who are so engrossed in the daily doings of their subordinates that they get in everyone’s way and don’t get their own work done. By filling their days with tasks that belong in someone else’s daily planner, these micromanagers fail to give ample time to their own responsibilities like thinking, strategizing, and moving their organizations forward. In
    this scenario, micromanaging efforts ultimately hurt the organization on multiple
    levels, not the least of which may be employees, volunteers, or other group members reacting negatively to feelings of frustration and needless pressure resulting from the constant monitoring. This means that neither the micro- managing boss nor the subordinates are performing as optimally as they could.
    By contrast, when leaders have the right mental tools to be effective microman- agers, they are able to direct their organization’s people and resources in the direction of shared goals. Effective micromanagement through setting structure, developing strategy and plans, creating reliable systems for others, and teaching people how to be independent thinkers can actually empower others to do their jobs with little involvement from you at all. Yet truthfully, they are being micromanaged; they just don’t feel it, because you’re not in their faces.
    Micromanagement isn’t always a choice. You may be entrenched in an indus-
    try or sector that requires a certain degree of micromanagement, so the question
    isn’t whether or not you micromanage; it is how to do it correctly. Leadership in toxic waste
    or medical waste-management facilities must follow strict procedures to ensure
    the safety of their staffers, customers, and the general public.
    For decision makers, striking the right balance between being involved and let- ting
    others work independently can be a challenge. Regardless of your organization’s circumstances, following the GPP is how you effectively micromanage your organization’s people and resources to achieve desired outcomes. Build an environment of systems, structures, tools, equipment, etc. to support the talents and skills of your people, and you will earn their trust, gain their cooperation, and increase their pro- ductivity levels. When micromanagement is done right, you are able to achieve the results your organization needs to grow and survive.
    Here’s an example of micromanagement done right according to the GPP. Think about when you drive on the highway; do you feel micromanaged? Most likely you feel pretty independent. You select your destination and the vehicle you’ll use to get there. You also determine the vehicle’s air temperature, whether you’ll listen to music, who your passengers are, and what type of car you’ll drive. But if you look closer, you are actually very micromanaged. You mustdrive on predetermined roads, streets, and ramps. You must maintain certain speeds. You must pass only in predesignated passing zones. In some areas, you must pay a toll for using the road. However, you don’t resent being micromanaged, and you don’t feel that you’re constantly running into roadblocks due to the micromanagement, because the road system enables you to reach your targeted
    destinations, much like systems help your staffers to reach their targeted goals.

  • thefirstdiggit

    In my humble opinion, we are ignoring the elephant in the room. The majority of those under 30 yrs. old are from the fuzzie "no loser" public ed. system. I find that it is not so much maturity as responsibility they are lacking. These individuals don't take ownership of the task at hand. I recommend you state expectations in writing as well as verbally. Then encourage feedback but do not encourage feedback that was not thought through such as calls every set back. I would state I wish to hear a solution for every problem then approve or give a different solution you prefer. You will discover who is trainable.

  • Srini

    Without getting into "right" or "wrong" definitions, I think the key is how to balance your managerial and leadership roles irrespective of your title. You get to the extremes on either side, you are overindulging and being ineffective. BALANCE is the key.

  • Suzanne Levison

    Micromanage the systems and structures, not the people..Micromanagement of people creates turnover which is VERY costly

  • Seenitagain

    Having systems and structures in place is imperative to a good working environment from my experience working with both. I agree with most, this is not micromanaging, it is the right way to manage by giving everyone the opportunity to develop from within the system, (check-out Gerbers's E-Myth Revised). In today's fast pace, multitasking environment, systems and structures are vital and it always surprises me when certain large organizations are still operating from the seat for their pants.

    Micromanaging is negative and goes no where. It is usually found that the person micromanaging  is incompetent and complaining that they can't get their own work done. It's really a waste of everyone's time to be micromanaged.

  • jheuristic

    Utter nonsense. For example, who builds, operates great "systems and structures?"  Great people! This is dangerous material. Beware. You are conflating management with leadership. That's always deadly. We don't want or need anymore dopey MBA-style claptrap. <gag> Hard to believe this garbage still exists in the 21st Century. It's pathetic, in my opinion. Comparing narcissictic, self-absorbed, passive-agressive, obsessive-compulsive micromanagers to basic traffic rules-of-the-road is patently absurd. Good grief. -j</gag>

  • Jimsteenland

    This simply sounds like a micromanager trying to justify his managment style.

    If a manager does not allow the creativity of their people to flourish then they are loosing out, and creativity never flourishes under a micromanager.

  • Calvin Joel Koepke

    I would argue that what you are describing is simply what management should be, and that micro-managing is negative. But really, we're all just debating definitions. Great article nonetheless. 

  • Kim

    I have to disagree also. People are the most important aspect to success. While systems and infrastructure are vitally important, it's people who create the systems and infrastructure. You need both.  Without people, great ideas don't get implemented. Heck, without people, great ideas do not emerge because it's people who have the great ideas. When you drill down to the very core ingredient, you will find that people are at the root. 

  • Sabrtooth

    I have to disagree. What the author is describing is normal management, if you're not setting up structure and routine for your employees, then you're not doing a job at all as a manager.

    Merriam Webster: to manage especially with excessive control or attention to details

    Micromanagement is indeed, something that should be shunned. You've hired a staff for their expertise and should let them use it. That's not saying they should not be guided in their work toward the best outcome for the company/project.

  • Jill Malleck

    I love the focus on a systems framework, which as you pointed out is often the underlying cause of low productivity and low morale. Interestingly, many of your readers may think "I'll just change the structure", since most new leaders reorganize their departments within 2 years of taking them on. Research shows that simply reorganizing doesn't yield the productivity gains you expect. Instead of organizing around workflow, organize around decisions. Your example of driving is a good one. The system allows me to make the decisions I need to make to drive safely and efficiently. You have picked up on the prevalence of our Value toward independance, and micromanaging is of course related to that. We even hate the word because it feels stiffling and controlling. Managers control resources, and leaders lead people. The term Human Resources has hurt our ability to see regular contact between people (leader and subordinate) as healthy and productive. If you are meeting regularly with your staff, at least once a week even virtually, they know that you are interested in their work and that their contribution has meaning. Some leaders avoid all contact in interest of empowerment, but too much autonomy is often interpreted as "no one even notices I exist."