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]

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1 Comments

  • Carol

    Terrible article. Micromanagement is NEVER the answer. If a manager needs to resort to micromanaging it's employees - it's time for a change -that is, either get rid of the employees or the manager. Employees NEVER response to micromanagement in a positive way because micromanagement is the admission by a manager/company that it has no faith in the work force. Glad I don't work for you.