Micromanagement breeds misery. Managers that do it wind up frustrating their employees and leaving even the most talented discouraged from doing their best. Yet one reason many leaders rise up the ranks is because they’re good at taking control and making sure jobs are done right. Pulling back and delegating can be a real challenge.
Few managers and business leaders would disagree that their employees are capable people–that’s why they hired them in the first place. But actually treating your staff with the trust you feel for them starts with being able to recognize when you’re overstepping. Here are five common warning signs that you’re micromanaging, followed by some simple techniques to help you step back without relinquishing your oversight.
Employees might put it delicately (which can make it easy to miss), but if they communicate that you’re the cause of a delay, you’re probably in too deep. “We’re waiting for your approval to send this over” might not sound like a big deal, but it could be the sticking point that’s putting projects behind schedule.
When you’re asking to make a decision, don’t just evaluate the item itself. Try to take a step back and ask whether it’s a decision you should be making in the first place. Can one or more of your team members make that call just as well on their own? What gave the impression that authority rests solely with you on this issue? Reflecting this way can help you determine whether there’s something you’ve done or failed to do that might have disempowered your employees.
Few managers are fortunate enough to feel completely thrilled by their team’s performance 100% of the time, but if you’re finding yourself regularly let down by your employees’ output, you might also be at fault. Chances are you hired those on your team because you knew they could do the job. Clearly something is preventing them from doing it well–and it could be that you’re a human quagmire of perfectionism.
Instead of wracking your brain for solutions to the issues you see as problematic, take a moment to consider the big picture. Have you (intentionally or otherwise) set unreasonable standards or communicated unclear expectations? Try to determine whether there’s anything about your directives or leadership style that’s making your team members feel overly cautious or unsure of themselves, since that can lead them to try and do things the way they think you want them, even if that’s not always the best way.
At one company I worked for, all-staff calls were a tediously ceremonial ordeal, with way too many people participating. At my current company, I tried to take the reverse approach by handling those meetings myself. I thought I was keeping things focused, but in fact I’d created an equally undesirable situation: There wasn’t enough participation, and employees were telling me they wanted more clarity. Fortunately, my team brought that to my attention by asking questions about things I was forgetting to address.
As a manager, sometimes you need to step out of the spotlight so others can step into it. Now I let the people leading each major organizational unit handle most of our all-staff calls. The goal is to communicate trust in your team; if you can’t, it will stop operating like one.
In my own experience, becoming a CEO has changed the weight of my opinions in unexpected ways. As a midlevel manager, I was relatively bound; there were people above and below me in the chain of command holding me accountable from both ends. That helped me express my opinions strongly and freely. Now that I’m CEO, I’ve noticed there are far fewer checks and balances on me. When I express an opinion, what once would have been taken as, “This is what I think—feel free to consider it” now means much more.
That lesson doesn’t just apply to CEOs. Depending on the hierarchies in your organization, your two cents, causally tossed out, might be received as an official command–whether or not that’s your intention. Make sure you’re clear that an opinion or half-baked idea is only that, and you trust your team to consider it and go their own way. There might also be situations where it’s best to withhold your own impressions in order to let your employees confidently chart a way forward on their own.
Needless to say, there are times when you do need to step in as a leader. If a decision involves business fundamentals, a significant hunk of money, or enterprise-wide problems, it’s probably a task for managers and execs to sort out. In those scenarios, simply communicate with your team the reason why you’re taking control, as well as which pieces of the puzzle they’re still responsible for.
CEOs in particular are tasked with creating and communicating business goals, which have to be founded on company principles. This can’t be delegated. For example, consider the open letter United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz issued shortly after taking the helm. That sincere pledge to employees and customers couldn’t have come from anyone else on the team.
They say that if you give someone a fish, they’ll be fed for a day, but if you teach them how to fish, they’ll be fed for life. That lesson still holds true for leaders at risk of micromanaging. Don’t let your own ideas or your perfectionism prevent people from learning from mistakes.
I was once tasked with organizing a conference series and was struggling to drive attendance to our Washington, D.C., event that was comparable to those we were running in other cities. My boss at the time could have stepped in and told me to do a simple audience analysis, but instead he let me make the mistake and realize it myself. That was a lesson I didn’t soon forget.
Ultimately, a “default to autonomy” culture benefits everyone: the CEO, managers, employees, and the bottom line. Recognize that as a manager, other people are better at their jobs than you are–and have 40 hours a week to do them, which you don’t. Getting out of their way helps them do their work better and faster, and leaves them feeling more confident, not just in their own roles but in the company’s success. If that isn’t great management, I’m not sure what is.
Baron Schwartz is the founder and CEO of VividCortex. He is one of the world’s leading experts on MySQL and has helped build and scale some of the largest web, social, gaming, and mobile properties. Follow him on Twitter at @xaprb.