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Your urge to micromanage is actually the result of bad communication

A forensic interviewer explains that micromanagers are often leaders who fear they’ve lost control of their workers, so they double down.

Your urge to micromanage is actually the result of bad communication
[Source photo: quickshutter/iStock]
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The coronavirus has dispersed company workforces, sending previously in-person teams to work remotely. Leaders can no longer manage by wandering around or relying on happenstance run-ins, so many have shifted their management styles to scale new coordination and communication hurdles. Less face-to-face interaction—combined with the greater effort required for even basic check-ins—leaves some managers feeling out of touch, as well as out of control.

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Some leaders resort to extremes to regain that control, resulting in micromanagement. As a professional behavior analyst and a certified forensic interviewer, I’ve worked with organizations around the globe to help their teams and leaders function their best through research-based strategies. I’ve seen that the solutions to our “people problems” rely on understanding how our brains work.

When leaders feel a lack of control, they need to address their underlying emotions and create clarity in emotionally and socially intelligent ways. We should recognize that our brains form stories around our observations. For instance, if my employees aren’t doing what I ask, my brain may create a hypothesis that I’ve lost control. Then I might jump in to micromanage the team so I can search for evidence to rationalize my fear.

To combat the tendency to react rather than respond intelligently, successful leaders recognize that they need to stop seeking more and more information to make better decisions for their teams. Instead, they should focus on creating a clear vision of where the team’s going, provide the road map, and trust the team to drive the right vehicles to reach that goal.

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Create clarity in communication

From a neuroscience perspective, the brain constantly seeks clarity. A lack of clarity paralyzes a team and creates the conditions for less creativity and less ownership over work, while clarity creates confident execution of roles. Leaders don’t have to define exactly “how” a team should operate, but they need to know, along with communicate with each other, on what success looks like.

Leaders can create clarity by first assessing the team’s clarity on their vision. Measure whether everyone understands the end goal through team feedback. Ask, “What did you hear when I outlined the vision? Where do you see us going?” so that team members articulate the vision themselves. The answers reveal either alignment or the need to refine your message. Hammer home the vision every time you meet with the team, This is where we’re headed. Your job is deciding how we’ll get there.

Research by Alex “Sandy” Pentland, founder of MIT Connection Science, shows that one highly predictive factor of a team’s collective intelligence is the level of information flow. Clear communication is paramount to a team’s success, and micromanagement bottlenecks the process. When team members don’t have clarity, the metabolic load on their brains increases, paralyzing them. And when a team loses the ability to share different experiences and perspectives, the group’s IQ declines.

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Build shared consciousness on the team

We often associate functional teams with high levels of trust, but it’s important to consider what we mean by “trust.” Trust is really the brain’s way of measuring safety, or whether you have a consistent, predictable, positive outcome when collaborating with someone. If you do, you’ll say you trust them. But in organizations, “trust” can also put colleagues at cross-purposes. Building a team really requires creating “shared consciousness.”

This means that team members need to understand one another’s strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots and how to complement them accordingly. That understanding sets off a dance among teammates in which they unconsciously shift and coordinate because they know each other well. They also need to form collective commitment by understanding the downstream impact on the team when they drop the ball. Arriving at that shared consciousness requires rewarding and promoting successful teamwork rather than individual accomplishments.

Improve negotiating across teams

The truth is, we’re often bad at negotiating because it can be difficult to identify and articulate what we need. But negotiation can promote communication, problem-solving, and win-win conflict resolution in the workplace, so these are skills everyone should harness. To encourage negotiation, it’s important to create a safe space for employees to communicate with leadership and provide feedback, which leads to better negotiation on both sides. Employees need to be able to safely negotiate with their managers for more freedom and autonomy. Leaders need to negotiate for more information so they can grant that freedom.

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I’ve coached my teammates to understand that I’m fine with having a high-level understanding, but for me to maintain strategic sensitivity, I have to get the right information from them. To access enough information without micromanaging, I communicate the impact of my having the necessary information. (For example: “I need a status update so I can communicate to a client.”) Asking for what we need also requires contextualizing that need, and both require practice. Negotiating successfully requires everyone to be comfortable to state what they want and need and to know that others will hear and understand them.

A leader’s job is to enable their team to execute. Recognize that getting there is a journey. Use stages to show employees how to successfully operate; give newer teammates the most oversight and back off over time. The goal of a leader is not to exercise control but to guide employees toward empowered execution.


Kerry Goyette is the president of Aperio Consulting Group, a corporate consulting firm that utilizes workplace analytics and implements research-based strategies to build high-performance cultures. She is also the author of  The Non-Obvious Guide to Emotional Intelligence.