Initially, I was not an exceptionally good manager, and my improvement and learning journey continues today. However, I learned important leadership lessons from my first managerial roles. I am grateful to all those I’m privileged to work with, but among the most memorable are members of the earliest teams I led.
Like many, I was promoted because I exceeded technically. I was developing in my craft, and change agents and executives gained value from my work. Strategies were set, learning curriculums were introduced, and managerial and organizational practices improved. Despite my training and observation in human resources and organization development, I was unprepared for managing people.
My desire to deliver excellent products and services was high back in those early days of managing, and that remains unchanged. I set high bars for delivering outstanding work and am thrilled to work with talented people. I have realized that most people share a similar commitment to performance and quality, and skilled managers and leaders discover how to release and realize co-worker potential. The lessons shared in this article might help you avoid some of the traps that derailed me and slowed teamwork.
Lessons Learned from Micro-Managing
While this lesson list could expand, the factors described here were critical in shifting my approaches to leading others. As I changed, my effectiveness increased, as did my teams’ contributions to their clients and groups.
Stop seeking perfection. Working as an individual contributor, you and your boss are in charge of setting standards for work services and products. The best managers take time to understand what others need to succeed. As a new manager, I wanted to help my colleagues replicate the technical successes I had, and many tried and did better. Since I found perfection in my work, I assumed it was best until I realized that there are “many” bests. Great managers value the differences that team members bring and do their best to lead by developing others’ strengths.
Step away from the need to know everything. Knowing everything is an illusion, and having more information doesn’t lead to success. It’s better to listen and know what to ask to increase personal and team effectiveness. When working as an individual contributor, you become intimately familiar with many aspects of a client system. You get to know what makes some tick and what slows progress for others. As a manager with increasing responsibilities, the ability to know everything diminishes. Honesty and transparency are antidotes to the I-need-to-know-everything trap. When you open up and demonstrate curiosity, everyone gains.
Reduce reliance on clocks and coat racks. New managers are often good clock-watchers. My first managerial role was in a global consulting firm, where competition for advancement to partner roles was intense and fierce. My manager’s guidance and the firm’s guidance to aspiring talent were to show up at work earlier than anyone (particularly the client) and be the last person to leave the building. Additional success was demonstrated by sustaining long workdays, frequently in close contact with team members for 14- and 15-hour days. These workdays contributed to my observations on clocks and coat racks. You don’t need to see your team members to be confident that they are doing fantastic work.
End monitoring to begin learning. Micromanagers are great at interrogation. They display their smarts by asking questions that undermine effective performance. It’s more important to weigh what counts than count activities. I am not encouraging you to overlook checklists and status reports important to team management but asking that you pay equal measure to performance (how) and results (what).
Don’t hang onto responsibilities. It’s easy, when micromanaging, to be responsible for everything. Sometimes, I worry when I hear someone say, “the buck stops with me.” Of course, we encounter individual heroic efforts in organizations on rare occasions, but most extraordinary or transformative work happens due to teamwork. Can-do managers operate in possibilities and results. Able managers empower others to act.
Minimize activity reporting. Micromanagers like to meet with employees and review activity lists. In my case, it started with requests for frequent reporting and migrated to requests for bi-weekly reports. Despite telling my direct reports to submit their recaps in formats that worked for them, my requests slowed relationship building. When I moved from blending descriptions from “what” to more “wow and how,” my abilities to inspire others to reach new performance levels increased.
No selling, telling, or yelling. I’m no longer sure of the origin of this expression, “no telling, no yelling, no selling.” The phrase, often heard in learning and development communities, provides instruction on designing learning events. In many cases, it seems to have equal relevance in managing others to produce extraordinary results.
Don’t neglect vision and values. Micromanagers are often so focused on producing results to impress superiors that they fail to describe organizational vision and team values. Most work operates from a set of values, shaping daily interactions within organizations. The absence of values promotes an anything goes and succeed-at-all-costs culture. Values guide behaviors, and it’s vital to have those at the forefront of managerial activity.
Failure and learning are related. When teams and individuals can fail fast, knowledge increases the potential for innovation and value creation. Micromanagers are so busy at succeeding that they fail to take advantage of learning from failure. When they fail to create followers but perhaps gain traction with senior bosses, it all comes at a cost.
Making a move to Increase Managerial Effectiveness
Increased unnecessary conflict. Burnout. Undesirable turnover. Decreased trust. Reduced creativity. These outcomes are typical in micromanaged teams. Developing a reputation as a micromanager will limit your career growth and opportunity. As a new or developing manager, get feedback on your leadership approaches. Ask your team members, as well as others who benefit from your team’s work, for feedback and coaching.
It’s crucial to develop recognition of micromanaging early. The transitions to more effective managerial practices stem from critical reflections on personal needs to control work. The late psychologist, William Schutz, identified that interpersonal relationships were influenced by needs for affection, control, and inclusion. Schutz determined that if we understand more about our control needs and wants, insights from those observations can contribute to greater self-esteem, responsibility, choice, and freedom. For me, putting those insights into action increased my managerial skill.
If you are a developing leader, make sure to ask for feedback. Getting feedback at critical career transitions can accelerate managerial effectiveness. If you’re coaching a micromanager, work on delegation and varying reporting techniques as two starting points for client growth. If you’re a people leader, work to ensure that your culture supports autonomy, growth, and development. All of us can be about the business of creating organizations where people can do their best work.