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Thursday, November 01, 2007

Managing Through the Micromanaging Myth

It is the ultimate derogatory comment among the 20-somethings in your workforce. It has replaced race and gender slurs as the lowest form of workplace insult. To be labeled a micro-manager carries with it a level of disdain somewhere just above sexual harasser. It is also largely a myth and an excuse wielded by some on your staff who lack the experience to know mentoring from meddling. That so many middle managers (and higher) buy into this corporate urban myth is disappointing; but it will one day go the way of all other ill-conceived management fads. Let me go out on a limb here and call out that labelling your supervisor as a micro-manager is a handy tool to escape supervision and accountability and that buying into it as a supervisor cheats your new hires out of needed coaching.

The theory of the micro-manager is simple; close supervision is equal to a lack of confidence in the person you supervise and is therefore poor leadership. Moreover, if you've selected someone for your team in whom you can't place complete trust from the minute they walk in the door you must not know how to recruit and must be hiring substandard talent. And, the smear goes further to tarnish members of your team, for only second-rate talent would work for a micro-manager. If the micro-management crosses demographic lines, it has been used as an indication of demographic bias ("you don't trust me because I'm a...").

And what exactly is micro-management?

While not clearly defined (more in eyes of the beholder), it is generally understood as direction from a supervisor that is more detailed than the general goals and expectations of the work assigned. Giving work instructions that are detailed in nature, holding regular follow-up sessions, asking pointed questions as to the "how" rather than the more general "how's it going?" are all hallmarks of the micro-manager.

There is another, older term for this type of reprehensible behavior: being a good teacher.

By buying into the myth of micro-management we focus completely on the perspective of the young staffer for whom close supervision may pinch. The myth conveniently ignores the perspective from the head of the business unit or department. What "not" being a micro-manager requires of these poor souls is to give an inexperienced person with limited maturity a moderately complex task and then trust them to accomplish it without asking how. Remember also that these poor middle management souls are ultimately responsible for the results of their business unit, so they don't have the luxury of telling their boss that it was the fault of someone below them on their staff. They should simply trust their least experienced and last hired to deliver results that insure the middle manager's future mortgage payments. What a deal!
To be sure, over-supervision of the wrong people kills morale. You can't supervise everyone equally, and certainly after your people are trained and know your expectations you should do yourself a favor and get out of their way. However, your experienced staff are not the ones throwing around the "m" word; its your 20-somethings. What they lack is the experience to see that keeping you out of the "how" of their work reduces your personal investment of time in their training and cheats them out of the benefit of your experience.

So my admonition, gentle supervisor, is simply this; plan, delegate, follow-up on, and teach your last hired. When the m-word rolls off their tongue let it roll off your back. Millennials need a softer, warmer touch, so do it with a smile but do it nonetheless. Think back on the supervisors you had who taught you the most and put that kind of investment in your newbies, even if they don't appreciate it now.