Bennett's Blog

Micromanagement is the enemy of Leadership

Bennett R. Coles | January 21, 2011

One of the most powerful abilities that all our modern information technology gives us is the ability to know. At the click of a mouse or the tap of a screen, we can summon information on more subjects than we could ever appreciate. This is generally perceived as a good thing - and in general I agree - but it is actually becoming a very bad thing in organizations.

When I started my working career - and I'm in my 30's, just to quell the inevitable, wheezy "back in my day" comments - there were only a few ways the boss would keep an eye on things. To get a general sense, the best was to walk around and talk to staff. For a specific question there was the phone (which was only useful if the recipient was actually at their desk). And for broad-reaching yet specific information gathering there were physical meetings and written reports. These were the options, and they worked just fine. Jobs got done, targets were met, objectives accomplished.

Since the rise of email, cell phones and the internet, however, the trend over the past 15 years is for bosses to want more and more specific information more and more often. "Just cc me on the email you send out" is a seemingly-innocent phrase fraught with peril. This phrase, and the entire philosophy that goes behind it, has led to two very real and very dangerous trends:

1) bosses think they need to know every detail, at every level
2) bosses get nervous if any decision is made without their direct input

What does this all too often lead to? Bosses who are stressed because they are overworked and overwhelmed, and employees who are either frustrated because they aren't allowed to make decisions on their own, or resigned to the intellectual sandbox because they never have to think independently or make the hard choices.

This is micromanagement. And our tech-heavy society is creating bosses who are so used to having every detail at their fingertips that many don't know how to delegate and let go. To hear a CEO brag about how he likes to catch out his managers on some detail doesn't impress me - it makes me think what a bad leader that CEO is. If he doesn't trust his managers he shouldn't have hired them, and if he loves the details he probably shouldn't have taken a job as CEO.

Micromanagement is about as far from real leadership as you can get. Real leadership is based on a few key principles, the biggest of which is trust. A leader MUST trust his or her subordinates, because the leader has far more important things to worry about that the little details. The first step toward trust is not looking over your subordinate's shoulder every time they do something. The second step is giving your subordinates a certain degree of autonomy to make decisions on their own without checking with you first. Trust is easy to talk about in a management seminar, but it can be hard to implement in real life. It can be hard to let someone else make a decision that might not be exactly what you'd do. It can be hard to let go and just hope that the best result will emerge. But it is possible, and it is the first step toward true leadership. The other benefits of happy employees, better productivity and a genuinely innovative environment will come naturally from that. All micromanagement brings is stress, distrust, redundancy and high turnover.

So switch off your Blackberry on the weekend. Delegate routine decisions. And above all, don't ask to be cc'd on that email.

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