“Micromanagement” is a dirty word in today’s workplaces. Bosses who intervene too often or too extensively in their subordinates’ activities get a bad reputation, and most forward-thinking organizations have come to value employee autonomy more than oversight. Research shows that people have strong negative emotional and physiological reactions to unnecessary or unwanted help and that it can erode interpersonal relationships. Even the U.S. Army general George S. Patton, a leader in one of the most traditional command-and-control groups in the world, understood the danger of micromanaging: He famously said, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”
Laissez-faire is not what employees need
Managers shouldn’t be completely laissez-faire, however, especially when subordinates aren’t collocated, as is the case for many during the global Covid-19 pandemic. People doing complex work often need more than just superficial advice or encouragement; they need assistance that is both well-timed and appropriate to their issues—and providing it can be challenging without opportunities for serendipitous encounters in a physical office. Extensive research indicates that pervasive helping in an organization correlates with better performance than letting employees go it alone does. So how can you give subordinates the assistance they need without undermining their sense of efficacy and independence?
World Class Culture
Our work with different projects during the past twenty-five years in global companies have yielded important insights into how managers can better assist their employees. As a starting point, your employees need to know that you’re willing to offer help—and they must feel comfortable asking for it. (You could call it an environment of psychological safety).
Additionally, you need to have a baseline understanding of their work and its challenges, as well as time and energy to give. But just how and when should you roll up your sleeves to get involved in employees’ work?
Three steps to become a supportive leader
We’ve uncovered three key strategies for being a hands-on boss without micromanaging: (1) Time your help so it comes when people are ready for it, (2) clarify that your role is to be a helper, and (3) align your involvement—with its intensity and frequency—with people’s specific needs.
Time your help wisely
When involving yourself in your employees’ work, timing matters, but not in the way you might expect. Conventional wisdom suggests that heading off potential issues is the best strategy. We’ve found, however, that the leaders who are viewed as the most helpful don’t try to preempt every problem or dive in as soon as they recognize one. Instead, they watch and listen until they believe their subordinates see the need for help and are ready to listen receptively. They understand that people are more willing to welcome assistance when they’re already engaged in a task or a project and have experienced its challenges firsthand.
In one case we discover, a manager checked in on a shorthanded team and discovered what he felt were fundamental issues with the project’s scope. But rather than jump in right away with assistance or advice, he simply told the project leader, that he was available. He was after that invited to discuss many of the obstacles the team experienced.
What prompts employees to welcome assistance may vary from situation to situation. But we’d counsel managers not to provide input without first allowing those they supervise to gain knowledge of the task and express their views on it. In many cases, a well-timed cure may be better than that ounce of prevention.
Clarify that your role is to help
Even if the timing is right, intervening can go wrong when it isn’t clear why you are getting involved. Managers play a lot of different roles, and their responsibilities include evaluating employees and doling out rewards and sometimes set limits for behavior. This power dynamic can get in the way of effective help. When bosses step in, their involvement can imply that people are messing up in a big way. That’s why employees often hide or downplay issues and fail to solicit guidance. They can become unreceptive to the assistance, defensive, or demoralized, which hinders creativity and performance. Therefore, managers must be careful “not to go in there and create so much anxiety that you’re in a worse spot….It can be like ‘Here’s the boss, and gosh, he’s really unhappy with what we’re doing.’”
Because seeking and receiving help can make people feel so vulnerable, managers need to clarify their roles when intervening in employees’ work. They should explain that they are there to help, not to judge or take over. They need to foster a culture what calls psychological safety—an environment in which interpersonal risks are encouraged.
The importance of this framing is evident to us in our work to create a world class culture. We found that leaders rated as particularly helpful took pains to persuade subordinates that they were stepping in for only one reason: to support their employees’ work.
Align the rhythm of your involvement to people’s needs
To give people useful help, leaders must take the time to fully understand employees’ problems, especially when the issues are thorny. If the work is complex, creative, and cognitively demanding, you’ll need to engage deeply. But that means more than delivering help with the right content. It also means allocating time and attention in a pattern that works for receivers.
Concentrated guidance is required when employees encounter hurdles that can’t be overcome with quick feedback or a few hours of input. In such scenarios, leaders collaborate closely with subordinates in long sessions tightly clustered over a few days. That might sound like the definition of micromanaging. Indeed, bosses who assisted in this way without ensuring that their people were ready for it and without clarifying their helper roles were perceived as taking over. Employees felt undermined, with morale and performance suffering as a result. But when managers instead began with the other strategies we’ve described, this kind of time-intensive deep help was heartily welcomed.
Ask questions, don’t give answers, offer assistants!
In the second form of help, path clearing, leaders help in briefer, intermittent intervals when employees face ongoing problems. For instance, if your team is short-staffed, you might stop by every few days for a half hour or so, to help with whatever needs doing—whether it’s participating in an important client call or simply ordering lunch during a long work session.
Leaders trying this approach shouldn’t underestimate the importance of staying informed about the work. Those who fail to do so can provide only shallow criticism or vague advice when they drop in. So, keep abreast of the issues your employees are facing, and step in when you see roadblocks you can remove.
Our experience suggests that leaders can help their employees in hands-on and meaningful ways—without being accused of micromanaging—if they pay careful attention to timing, articulate their helping role up front, and match the rhythm of their assistance to receivers’ needs. These guidelines are especially important when teams are physically separated, as so many have been during the ongoing pandemic. When workers aren’t collocated, managers are more likely to either check in too frequently and interrupt their colleagues’ flow or fall out of touch and leave employees adrift. People working from home or from any separate location can easily feel isolated, confused, or even abandoned. Thus, being a hands-on manager in such situations is critical; it not only improves employees’ performance but also lets people feel supported and connected.
However, intervening in your team’s work while ignoring any one of our guidelines can render your help ineffective or even harmful—potentially worse than doing nothing. Offering preemptive advice can keep people from seeing its value. Failing to frame your role can allow subordinates to feel threatened and undermined. And using the wrong rhythm—especially not allocating enough time to be an effective guide or path clearer—can lead to superficial or off-target feedback or be perceived as an invasion, engendering cynicism rather than gratitude. You can easily avoid these micromanagement traps, however. Follow the three strategies we’ve outlined and become a boss who truly comes through for employees when they need it most.