The conclusion drawn from many of the raft of management books published in the last 20 years is that micromanagement is bad. They say, empower your employees and give them the freedom to explore, own the problem, deliver and sometimes, fail. Don’t watch over their shoulders and don’t try to jump in and fix problems as soon as you see them. Hands-off management leads to success.
Ideally, this is a great idea. There’s is nothing like the fire that develops in someone when they have the freedom to achieve big goals under their own stewardship. The problem is that not all people can handle high levels of independence at all times. Sometimes, they need help – often, when they don’t even know they need it. At these times, if a manager continues to manage them loosely, it is likely that they will ultimately fail, hurting themselves and negatively impacting the group’s productivity. It’s at these times that good managers step up and get more involved in what the employee is doing, often turning to micromanagement as the correct tool for the situation.
The universal fear of micromanagement comes from stories of almost legendary failures associated with overbearing, in-your-face managers who feel that knowledge and control equate to power. These managers have to have more power than anyone else on their team to feel like they’re doing their job. For sure, this is a huge management issue that frequently leads to under-performing teams. It is not, however, the only characteristic of poor management. Here are a few others:
- Timidity - the manager is afraid to actively engage with the people and projects in their group
- Uniform style - the manager treats everyone and everything the same way, in every situation
- Inability to read employees or the situation - the manager has little-to-no perception about what’s going on with the people that work for him/her or the situation they’re in
This is, obviously, not a complete list, but it’s indicative of the set of managerial problems that are founded in a manager’s inability to detect and anticipate needs for managerial focus and to apply the needed effort accordingly. For a manager to be successful, he/she needs to be able to determine the needs of each of the people and projects that they are managing and adjust their style and level of attention to meet those needs. My complete weakness for four-quadrant charts leads me to think about this situation as follows:
Generally speaking, if an employee has loads of experience and is a high performer, the manager should give that employee a lot of freedom, simply checking on progress now and again. If an experienced employee is not performing well, however, the manager needs to more closely and actively monitor the employee’s efforts and use that increased attention to try to bolster that employee’s performance.
Inexperienced employees need to be managed in a very different fashion. Those who are high performers need to be given more freedom and room to experiment and, perhaps, experience small failures. The underlying management style should be one of teaching and guiding. These employees don’t enjoy the freedoms of their experienced compatriots, but they still get a lot of freedom. If inexperienced employees are performing poorly, however, the manager needs to virtually remove all freedoms from their environment and babysit the employee by working with them on a task-to-task basis.
Micromanagement, therefore, is needed in the low-experience, low-performance, babysit quadrant and, to some extent, even in the high-experience, low-performance, monitor quadrant. More importantly, the manager’s style needs to be different for each of the four quadrants. Even managers that understand the basics of this need often miss that an experienced employee may need to be closely managed as a result of poor performance. Similarly, an overwhelmed, inexperienced employee can easily slip from being a high-performer to a low-performer, requiring more attention than before.
Managers need to be in tune with what is going on with each person on their team and adjust their style and effort accordingly. Sometimes, micromanagement is the right management tool for the job at hand. It should, of course, be used sparingly and it’s primary motivation should be to move the employee into a quadrant that gives them more freedom to learn and excel.