Learning to walk the line between micromanagement and leadership
Feeling burnt out at work? If you're in a senior position, it might be because you have micromanagement tendencies and haven't made the transition to a true leader yet.
When I was an artistic director, I’d try and do everything myself. Build the set, write the play, direct the show, be the lead actor. The result? The show sucked, I was exhausted, and my team hated me.
I never got the chance to draw on the expertise of my team, who were objectively MUCH better than me in certain disciplines. And not only that, they wanted to contribute, and wanted things to succeed as much, or more than, I did.
Once I was able to realize that the product would be way better if I could trust my team, I was able to start making changes. But I have a need for control, so it wasn’t immediate, and it wasn’t easy.
Now, I coach teams to help them bring out the best in every team member while increasing fulfillment and performance. I can assure you that if you are struggling with micromanaging — you're not alone.
In a survey by Trinity Solutions, a staggering 79% of people said they had experienced micromanagement in the workplace, and 69% even said they were considering leaving their job because of it.
What's more, 85% of people stated micromanagement was negatively impacting their morale — a statistic that every aspiring leader should take to heart.
And if you're suffering while working for a micromanaging boss, remember this: micromanagement usually doesn't stem from bad intentions. The guilty party usually cares deeply about the work you're doing and they often think they are just trying to help.
Having an open and honest conversation to bring awareness to the negative effects of micromanagement is often enough to help a team start working together to nip it in the bud.
I'll outline below five steps micromanagers can take to make the shift to leader, along with five signs that you've successfully overcome your micromanagement tendencies, so you know when to start celebrating your transition.
Get clear on the negative effects of micromanagement.
Look, the transition from an individual contributor to a manager isn’t just a title change. It’s a fundamental shift in how you approach problems.
As an individual contributor, you were probably damn good at getting shit done, that’s why you got promoted. You worked long hours, did what needed to be done and had total control over the output of your efforts. In F4S’s 20-year study they found that this typically plays out as a high motivation for achievement, power and sole responsibility. Naturally, those attitudes stay with you now that you’re managing.
So, when you get a big new project to complete with your team, you work long hours, you do what needs to be done, and you have total control over the output of your team’s efforts. But, that’s where the problems start.
The reasons you succeeded as an individual contributor will become the reasons you fail as a manager. The habits you’ve developed can make you a micromanager and being a micromanager sucks. It sucks for you, it sucks for your team, and it sucks for your organization.
You’re not an individual contributor anymore, so you need to change how you think. You need to think like a leader. Things need to change.
In order to change, you must first want to change. So, let’s go through why being a micromanager sucks for you, your team and your organization.
- For you: it’s a million times more work. In your attempt to maintain control over everything, you end up doing everything. That’s no bueno. That’s what leads to burn out and you don’t want to burn out, you want to kick-ass.
- For your team: when’s the last time you heard someone say “wow, I really love being micromanaged"? Literally never. People want to be respected, to feel smart, and to feel important. Micromanaging does the opposite. They’ll resent you and do mediocre work, at best.
- For your organization: micromanaging doesn’t create an environment conducive to creativity or innovation. If there’s only room for your ideas and your way of doing things, then new ways of doing things won’t happen. With the world changing at such a rapid pace, organizations need to harness the collective intelligence of everyone we work with to adapt and stay ahead of the curve.
So now that we know why micromanagement sucks and understand where those tendencies come from, we can work on how to fix it, and it starts with understanding yourself.
What do you actually want?
One of the reasons you micromanage could be because of an unconscious (or conscious!) desire to be in control. But we need to look a little bit deeper. What’s your end game here — is it just control?
I don’t think so. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I think you want to kick-ass. But you might believe the only way you know how to kick-ass is to be in control of every single detail, and if that’s how you’ve always done it, why change?
You need to change because your environment has changed. You’re not going to win a long-distance race because you’re good at javelin. But here’s the good news, because you’re good at javelin, you can probably become good at long-distance racing. Maybe not the best in the world, sure, but definitely above average. Why? Because you know how to learn. You weren’t born an excellent javelin thrower, you learned how to become one and in that same way you can learn to become an excellent leader.
Get clear on what success means to you. If it means doing everything your way and getting all the credit, you’re in the wrong role. Sorry, but it’s got to be said — being a manager might not be a good fit for you.
You need to want others to succeed in order to succeed as a leader. It’s no longer about you, it’s about them.
The way that you’ll kick-ass is by supporting your team and enabling them to kick-ass, just like you did when you were an individual contributor, and that means letting go of control. It means trusting them. And that, let me tell you, is some scary stuff.
The opposite of control is trust, and if you want to become a great manager, someone people want to work with you have to move away from control and into the uncertain abyss of trusting others.
Go toward your goals, not away from your fears.
If you’re guilty of micromanagement, you’re working from a place of fear. You’ve been trying to control everything because you’re afraid of what will happen if you don’t.
There's a good chance you rank highly on sole responsibility, power and achievement in F4S. And those attitudes helped you rise up the ranks, but it’s also what is preventing you from being able to trust others, to delegate, and to become a real leader.
To move forward and become a leader, you need to stop focusing on what you don’t want and focus instead on what you do want. And as a manager, you want a high-performing team.
What makes a high-performing team? Ugh. Who knows! Just kidding.
Lucky for us, F4S conducted a 20-year study of the world’s highest performing leaders and their teams. They discovered exactly which motivations at work correlate with success and fulfillment at work, so there’s no more guesswork.
Also, Google conducted a study called Project Aristotle to uncover the secrets of high-performing teams. The result are follows: the most important thing is psychological safety followed by, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning and impact.
The good news is, now you know what to focus on. The bad news is, micromanagement is the antithesis of psychological safety so you’ve got your work cut out for you. But it’s okay, you love a good challenge, and you’ll rise to the task.
We’re here to help and it can also be super useful to hire a coach. Having an outside eye is a faster and more effective way to make change.
The first step toward your goal of building a high-performance team is to create a psychologically safe work environment, and that starts with trust. You trusting your team, and more importantly, your team trusting you.
You need to re-establish trust.
Like it or not, your direct reports pay attention to almost everything you do, and they learn from it. If you nitpick and change every single word of their marketing copy, they’ll learn to stop trying anything new.
If you don’t accept any of their ideas, they’ll learn to stop giving them to you. If you tell them exactly how to do things, down to the smallest detail, they’ll learn to wait for you tell them exactly how to things, down to the last detail.
By acting in this way, you’ve eroded your team’s trust. They don’t trust they can make their own choices or take any risks, because everything must be your way.
Re-establishing trust is not an easy task, but it is possible. You’ve got to lead the charge here and accept that your team will be suspicious at first. Come clean, tell them you know you used to micromanage and that you’re working on fixing it. That’s the first step toward building trust — being honest and showing some vulnerability.
The next steps are going to feel scary, because it’s that quagmire of trust and uncertainty we spoke about earlier. You need to give your team some autonomy to make their own mistakes.
You can’t be there guiding every single detail to make sure it’s just as you want it. And then, and this is SUPER IMPORTANT, if it doesn’t go exactly as planned, you can’t play some “I told you so” bullshit — you have to be supportive. Trust and psychological safety are built by people taking risks and it being okay to fail.
This goes back to moving toward the things you want. It’s scary to let people make their own mistakes, and you want to avoid that. But avoiding that prevents you from getting what you do want, a high-performing team.
Leave micromanagement behind — now you’re ready to ACTUALLY lead.
Moving away from being a micromanager is the first step toward real leadership. Your job as a leader is to support, provide direction and to help your team grow. Now that you are letting your team take risks, you can focus on how best to support them.
You’re a leader and you need to “show, don’t tell”. Your actions are so much more important than your words. Remember the 5 qualities of high-performing teams (psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, impact)?
Here are 5 actions that show you’re the type of leader people want:
1 - Acknowledge a mistake you made:
As a leader, it is critical to develop trust with your team. If you’ve made an error and pony up to it, you’re helping create psychological safety. You’re showing the team that taking risks and making mistakes is valued and that no one is perfect all the time.
2 - Be on time for meetings:
If you show up on time for meetings you are signaling to your team that they are a priority. You’re telling them, through your actions, that you care and you put them first. You are also signaling to them that punctuality is important and should be respected. It shows you’re dependable.
3 - Don’t cancel or reschedule your 1-to-1s with direct reports:
Prioritize your 1-to-1s. This is your opportunity to provide structure and clarity to your direct reports. Don’t squander it. This is your chance to hold your team member accountable to their actions, and offer clear guidance.
4 - Thank people publicly for their work:
We have jobs because we need money, sure, but what we really want is meaning. By thanking people publicly you are showing that they have impact. You are signally to them, and to the rest of the team that they matter. Be sure to be as specific as possible, the exact thing the person did and how it had a positive impact on the business, customers and the team.
5 - Ask for input from your team, then implement it:
Implementing changes that have been put forward by your team members show them that they have impact. By acting on the advice given by a direct report, you’re showing that people matter and that they’re thoughts, ideas and expertise have a big impact on the business.
This is what real leadership looks like. These are the sorts of things that make people feel safe enough to take risks and put their best work out there.
Final thoughts on micromanaging
Change is tough, but being a micromanager is so much harder, especially long-term.
Remember to define what you actually want and move toward it. You’ll need to re-establish trust with your team, and then you can start leading. Becoming a real leader isn’t about controlling everything, it’s about providing space. Providing space is uncertain, is scary, and it’s new, but that’s how you end up with what you want – being a kick-ass leader with a high-performing team.
Want to kick your micromanagement tendencies to the curb & build a high-performing team? Get started with F4S for free today.
Michaud Garneau is a professional facilitator who draws on his experience as an award-winning performance artist to create impactful engagement opportunities. Michaud has over a decade of teaching and training experience. He has created and facilitated workshops for Fortune 500 companies, startups and not-for-profits, as well as developed curriculum for educational institutions.