As an executive and leadership coach, micromanaging is one of the most common challenges I see. It’s a common problem for many leaders, new and old alike. Left unaddressed, micromanaging can severely limit your people’s success and advancement and can often result in the burnout and churn of their direct reports and colleagues, too.
Ironically, it’s the habits that have helped micromanagers be so successful earlier in their careers–focus on details, drive for results, demanding high quality, get-it-done attitudes–that make them micromanage when they move into leadership positions. Making the transition from “doer” to “manager” is often a difficult process.
Like all professional and transformational work, the solution is a combination of changing one’s thinking and actions. Both need to happen to create sustainable results.
Here are the three key suggestions that I give to leaders who are coming across as
1. Telling people what to do, rather than asking for commitments.
When your primary focus is getting the task done, you see your people as tools for completion. You’ll tend to issue instructions, and sometimes orders, for specific actions to be taken in specific ways. When you’re captain of a boat heading towards a rocky shore, getting compliance critical.
However, when your goal is to create a high-performance team who is growing and increasing their capabilities, compliance is not a sustainable approach. Instead, you want commitment. Commitment results only when people take on a task with their own free will and also when they had an honest option to decline.
Instead of issuing orders and commands, ask people if they are willing to take on the work. If they decline, ask why and what you need to do to get them to willingly accept. Do they need training, resources, or time? Together, figure out how you can mold the task into something that is agreeable. These discussions can lead to learning and powerful coaching opportunities.
2. Explaining the process and details, rather than the desired outcome.
Micromanagers tend to jump right into the detailed steps required for completion of the task. The problem here is that explaining the precise steps leaves no room for the direct report doing the work to take ownership or adjust the process to their way of thinking or doing things. He or she can’t “own” the process if you dictate it to them. Ultimately, the problem is that without ownership, the direct report has the excuse “I did what you told me to do and it didn’t work” and then it becomes your problem, not theirs.
Instead, focus on defining the end results you want and the criteria for success. I like to use a football analogy here: tell them where the end zone is, where the sidelines are, how many people they can have on the field, and the rules for handling the ball, but let them decide if they want to run or pass and if they want to get the first down or do a Hail Mary for the win. You might also give some progress milestones and set some check-in points, but they need the freedom to make decisions and to provide the best end result possible.
3. Taking over tasks, rather than coaching through challenges.
Imagine you’re learning to drive and every time you ask a question, your instructor keeps jumping into your lap to drive the car for you. For direct reports of micromanagers, this is a familiar feeling. The problem is that rather than asking for help, they avoid speaking with their manager all together. And by avoiding their manager, it means they are spinning their wheels more often and making bigger mistakes.
If you want to avoid being a micromanager, resist the urge to just do the task yourself. Instead, think like a coach and ask them questions. What have they tried? What did they learn? What haven’t they tried yet? What might they try next? When you approach the situation like a coach, you’re helping them find options and teaching them how to find the solution themselves.
Before giving advice, ask them if they want it. Ask, “do you want me to give you some ideas?” before you launch into all the things you think they should do. Getting permission opens them up to really listening and keeps them in control. Unsolicited advice can become another reason it was your fault, not theirs, and perhaps another reason something didn’t work.
Successfully making these changes can be transformational for the leader and his or her colleagues. The shift from ‘manager as task master’ to ‘manager as coach’ creates an enormous possibility for professional growth. Done well, it opens up potential they didn’t have before and will undoubtedly accelerate a leader’s career. Done poorly, it will unfortunately result in continued struggle, employee churn, and lackluster results.