When you’re deciding between micro-managing and being hands off

One of the most difficult aspects of managing people is providing enough direction so your team doesn’t feel lost and not standing over their shoulders every minute to make sure they get it right. Learning how to be toward the middle of this spectrum is the crux of being a good manager. I have experienced both in my career.

When I first started out in my career as an Associate Editor, I had a boss that insisted she read every fax cover sheet I drafted before it went out. Now, I had a Master’s in Communications and wrote and edited on the side. To have someone edit a fax cover sheet containing one sentence felt beyond insulting.

I was scolded once for sending out a fax cover sheet without her red pen handiwork because she was in all-day meetings and we had a deadline to meet. I was young and fiery so I took it way too personally. I left that job as soon as I could because of her mistrusting style.

As I matured, I realized this controlling action was way more about her than it was about me and my abilities. Just starting out, however, you don’t think that way. This is an experience I have kept in my brain for decades as I manage people newer to the workforce.

Later in my career, I was faced with a new challenge. I offered my consulting services to a small group while I was transitioning to another full-time position. I turned down the contract opportunity once because I wasn’t certain of the owner’s style (always trust your gut!) and then decided to give it a chance when he came back a second time with more money.

On my first day, the owner told me to never look to him for direction. He would never give me any. I was supposed to figure out the gig on my own. Now, I am smart and can figure out most things but to be given nothing, zero, not even goals, objectives, growth strategy or a vision? How was I to know if my tactics, focus and style were in alignment?

Needless to say, this relationship ended after a few weeks as I kept guessing if what I was doing was right, and I guess it wasn’t. I was unaware that I was not only to drive consulting projects but was supposed to develop business too. That expectation was never expressed to me. I had no sales goals or targets. I was never a part of any business development discussions. This owner mistook telling someone “how” to do their job with providing “direction”. There is a big difference.

Experiencing both extremes in my career as an employee has helped me find my place in the middle between too much and not enough direction. Here are a couple of tips that have helped me:

  • Provide the big picture, how the work connects with the strategy and overall goals, then let your senior people come back with a proposal of what they think.
  • Decide ahead of time what your team members can just run with on their own. Giving as much autonomy as possible with your senior people helps keep them engaged.
  • Be open to them coming back for clarification. This is not a weakness but a smart move to get the result right.
  • Junior people may need more than just goals and objectives. Talk through tactics and possible approaches with them. Then, ask them to try it out and re-group to receive feedback and brainstorm next steps.
  • If someone is really unsure, do some things with them or ask them to do it while observing and provide feedback.

Even as a learning and development professional, I still believe learning by doing is the most powerful learning there is.

Regardless of the level or seniority, I still never micro-manage. That is the quickest way to lose an employee.

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  1. Pingback: When you want to delegate but are afraid to: 6 pitfalls to avoid – Corporate Safari

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