Help managers break the habit of micromanagement

As organizations figure out what their version of hybrid work looks like, talent leaders must help managers learn how to give their people more autonomy.

Try as we might to stamp it out, micromanagement is still a bad habit that persists in today’s work environment. However, the learnings from the past two years of remote work might finally signal the end of micromanaging — specifically the irrefutable evidence of how employee autonomy leads to high-performing teams. One such proof point: Gartner found when employees have some choice over where, when and how much they work, the percentage of high performers jumps from 36 percent of employees to 55 percent.

Micromanagers are not one-dimensional villains

Four out of five people report they’ve experienced being micromanaged. Before we judge too harshly, chances are we’ve been micromanagers ourselves. It’s easy to view micromanagers as “bad,” but the cause is more nuanced than that. Micromanaging can stem from good intentions.

Let’s remember: Managers are typically promoted because they are high performers. “These are people that know how to do the job,” shares Katie Wiesel, leadership coach and consultant. “They don’t want their people to fail or to let the organization down. And it is only natural to show other people how to do a job. Oftentimes these managers view what they’re doing as training.”

We can help our managers break this bad habit by shifting how they approach managing. Once they realize how much gripping the reins too tightly negatively impacts team performance, the next step is knowing how to ease up while still making sure they’re driving to business objectives. To do that, the manager must learn to let go of how something gets done.

Manage to outcomes…

A manager’s natural reaction is often to tell direct reports how to do their job and then observe them to see if they’re following the process. But Brian Kropp, head of Gartner’s HR research practice, says that’s the wrong approach. “As a manager, I’m not in the best position to know what the job should look like, and I can’t see them doing it,” says Kropp.

Scott Gillum, founder of Carbon Design, a freelancer-only marketing agency, shares an anecdote from early in his career: “I remember walking into an ad agency and seeing a ‘creative’ in the lobby bouncing a ball against the walls. He was there the whole time, when I showed up, and when I left an hour later. That was his style, that’s what he needed to do. Trying to manage someone like that to a process just doesn’t work.”

According to Kropp, managers should manage to the destination. Rather than asking for proof of following process, ask to see specific outputs. It is not a new idea; more than 30 years ago, Stephen Covey called it stewardship delegation. More recently, Daniel Pink’s book “Drive” spoke of the power of ROWE, a Results Only Work Environment.

Gillum’s style of managing freelancers embodies this approach. He emphasizes high-quality deliverables and deadlines and pays no attention to how a freelancer spends their day. “I buy deliverables, so I don’t really care how much time it takes to create them, I only care about the quality and timeliness of the output,” Gillum says.

But managers should not completely disregard process. This is where coaching enters the picture.

… And coach to process

“Managers need to remember, the vast number of people want to do good, and they want to hit goals,” says Kropp. To help direct reports develop more autonomy, managers need to shift their coaching efforts to enable self-discovery on how to improve their process. Focus on what direct reports have mastered or not mastered yet as they work to get to specific outcomes.

In their HBR article, Colin Fisher, Teresa Amabile and Julianna Pillemer talk about aligning the rhythm of the manager’s involvement to the people’s needs. Managers can do this by focusing their coaching based on where an employee is in their work:

  • Planning when clear outcomes, resource needs and metrics are needed
  • Execution to keep projects on track while working through problems and working with key stakeholders
  • Evaluation to learn and recognize contributions and impact
  • Career development to identify real-time development needs

The mantra from Kropp: “Coach to process, manage to outcomes.” Managers should coach direct reports on process but not observe them on the process. Instead, managers should focus on their direct reports’ outputs — it doesn’t matter how they do it.

This leads us to another critical competency for managers to both reduce their own micromanager tendencies while increasing their team’s autonomy: creating a shared understanding of the desired outcome.

Provide (very) clear direction

Managers need the ability to clearly communicate expectations and how success will be measured, and then let people run with that direction. The directions must be clear — employees cannot always walk down the hall and ask additional questions in a hybrid work environment. And while this seems like a strikingly obvious point, research finds only half of employees indicate they have a clear understanding of what is expected of them at work. If people don’t know where they should be going, how will they get there?

How one communicates is equally important: to ensure they are heard, a manager must adapt to employees’ different styles of communication. Gillum says, “One size doesn’t fit all; one person I work with is super detail-oriented and incredibly thorough. My communication of expectations to this person is different than others on the team who just want the big picture.”

One channel of communication doesn’t necessarily fit all either. Managers should be open to adapting to where people want to communicate. Email is not always the answer, with tools such as Slack, instant messaging and video calls available for employees to keep in touch with managers digitally.

Don’t expect everyone to hit the ground running

The biggest mistake a manager can make is completely loosening the reins. If being a micromanager is at the top of the list of detrimental manager behaviors, being an absentee manager ranks second. Gallup reported 47 percent of employees received feedback from their manager “a few times a year” or less. Managers should avoid overcorrecting too far from previous micromanaging habits and going too far in the other direction. Transitioning to providing one’s people more autonomy is a gradual process that requires focus and attention.

“Some employees will get it right out of the gate. They’ll evolve and be good about proactively checking in,” Gillum says. “Others may not be. They might take time. There is also a maturity component; in some ways you have to earn the right to work autonomously.”

Gillum encourages a “trust but verify” mindset. Managers should empower direct reports and give them more trust while still holding them accountable for deliverables and deadlines. Some employees will require more coaching and check-ins than others. The goal is to achieve a bottom-up feedback loop where direct reports initiate conversations to let managers know how things are going, rather than the manager always reaching out.

Helping our managers break the bad habit of micromanagement and learn to encourage more autonomy within their teams has several benefits: less burned-out managers, happier people and higher employee engagement and retention. Perhaps even more importantly, doing so also helps break the chain to lessen the chance this bad habit is passed on to the next generation of managers.