A Dilbert cartoon from January 1995 presented the pain of being micromanaged. Dilbert is being directed by his boss in great detail. Dilbert’s boss is critiquing a memo and Dilbert is told to add this, delete that, use these words, and so on. Dilbert’s enthusiasm for his work evaporates while listening to his boss go on.
Those of us that are managers work hard to not be micromanagers. We’ve been told that it is not terribly effective as a tactic and reflects an absence of trust in our charges. Moreover, much has been written about the pain and misery experienced by workers at the hands of micromanaging bosses. Giving staff freedom to manage their functions is supposed to be the way forward. Managers are encouraged to trust their employees to get the job done. Referring to someone as a micromanager is a pejorative term. It’s viewed as an insult. As a result, managers lean more to being hands off. Delegating is seen as a sign of strength in a manager. Managers are taught things like if you need to be in charge of everything, you’re in charge of nothing. Business speak involves words like empowering employees or assigning autonomy. We appreciate having autonomy in our work, but is not being micromanaged the same thing as having autonomy?
We may think by avoiding micromanagement, we’re automatically allocating autonomy. However, autonomy and micromanagement aren’t an either/or binary choice. They are not two ends of a continuum. Aristotle, several thousand years ago, wrote about the Golden Mean. He mentioned that most virtues involved a balancing act between two extremes which weren’t positive at either end. The goal was to try to avoid the vice at either extreme and struggle to find the centre, balancing point where the virtue lies.
“Moderation is the golden mean between two extremes.” —Aristotle
If the goal is extending autonomy to workers, then what are the two outlying negative traits we’re working to avoid? Yes, micromanaging is at one end of the spectrum. We don’t want to be manipulated like a marionette puppet. Sticking to a sales script sucks. However, the opposite of micromanaging is just as bad. It’s being abandoned. We don’t want to be cast off on a desert island left to figure things out on our own.
Consider the performance of two hockey teams, for example. One involves a group of young kids learning the game. Regardless of where the kids line up for a face off, none of them really know what their position is. Once the puck drops, players from both teams swarm after the puck wherever it goes. The puck drives the action, the kids are just responding to the moving object. Sometimes a player remains confused such that they enthusiastically shoot and score on their own net. These kids aren’t being micromanaged. They don’t have the capacity for autonomy. They have been abandoned to explore on their own. This is fine and fun for them. As the kids mature, coaches try to contain the chaos and help the players develop skills and tactics which can be applied.
If we now consider the performance of an NHL team. Each player has a clear and defined role. They know what their responsibility is and what is expected of them in any number of situations. Their coaches have communicated to them through hours and hours of practice where to be, what to look at, and what to do at all times. A defenseman, for example, may be instructed to work to keep their shoulders square to incoming offensive players, then told to try to turn them or force them to the boards and away from the net. Running through drill after drill day after day refining their movements under specific conditions may feel like being micromanaged, but it is preparation. Once on the ice during a game, the players are not being micromanaged. They are cut loose to perform based on the directions they have been given. They are now autonomously functioning. They have been given clear expectations and are working hard to deliver. Even the best players in the sport aren’t able or interested in freestyling. They are acting within parameters set by both their role on the team as well as the team’s strategy.
If the game isn’t going a team’s way, their coach may step in and call a time out. Again, this isn’t micromanaging, this is leadership. The coach is offering guidance based on their detached assessment of what’s going on. They are offering instruction for the team to course correct and get back on track. Once the timeout ends, it is now up to the players to, once again, execute. They do so autonomously. They are acting independently based on guidance provided. They aren’t left to figure it out as they go along on their own.
Like many things, this balance is easier said than done. Unfortunately, the definition of autonomy isn’t objective. It’s not a mathematical formula that can be universally applied. It’s not the same across industries. Nor is it the same for a given job function. Employees with different experience will need different levels of autonomy. Herein lies the difficulty that makes autonomy ever elusive in a dastardly and delicate dance between micromanaging and abandoning. Younger workers may have transitioned with greater ease to a remote work environment. Their comfort with technology coupled with a home environment that has less distraction may have helped them be ready and able to work from home. However, their challenges lie in not having the experience to develop clarity as to what functions are most important for them. How they should be spending their time and doing their assigned role properly are where help may be needed. This can be contrasted with those of us that are more seasoned workers. Our issues may be the exact opposite. We’re struggling with setting up technology to be able to work from home. We’re also struggling with managing other people in our home, particularly, children. We are comfortable with what our roles are and what we should be doing, yet we are finding it hard to figure out how, when, and where to do it. The guidance we need is dependent on our role and comfort with technology. The prescription is not universal across employees.
As our work world has flipped, it may be clear that some of our processes have flopped? With our “freedom” we flounder for direction. Are our responsibilities clear? Do our staff know what is expected of them and have they been provided clear direction to manage their responsibilities? Has how we do things changed at all based on how and where we now find ourselves working? Have proper tools been provided? Sure, it has been nice to avoid commutes. Yes, having friendly Fido at our feet is also fun. But being alone, working remotely continues to offer challenges. As grateful as many of us are to be able to continue to work from home, we remain confused by the new work world. It’s not just social connection that has been reduced during COVID. We are isolated from direction and guidance. We are acting more like the kids learning to play hockey except that we know there’s something wrong with what we’re doing. Workers want their “coaches” to help them stick handle their days. We’re looking for specific guidance as to how to best manage ourselves remotely. We don’t want surveys checking in on how we’re doing emotionally. We want human contact. One to one, as face to face as possible. We want clear suggestions for how to set up and manage our remote work. We’ve largely been left to figure this out on our own. Our managers can be of great assistance providing constructive guidance here. Yes, this may be difficult for managers to offer guidance on as they’re struggling with the same questions. Because managers are trying to figure these issues out for themselves, it is all the more reason to reach out and have these conversations with staff in order to help them.
The rapid rollover into remote work may be exposing a gap in management expertise. A lot of us are feeling abandoned. We’re home alone, literally and figuratively. Management must avoid confusing autonomy with abandonment. Managers can’t manage without some kind of supervision. This has been substantially reduced, if not eliminated. Managers can provide guidance, but for feedback to be of any value, it must be based on some kind of review of the work done. Managing from output or results alone puts one closer to the abandoned side of the scale.
We crave clarity. We want to know what is expected. As much as we may want to be left to our own devices, we don’t want to be thrown to the wolves. Being thrown in the deep end of the pool isn’t the friendliest way to learn how to swim. Baptism by fire, burns. There’s no skill in not properly training staff or in not providing resources to allow them to properly function. These are examples of management abdicating responsibility and abandoning their employees. We talked some time ago about the number one trait of leadership being detachment. Once a leader is able to detach, survey, and assess their environment, their next crucial task is helping their charges to determine how to WIN. That is to figure out for each team member, “What’s Important Now?” This is a core role of management and reflects leadership. It is not reasonable for management to abdicate their responsibility to the individual employees to determine this for themselves. One of life’s most important questions is—what am I doing for others? This question captures what Managers could consider keeping front of mind. Ask this question daily with respect to those for whom you are responsible. “What am I doing for those for whom I’m responsible?” How am I helping them to identify and manage their responsibilities?
Have I developed for my employees clear benchmarks for tasks? Have I properly communicated and explained desired outcomes and expectations? Am I providing proper feedback that is timely and actionable? Have I been clear about what responsibility is being delegated and where my employees are expected to demonstrate initiative?
“Your people give their days (and sometimes their nights) to you. They give their hands, brains, and hearts. Sure, the company pays them. It fills their wallets. But as a leader, you need to fill their souls. You can do that by getting in their skin, by giving the work meaning, by clearing obstacles, and by demonstrating the generosity gene.” Jack and Suzy Welch in The Real-Life MBA.
PS. A great, hilarious video that shows us in three minutes that remote work offers challenges for both workers and their families. Zoom meeting anyone?