Micromanager. It's a term we've all heard before, and not without at least a little disdain. As Harvard Business Review blogger Ron Ashkenas reminds us, many people complain about a micromanager, but none of us will ever actually admit to being one. Why would we? The micromanager is seen as meddling, untrusting, and counterproductive. The micromanager may even be thought of -ahem, as a control freak. This week's blog provides some strategies for staying informed without staying too involved.
The Risks of Not Letting Go of Control
At the heart of micromanagement is an ego-based failure to let go of control. Ironically, in some cases, micromanaging leaders may see themselves as low-ego, ultimate "servant leaders." They may think: "Look at me, I am rolling up my sleeves and working side-by-side with the troops." In reality, what may look like helping, though, isn't helping at all since the group doesn't often need another operator. They need a leader. In most cases, the leader's need to be involved often slows down the work of the group, as other things sit and wait for the leader to review or approve them. This is the most common complaint I hear from employees who work for leaders caught in this trap.
Inc. magazine makes an interesting distinction between control and leadership that may help highlight the differences:
"Control is about making sure orders and work requirements are carried out by following management's plans and directions. Leadership, on the other hand, is based on setting clear objectives, delegating authority, relinquishing control, and trusting staff."
Only with the self-awareness, empathy, and self-control that comes with EQ can leaders have the understanding and discipline needed to cede control to the team so they can meet organizational objectives by exercising their own power and agency. The bottom line is it doesn't matter whether a leader refuses to give up control due to a strong personality or a passion for operations, the leader makes decisions and behaves in ways that make them feel comfortable at the expense of others' comfort.
The Battle of Ego vs. EQ
If you should discover that staying out of operations and letting go of control is a challenge for you, begin by looking within. Ask yourself questions like,
- "Is this something I should be this involved with?"
- "Have I delegated this to someone else but am I still too far in?"
- "Is my involvement slowing everything down?"
- "Am I just gathering information, or am I now in the middle of something, telling people what to do?"
- "What would happen if I took my hands off the wheel? What does that tell me about how well I have prepared my next-tier leaders for running the business?"
Then, exercise your self-awareness and work to recognize when you're stepping too far into the weeds. You may feel that the visibility on the assignment is too high, you may realize that you distrust the team's competence, or you may recognize an excitement or overzealousness to be involved yourself in a given project. Rather than let these emotions dictate how you proceed-by jumping into operations-step back and consider what the environment needs from you. That's where empathy and reading come in.
With a good read on your team and insight into your own temptations, you'll have the information you need to respond appropriately and consciously. If you feel uncertain of a team member's competence, take the leap of faith to let the person try and run with a starter project on his or her own. A major part of any leader's job is to develop a bench of capable talent. You'll only know how the person operates if you let her try. Lastly, don't be afraid of mistakes; they are sure to happen. They happened to you in the past and probably serve today as some of your best learning experiences. The same goes for your team.
In most cases, there is a certain sense of serenity that comes with surrendering and accepting that unintended consequences aren't always terrible. If not, the worst that will happen is that some of your fears will come true but that you will have a new lens with which to view the situation. You will see the gaps, learning needs, job misfits, and assumptions that you failed to see before from your controlling mindset. These are invaluable tools you can now use to target where you want to improve the organization, focusing your passions and energy on something with much greater significance and impact.
In the end, you as a leader have to define for yourself when it is appropriate to get involved in a situation. Along these lines, it can be helpful to come up with some clear thresholds to guide you on when to get involved in projects and decisions and when it's better to stay out of the fray. By developing clearer guidelines for when to let go of control, inviting others to hold you accountable, and accepting that it may always feel uncomfortable to trust, you will develop a strong toolset to avoid the urge to micromanage.