Micromanagement 101: Learning to Let It Go

If there’s anything we’ve learned over the course of the pandemic, it’s the multitude of ways we can keep track of what our teams are doing. Pick a communication tool, any tool: Slack, Zoom, Teams, OneNote, Flock, Twist, Trello – the list is endless. No matter where you are geographically, we can be connected on a myriad of platforms to video chat, message, collaborate, and whatever else we want to do together, on top of regular old phone calls or emails.

It’s wonderful to have the ability to be on top of what staff are up to, but where we do draw the line? I can check in on you any time I want, but do I really need to? And when does my checking in cross the line into micromanagement?

Controlling every aspect of your employees’ work doesn’t benefit anyone: not them, not your company, and not your customers. Micromanagement is right up there with the top reasons that employees quit: it’s a work style characterized by excessive vigilance – unwanted attention that interferes with your employee’s ability to feel motivated, effective, trusted, and productive.  When faced with constant, critical scrutiny, workers feel the impact heavily on their self esteem and sense of morale. “If my boss is endlessly taking me to task or questioning what I’m doing, am I really doing any good here? Will they ever trust me enough to just leave me alone?”

The Signs of Micromanagement

Most micromanagers don’t even realize what they’re doing to their staff, for several reasons. Most often the leader in question lacks adequate trust in their team to let go of the tasks that could and probably should be delegated. How often do staff need to get your approval before carrying out their regular duties? Do you require every message, report, and email to be copied to you first, so that you can re-word their work at will, no matter how small an edit may be? While you might tell yourself that this is just quality control, when carried out to the extreme, the emphasis becomes more on the “control” and not on the “quality.” 

Here’s another sign to consider: how watchful are you when it comes to your staff’s whereabouts? Particularly now in the world of remote work, do you check time stamps and follow the progress of every conversation they’re having? How often are you verifying who is “available,” “busy,” “offline,” or “away”? If you are working in person, what rules do you have around time spent at one’s desk or workstation, versus leeway to walk away to do other tasks, without checking in with you first?

What to Do Instead

One of the first things you can do if you’re wondering about your management style, is to view your team from a lens of empathy. Put yourself in their shoes. How much would you appreciate it, if you had a supervisor who was constantly questioning where you are and what you are doing? Again, there is a very fine line between “quality control” and just plain “control.” Any new employee is going to need more supervision than normally required – that’s when you will want and need to spend lots of time with your staff person: for onboarding, getting them used to policies and procedures, and the overall culture of your workplace environment.

But beyond that, when training is complete and it comes down to regular everyday work, this is where the “letting go” comes in. It’s time to breathe deep and delegate. And that doesn’t mean relinquishing every single task: your work is to take a good look at what you are doing in the course of your day and your week and ask yourself: what can I reasonably let go of that is not critical for me to handle myself?  This is about taking a good look at an individual and with them, determining how they want to grow and develop with your organization, and what related tasks are appropriate for them to take on. Following that, it requires investing the time, resources, and energy into making sure they can succeed.

Along with delegation then, comes the trust to allow them to fail. That’s right: to give your staff the space to work hard enough to achieve new heights and in the process, to sometimes make mistakes along the way. You’re the one who has the most expertise in the area you just delegated, so it’s important to remember that the new task for them may take them longer to do at first; and it may take them a few tries before the work is as effortless for them as it is for you. Keep communication times regulated to your one-to-one meetings, once a week, to allow them the time and space in between check-ins, to really spread their wings on their own.

Finally, give your staff credit where credit is due. Their success is your whole team’s success, and those triumphs, no matter how small, have the potential to boost morale, a sense of pride in accomplishment, and a positive work culture that lives beyond the perimeter of your own desk.

Your Engaged Assignment: Do you find it hard to let go? If you begin by determining the right task, for the right person, at the right time, you are well on your way to letting go of the micromanaging style of leadership. Need more tools to help you become a better manager and leader? Check out The Art of HR and equip yourself with the skillset needed to succeed.