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Avoiding micro managing - separating myth from reality

Judging by available surveys, micromanaging is quite wide spread and makes many employees unsatisfied with their job. To avoid it, many articles suggest:

1. Work with right team

2. Set out clear expectations

3. Allow team members to make decisions, look for solutions

As much as I agree with the above I have to reckon that the advise is too generic and oversimplifying.

When deciding about your team one would definitely look at the skills and yet that this enough. The reality is that micromanagement happens even to experienced, accountable employees simply because managers feel that they don’t speak the same language. In other words, micro managers have the fear that unless they give detailed instructions they will be achieving something completely different from what they had in mind because being too generic has proved a bad choice in the past. In all honesty that can easily happen (and you are likely to have seen it yourself) and yet the solution should be very different.

Building the right team implies profiling team members to understand their thinking patterns along different dimensions and comparing those with the job profile. In Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) these can be assessed by simply watching for the choice of words in the interview. Importantly, being aware of these patterns will also allow the manager to communicate with each team member in a way that is suitable given his/her profile.

To take just a few examples, some of the ways in which team members differ are:

Procedures vs Options: The people in the former category prefer to do things in a specific way (there is a right way) whilst the latter prefer to work things as they go along and they hate routine.

Consider the following analogy to help you see the difference. If you are asking for a soup, a procedures person might feel lost cause there are just too many types of soups to decide. Unless you confidently communicate that you prefer vegies soup in which case they would look for a recipe and carefully follow it; or else you can say that you are not a picky eater and you trust him/her that they know what’s best. Faced with the same situation, an options person is likely to see it as an opportunity to experiment something new which you might love or hate…if you don’t want to take the chance then you can say “I prefer a vegie soup and I trust that you will make the best choice and find an alternative that is rather traditional”.

In other words, the solution is in communicating effectively rather than in giving them the desired recipe.

The team members with a procedures profile can easily feel uncomfortable and confused if managers give them the leeway to sort out a task without setting out the plan for it. Is micromanaging a solution? Not at all. I strongly believe in empowering people and in this case what would work is breaking down the objective (example OKR framework) and stressing out that they have the skills to find the “right way”, they have the expertise to establish what is in line with “best practice” etc. Again, choice of words will make a big difference.

On the other hand, options team members like looking for alternative ways (so much so that they might avoid taking decisions) and they will routinely challenge procedures. Assign them with a task and they might come back with several ways of achieving it. The challenge might be however that these might be very different from what the manager had in mind or that a team made up of several persons with such a profile might get lost in ideas. To overcome that, again it helps to set out clear objectives and motivate people to use their flexibility within those boundaries. Words that help: choice, alternatives etc

Specific vs Global – this refers to how people prefer to look at things. Some of us prefer to see the bigger picture first and workout the details later whilst others, in such a situation, would complain that the discussion is too abstract. In other words, some are overwhelmed by a high level of detail whilst others are overwhelmed by lack of details.

When moving away from micromanaging, specific thinking team members should not be left “to figure things out” by themselves. Here is where objective setting is important. The transition would then be from HOW specifically to achieve something on WHAT specifically to achieve. Use examples and help them understand the bigger purpose.

When communicating with those with a preference for a broader picture, start with setting out the overall aim: “the issue is”, “in a nutshell”, “essentially”, ”the main idea is” etc. Then progress with including just enough details to make the objective clear enough.

Internal vs External reference program – refers to how one decides whether (s)he has done a good job.

The internal individuals trust their own judgement whilst the external persons need confirmation. Internal persons usually ignore/overlook external feedback which can potentially make them less sensitive to micromanagement; however, if they are not allowed to make enough decisions they can be demotivated. If you do want to guide them in their decision making and make your message across formulate it as “you may wish to consider”, “a suggestion is”, “what do you think about” etc

For external persons, the constant interference of micromanagers might be taken as sign that they are not trusted, skilled etc However, moving away from micro managing will still require regular feedback; use words such as “I’ve noticed that”, “ Numbers show”, “the results show”, “I would strongly appreciate” etc . When assigning tasks emphasize what the impact will be.

Overall, I believe that avoiding micro managing and doing it effectively involves building the soft skills necessary to cope with the differences between team members and set out objectives that guide and empower individuals.

Finally, I would highlight that learning to read the different thinking patterns has added benefits as they can have applications in sales too and they also help the working environment. It is not uncommon to see conflicts between persons with different profiles and frustrations building up if people are not empowered to understand each other. For instance, the detail-oriented individuals might consider their colleagues with more generic thinking as being with their heads in the clouds; conversely, the specific thinkers might be perceived as pedantic or not able to see the forest because of the trees.

NB: This article was meant as a very brief introduction to meta programmes. It is important to note that these thinking patterns are context-dependent and they are not black or white. More important, people are not their meta programmes.

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