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How to Get a Micromanager Off Your Back

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Often, I see micromanagement in the guise of accountability from the highest levels. It stifles empowerment. Upper management gives the directive to empower their employees and then demands weekly reports on the progress. Then they institute goals, quotas and deadlines. This doesn’t feel like empowerment to me. What conversation can I have with my manager to get me personally to a place where I feel more empowered, more emboldened and able to take risks? 

--Anonymous

Empowerment can be a valuable approach to leading people.  The basic approach to empowerment is to develop employee capabilities for tackling complex challenges beyond their previously narrowly defined tasks and then to delegate the leader’s decision-making authority to them.   Empowering employees can lead to greater adaptability, flexibility, innovation, and long-run performance as subordinates take ownership of their roles. 

Empowerment does not mean abandoning responsibility and accountability; instead, it means the leader must set expectations and find agreement with subordinates on how they will be evaluated.  Then, the leader must avoid micromanaging.  With empowerment, leaders spend much of their time serving their subordinates by removing bottlenecks and barriers that they cannot easily do on their own.

As many an experienced manager will know, empowering employees is more easily said than done.  Transitioning to an empowerment approach is made easier by providing appropriate training to employees.  The more challenging part of the transition, however, is shifting both the leader’s and subordinates’ thinking and mindset. 

Empowerment does not come easily when either leaders or subordinates have “grown up” in a directive and compliance-based culture.  All too easily, a leader who wants to empower subordinates can fall back into micromanaging by unilaterally directing activities and demanding additional measures and reports.  What is going on when this happens and what can subordinates do to achieve a more empowered relationship?

Growing up, my dad had many quaint sayings. The one that comes to mind in response to this question is, “it takes two to tango,” a phrase made famous in a 1952 melody sung by Pearly Bailey.  Trying to shift to an empowerment approach is challenging if the leader and subordinate do not know each other’s dance moves.

One challenge is that a leader may state they want to empower subordinates, but in times of stress, they quickly return to the thought patterns that worked in the past.  In other words, the leader may want to try a new dance but hasn’t learned all the moves. 

Another challenge arises when a subordinate acts in a way that does not meet the leader’s expectations.  Perhaps the expectations were not clearly communicated or clearly understood.  Or, perhaps the leader did not provide sufficient training or the subordinate did not make the most of the training.  No matter the source, the leader who initially trusted the subordinate enough to delegate “decision rights” now has a diminished level of trust.  With a lower level of trust comes increased oversight including goals, quotas, deadlines, and more frequent direction as these moves reduce the leader’s uncertainty about performance expectations. They also reduce empowerment. 

The fundamental challenge for the subordinates, if they want to regain empowerment, is to figure out how to repair trust.  As you might imagine, repairing trust is more difficult; far more difficult, that building trust in the first place.  What can you do to repair trust with your leader?

My recommendation is to begin by engaging in a reflection technique I call Aperio Examen.  The Aperio Examen has four steps:

1.     The reflection begins by first thinking about what has gone well in your job—especially between you and your boss.  We all have successes each and every day.  Acknowledge these successes, at least in your mind’s eye, and give yourself a pat on the back.  Doing so is an important precursor to the next step.  

2.     Now, identify what has not gone well between you and your manager.  Use your “literary creativity’ to make up a story—a narrative—in which the entire situation is your fault.  Crafting such a narrative may be difficult for some but is a very important exercise.

3.     With the imaginative story in mind, reflect on each part of the story and evaluate which parts might be true.  If you are like most people in these situations, you will discover you do share some blame and may have inadvertently contributed to the loss of trust.  

4.     Having identified ways in which you may have contributed to the situation, think about what you could have done differently and how you could have known to act differently. Try to recall these heuristics over the next several days (practicing the Aperio Exam on a daily basis for issues at work as well as at home, can fundamentally change your thinking and relationship).

With your reflection in hand, you can now have a discussion with your manager.  Explain what has happened from your perspective.  Share and acknowledge your role in what happened.  In other words, apologize, which will signal that your transgression does not reflect the true nature of who you are.  Also, explain what you would have done differently now that you have reflected on the situation.  Finally, ask how, together, you can rebuild trust to again move in the direction of empowerment. 

You may be thinking that that you did nothing wrong.  That it was entirely your manager’s fault so why should you take any blame?  That sentiment is your ego talking.  Ego can get in the way of both the Aperio Examen (which means “unguarded examination”) and having this important conversation with your manager.   This same ego also gets in the way of you becoming a better leader, at the base of which is taking responsibility and learning from the situation.  If you listen to your ego, you will continue to foist blame on the manager, which will come through in your words and deeds and only widen the loss of trust.  Remember, it takes two to tango.

Duce a mente (May you lead by thinking),

Jackson Nickerson

Jackson Nickerson is the Frahm Family Professor of Organization and Strategy at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, the Associate Dean and Director of the Brookings Executive Education, and a Senior Scholar in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. An award winning researcher and teacher, Jackson specializes in leadership, strategic and critical thinking, leading change, and innovation. While in a prior life he worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he now advises government agencies, not-for profits, and for-profit businesses on ways to improve performance. He is the author of Leading Change in a Web 2.1 World.

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