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In defense of micromanagers

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Sometimes, micromanaging is the best alternative available, which tells you something about the others.

By Bob Lewis | December 10, 2013
Topics: Leadership, Organizational Effectiveness | 3 Comments »

Pity the poor perfectionist.

For the perfectionist, the world is a collection of flaws, each defined as “not how I would do it.” Their number is infinite; each is a persistent itch that must be scratched; and no matter how many the perfectionist scratches, the fundamental mathematical law of infinity applies: Infinity minus anything equals infinity.

Just beneath the surface of many micromanagers is a perfectionist. Pity the poor employees who work for them and whose work is, by the transitive law of mathematics, nothing but a collection of flaws, too.

Perfectionists micromanage because the alternative is allowing all those flaws to escape into the unsuspecting universe.

Oh, by the way, “flaw” isn’t limited to work products. It also applies to how employees create work products, and how much time and effort they take to create them.

So for perfectionist managers, late work is flawed work. To prevent this flaw, they have to check in with each and every employee, often, to make sure everything will be done on time.

And if it will? Why, there must have been a way to do it more efficiently. Flaw!

The work product itself had better be polished and shiny, of course and operate within the quantum limits of energetic efficiency.

Working for micromanagers is hell, as anyone knows who’s had the experience.

But (and you just knew the word “but” was just hanging in the air, waiting to be typed) …

As regular KJR (and Leading IT: (Still) the Toughest Job in the World) readers know, leaders have no more important job than staffing. With the right people reporting to you, your biggest challenge is figuring out how to spend your work day, because your organization will pretty much run itself without needing much of your time and attention. With the wrong people …

That’s where the “but” comes in: But, leaders don’t always get to choose their teams. When they’re first hired to lead an existing team, for example, they’re leading an existing team (aren’t you glad you have me to explain difficult-to-comprehend concepts like this?).

Or, existing “team,” in quotes because while the employees involved are supposed to work as a team, they don’t.

Sometimes, leaders don’t always get to choose their teams at all, as is generally the case with unionized employees.

It’s also the case with a certain type of Human Resources department — one so focused on staying out of court that no level of performance is low enough to justify termination.

Yes, this is the opposite extreme from those who insist stacked ranking systems are the beginning and end of managing employee performance. Termination prevention is a problem, although a smaller one than stacked ranking because while stacked ranking systems drive away talent, termination prevention merely takes away a few tools from the leadership toolkit.

So there you are, leading an organization that isn’t composed of the best talent you can find, let alone the best talent you can imagine. What do you do about it?

Here are two techniques to get you started: (1) Hire one outstanding employee; and (2) micromanage. Yes, that’s right. Micromanage.

But hire one outstanding employee first. Why? Uh … because then you’ll have an outstanding employee working for you. This is never a bad idea. The outstanding employee can help everyone else. She can take on tougher assignments than existing team members can handle.

And, an outstanding employee takes away the contention that “Oh, c’mon, nobody could do that!”

Hire an outstanding employee and you raise the bar of what’s considered a reasonable expectation of performance.

Then, micromanage, because while perfectionism is an awful thing, defining excellence and then insisting on it is quite a different matter.

Assess what each employee is capable of: For each type of task, what you can reasonably expect of them based, not on any arbitrary standards but on who they are and what they could accomplish if they only knew they could accomplish it and, just as important, wanted to.

Don’t be coy, either. Let each employee know what you think they’re capable of; point out that your job is to help them achieve at that level … whether they want to or not; one reason it’s called “work” … and until they’ve decided they’re going to achieve at that level without prodding, you’re going to work with them closely to make sure they do anyway.

Nobody will thank you for it, especially at first.

But you will achieve some breakthroughs. And of everything you accomplish as a leader, you’ll find nothing else that’s as satisfying.


3 comments on “In defense of micromanagers

  1. Egad. Expecting people to actually perform work at a job and then holding them to those expectations. There’s a lawsuit in the making there ;-)

    Good article. Good insight.

  2. This is a good article but I just received my 8th copy of the email.

    • My mailing service appears to have experienced a bad case of the SMTP hiccups. No idea what went wrong. If it recurs next week, it will be time for me to start micromanaging them, I guess.

      Sorry for the inconvenience.

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my photoBob Lewis is a senior management consultant with Dell Services. He has published these columns once a week in one form or another since 1996.

Disclaimer: All opinions, statements, representations, allegations, images (if published) and anything else that appears here is the sole responsibility of the author. Dell has and had nothing to do with it, other than saying it's okay to continue publishing KJR.

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