Is It Ever OK to Micromanage Staff?

micromanage

A coaching client asked me this question last week:

I think I might be micromanaging my development director but I’m not sure. AND I’m not sure that is a bad thing. What does it look like? And is there ever a time when micromanaging is not my fault but rather a need to manage someone more closely?”

What a great question!

It’s so easy trap to fall into the “micromanage” trap, but especially as a nonprofit manager. At most nonprofits, everything feels critical. Sometimes, mistakes can even mean lives.

I think back to my first job out of college, distributing supplies to patients around the country who were on home dialysis. My job literally could mean life and death. This certainly wasn’t working customer service at Macy’s.

My boss made the seriousness of my job clear from day one and instilled in me the values of getting it right. But he also told me I would make mistakes and outlined the Plan B for sending the wrong materials or what to do if there was a trucking delay.

While I knew that lots of mistakes would mean brief employment, I was also given permission to make them along with a plan to contend with those I made.

It was a great job in that way.

So does that mean if you don’t give a staff member a ton of space to fail, you’re a micromanager? Well, not necessarily.

And if you are concerned you are a micromanager, I have some antidotes to suggest below…

BE HONEST: IS THERE A TOLERANCE FOR FAILURE IN YOUR ORGANIZATION?

If not, there’s an issue. Five-star employees resent it. They don’t need you to be on top of them – on their own they get the intensity, the urgency, the deep passion to deliver and all that comes with that. That’s why they’re five-star.

What happens (or doesn’t) in workplaces with a zero tolerance for failure?

  • Staff burnout from stress
  • Creativity is stifled because risk taking is not valued. What if you try something new and you fail?
  • Supervisors micromanage

And what happens when you manage great employees too closely?

  • Resentment
  • Morale issues
  • Attrition
  • Loss of accountability (How can you hold somebody accountable if the work is not owned by them?)

LET’S STOP USING “MICROMANAGE” AS A CATCH-ALL PHRASE

We use it all the time – often unfairly. But in truth, there are at least three distinctly different scenarios in which you could be “accused” of micromanaging.

Scenario 1: You are a low performing staff member who must be managed closely. You probably “feel” micromanaged. But really, that’s just a way to move responsibility from you to your boss.

Scenario 2: Very high profile assignments. In these situations, the E.D. must be more directly involved because of a high-end donor or because there is significant risk involved.

Scenario 3: Actual “micromanagement.” This is the legitimate use of the phrase. An employee has given no sign that her work is to be distrusted; the supervisor is simply constitutional incapable of providing sufficient rope. Why? To prove he/she is on top of the project.

In this last scenario, the supervisor should understand that this approach leads a high performer to find an environment in which she has more autonomy and trust.

4 SIGNS THAT YOU JUST MIGHT BE A MICROMANAGER

  1. You have no idea if your staffer could handle a task independently.
  2. You feel scared to delegate anything important.
  3. Your plate is filled with “weeds” ­– you can’t see the forest and the trees because those weeds surround you.
  4. You are pretty darned sure that in nearly all cases you could just do a better job yourself.

MY ANTIDOTES TO SERIOUS MICROMANAGING

  • It’s all in the set up. Remember earlier when I wrote about my first post college job? When my supervisor gave me the lay of the land, I was a nervous wreck. He could see it on my face. And so he offered me strategies for how to handle things if I made a mistake. This told me loud and clear that mistakes would be tolerated (maybe not MANY but…) and I knew how to handle them. We had strategies to get our clients what they needed even if there was a problem.
  • Build quarterly goals together. Most serial micromanagers look at work in bite-size pieces and not on a longer lead time. If you can define success with your staffer in 90 day increments, it will enable you to step slightly out of the weeds. It will also give you a mechanism of accountability you need so you can learn if your employee is a rock star or a challenge.
  • Weekly meetings – Driven by the staff member, you meet weekly and the staff member can begin to build trust with you by reporting out on how they are faring against their 90 day goals. You can sit back and ask questions like, “Have you considered…?” or, “How can I be helpful?” or, “I’m not sure I understand this decision you made – I might have gone a different route. Help me understand your choice.” It’s amazing how many times I tell people that asking questions is the very best way to manage staff. It gives them the opportunity to strut their stuff and allows you to see how they think, to build trust, and to introduce clear accountability.

MANAGING IS LIKE ROCK CLIMBING

I have never gone rock climbing. Just typing those words gave me anxiety. But I hope this analogy will be helpful.

You need your climber to get to the top, to deliver for your clients or community. When you make a new hire, you need to hand your climber rope. As the boss, you must provide advice and tools to allow the climber to miss a step and not fall.

You expect the climber to reach the top in the next 90 days. You check in. You stay close at first and then as you see the prowess of the climber you let out the rope. The climber sees and feels that and gains in confidence. Fewer missteps. The climber picks up the pace.

Conversely, if you are seeing slip after slip and a risk of not just falling but taking a fellow climber with her, it’s time to intervene and get really close.

But guess what? That is not micromanaging. That is smart management.

Maybe by staying close for a bit you can offer advice about getting back on track. Or maybe this person should simply not be a climber at all and needs to make her way back down and take up another hobby.

It’s all about the art of knowing when to let the rope out, when to pull it in, and being introspective about your own control issues.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Nonprofit leaders simply cannot do it all. Delegation, hiring staff and setting them up to succeed is critical to getting it right. You will drop too many balls.

So hire well, wait for the right person you feel has what it takes, and hand them a nice long piece of rope and a safety net. Adjust the rope as you need to get your staff member to the top of her game.

Now… what if it’s not your staff supervisors that are the micromanagers? What if it’s your board that’s doing the micromanaging?

Here’s what I have to say on THAT topic… How to Deal With a Micromanaging Board.

Joan Garry
Follow me

Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
Follow me