An Unintuitive Leadership Breakthrough


A client conversation this week revealed an unintuitive leadership breakthrough. It involves the connection between setting expectations and micro-managing. Conventional wisdom indicates micro-managers set tight expectations giving no room to their employee. While this is true on the surface, we need to take a deeper look.

Micro-managers prescribe not only what is required but also how to do it. The interesting thing is they typically don’t do this upfront. They set a directional goal and then guide the employee at every step telling them how to do it. Their motivation is to make sure it gets done to their requirements.  They don’t trust the person performing the activity will be able to complete it alone.

An Unintuitive Leadership Perspective

So far we have described the link between setting expectations and micro-managing. It would be easy to walk away at this point and conclude it is dangerous to set expectations. This would miss a critical point. The problem is not setting expectations, it is in how they are set.  The motivation to micro-manage arises when the manager is unable to trust the performer to achieve the desired result without providing direct guidance.   How can we set clear expectations and avoid micro-managing?

Setting The Right Expectations

We start by describing a clear measurable outcome. The key is to also describe measures of progress to the goal. These act as milestones and create a foundation of trust. The manager and employee are now clear on what success looks like and how they will judge progress to the goal. They have a shared foundation of trust. Periodic progress check-ins provide the opportunity to further build this trust.

Here’s the three step process:

  1. Describe the desired outcome and how you will measure progress towards it, creating a set of milestones.
  2. Secure alignment with the person tasked with delivering the outcome so you both know what success looks like.
  3. Set regular progress checkpoints where the performer assesses their progress towards each milestone.

Resist the temptation to take over responsibility.  If the desired progress is not made, coach the performer to achieve the goal while maintaining responsibility for completion.

This isn’t easy but nobody said being an effective leader would be easy. When you do this well, you will gain a whole new perspective on leadership. It will become fun and very rewarding.