When Giving Direction Isn’t Micromanaging

When Giving Direction Isn't Micromanaging - Photo by Tim Foster on Unsplash
In my last post I talked about the importance of setting a team of people up for success. Senior leaders are responsible for providing enough guidance that the team knows what success looks like and how they should work together to achieve it. You might think this sounds a lot like micromanaging. That is telling someone not only what outcome is required but also how to get there. It could be but there is a big difference between micromanaging and providing necessary direction.

Guidance Versus Micromanaging

One of the leaders during my time at Intel provided an excellent example. We had introduced a focus on generating new innovation. Most leaders would be reluctant to provide any direction for fear of stifling creative thinking. In their mind any new ideas are worthwhile and should be encouraged. The leader of my group was different. She provided very clear direction about where we should be innovating. At first I felt restricted so I challenged her. What I heard surprised me and changed my thinking. She clearly set out the scope of where she felt the business needed to innovate. And then she said “Please innovate as much as you like within this space. All ideas are welcome and encouraged.”
This was exactly what I needed to hear. She was encouraging me to be creative and guiding me to focus on where we could add most value. She didn’t draw a small box but she provided some constraints to help us increase the chances of success. This is exactly what leaders need to provide their teams. In my Intel example, we didn’t waste our energy arguing over where we were going to innovate, our team was aligned from the start.

Falling into the trap of micromanaging

In contrast this leader could have described not only where to look but also the type of ideas they were expecting. This is what I observe when leaders fall into the trap of micromanaging. They think they are helping by sharing their thinking and help the team speed up their progress. It sounds nice in theory but in reality it reveals their insecurity about letting go of control. Do they believe their team is capable of generating its own ideas? What they say is very different than how they are acting.
Are you reading this and wondering how you can find the right balance? My advice is to start by providing less guidance than you feel comfortable with and then watch what happens. Our tendency will usually be to provide more guidance and it is helpful to learn to become comfortable with less control. You can always nudge the steering wheel to adjust direction but if you never let go your team will never feel empowered.

Comments (2)

Thank you for this interesting perspective Andy.
If I get it right, then what you are describing here, is for example “where” to innovate will provide guidance without micromanaging if it doesn’t describe examples of that innovation?
That is, to define constraints (i.e. what the innovation is for) without trying to explain how to use them (i.e. what the innovation is) …. and I guess that my parentheses could also be reversed which would highlight that the task is to find a way to give a frame (constraints) as well as a space others are free to innovate in. That is what we then interpret as a direction?

Thank you Francoise. Perhaps a better way for me to explain the distinction is when providing direction much more remains unknown. When micromanaging, the intention is to remove as much of the unknown as possible by trying to control the what and the how. The level of control is the key variable.

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