We’re tackling two questions this week!
Q: I’m curious about how to coach young managers out of being micromanagers. I see it all the time: highly motivated and capable people overmanaging other highly motivated and capable people on projects. How can I push against that impulse?
Q: One of the senior team members I’m newly managing isn’t doing a good job at his job. The rest of the team is frustrated and complaining. I’m constantly stepping in to make sure his work is getting done right and on time. I don’t want to be a micromanager, but the projects go more smoothly when I’m actively overseeing (and often even doing) parts of his job. This isn’t sustainable. How do I stop saving the day without simply letting everything go down in flames?
Emma: Our first impulse was to tackle these separately until we realized that we’d be writing about a lot of the same things. The first question is, “How do I stop other people from micromanaging?” and the second is, “How can I stop myself from micromanaging?” Both boil down to trust and failure — and how not having enough of the first and too little room for the second reliably results in micromanaging.
Andy: Dun, dun, dunnnn. Micromanaging is such a common trap. It’s either the One Thing you definitely don’t want to do, or something you’ve decided is a necessary evil because how else will everything go OK?
Emma: Both of these scenarios involve new bosses. That makes so much sense to me. I’m thinking of all of my instincts and motivations when I’m in a new setting: how badly I want to be right and make a good impression, how high I imagine other people’s expectations are, and how much I don’t want to mess up.
Andy: When I was a new manager, I put a lot of energy trying to avoid the micromanagement that had happened to me. I didn’t want to be like the manager who had our entire team install an app to track what percentage of time we visited “unproductive” websites. I successfully avoided that exact style of micro-managing, sure, but I definitely micromanaged in other still-irritating and not useful ways.
Emma: It happens. All we’re doing when we micromanage is attempting to prevent failure. In both of these scenarios, the managers don’t trust their teammates to prevent it on their own. They’re swooping in to body-block any impending doom — frustrated coworkers, underwhelmed clients, demerits from higher-ups, and maybe, simply an outcome that’s different than if they’d done it on their own.
Andy: The impulse to micromanage is so righteous. It feels like a philosophical trick question: Should failure be prevented when possible? The not-so-small part of me that hates failure jumps to a very quick yes! Prevent the failure! Too bad it’s not possible.
Emma: Nope. I’m sure even the micro-est of managers can tell you, it doesn’t really work, at least not for long. Failure is inevitable.
Andy: Trying to prevent all failure is a failure in and of itself. As our second letter writer can tell you, it’s not sustainable, for your or your reports.
Emma: Learning how to recognize a failure, evaluate it appropriately, and recover from it is one of the only ways I’ve been able to maintain any semblance of mental health at work. It’s hard, though, especially when you’re doing a new thing and the failures are stacking up at scale and on pace. I’m thinking back to my time as a manager at Reviews, when I spent close to a year really suffering as I heaved my way through a chunk of that learning.
Andy: Our hope is that we can grant the permission you needed back then, and we both still need: You are going to fail, in ways big and small. Your team is going to fail. You will not be able to prevent these things. What you can do is direct the failures, set up safe places to practice, and find out how much failure is tolerable for you and your manager. You can make the failures less painful — and quiet down that instinct to step in and micromanage.
A Few Ways to Make More Room For Failure
Accepting failure for what it is — normal, inevitable, rarely of as much consequence as we think — is a perpetual quest most of us will probably never fully master. But here are some tactical ways to work toward it.
Get clarity and permission from your manager on where and how much you can fail. Simply ask, “What is our failure threshold?” At Groupon, we used error rates. When we could put one error in the context of the tens of thousands of deals we’d published, we could see we were doing fine — it wasn’t 100% disaster; it was .01% disaster. In your industry it might be downtime or unpaid invoices or delays. If your boss says, “We cannot fail, ever,” that’s not a real standard. Push back. Ask for a real number.
Find safe spots for failure by actively selecting what failures, and in which specific contexts, you’re OK with. This is another version of the question, “What can I let go?” It’s a worthwhile exercise to discover about yourself, and it will probably change over time. It’s also another thing you can align on with your manager. If they say: “We need to prioritize customer satisfaction scores and budget,” you have a starting point on where else to loosen your grip.
Announce what you’re working on, warts and all. A common source of micromanaging is wanting to make sure your boss never finds out how taped together everything is. There’s a lot of freedom in telling them something like, “Over half of my reports started in the last 8 weeks, and it’s a steep learning curve. Our quality is pretty rickety right now. I’m training them, but right now, it’s rough!” An anchor point like this can help get your expectations, your manager’s expectations, and what’s possible into alignment.
Calibrate on the consequences. Something might seem like a big deal and then turn out to have very little consequence or impact. Once, a teammate of ours took down the front page of our company’s website. Bad! But the outage lasted less than 30 seconds and fewer than 4 people were on the page at the time. Not so bad! (Having a go-to process for when things go wrong will help with this.)
Share your stories on failure survival. This is key for our first letter writer, who is frustrated watching new managers react to a lot of failure for the first time. When you normalize it, and remind yourself, your co-managers, your mentees, and your team that it’s survivable, the idea of failing is less horrifying. Yes, every actor has forgotten their lines on stage before. And yet, the shows have gone on, many audiences none the wiser.
Once you’re feeling a little more confident in failing, you’ll probably feel the gripping need to micromanage every little thing start to release. Here are a few more exercises to keep in mind along the way.
Be clear about your expectations in advance. Instead of holding your breath to see how a person might execute on something, decide what’s important to you and share that at the beginning — then trust them to follow through. This might be a scorecard, a style guide, a deadline, or a turnaround time. Remember all that work you just did up above. It’s okay if they fail. You’ll be able to give them feedback.
Give regular feedback. Our second letter writer knows they are headed down a tiresome path by constantly stepping in. It’s a crummy position for both parties: the manager is doing too much, and their report is locked in a position of distrust, unable to prove or fail their way out. Letting someone fail can be kind — especially if you have ongoing and regularly scheduled feedback conversations to talk through it and determine next steps. Another thing to consider: you can also give feedback on any micromanage-y behaviors you observe. It can be as simple as, “Hey, let’s talk about your level of involvement with Rick’s projects.”
Make a list of the systems and processes you have in place, and the failures they’re preventing. This has two benefits. First, you can celebrate the things you’re not micromanaging! 🎉 And second, you can also stop micromanaging in the areas where you have stopgaps and checkpoints in place. This is akin to making a packing list for a trip — once you check the list, your brain can stop triple-checking with everyone that you have everything.
Find folks you admire and observe or ask how they tackle the things you tend to micromanage. When you hear enough excellent people say, “We don’t care how long our teams take for lunch” or “It’s okay if the rough draft is really rough,” it helps you learn not to care how long your team takes for lunch and not to step in to polish up a first draft.