The Fine Line between Micromanaging and Empowering

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”   ~ Steve Jobs

Fine Line between Micromanaging and EmpoweringManaging employees can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your professional career. It’s awesome to see people who work for you exceed even their own expectations of what they can achieve. That said, to be a manager who helps others succeed requires a skill set much different from the one needed to be an individual contributor.

If you’ve made it to a management position, you’ve probably exhibited the behaviors that most leaders look for in employees they want to promote:

  • consistently exceed expectations in your assigned work
  • demonstrate repeatedly that you can get the job done
  • complete projects consistently and independently
  • show a high level of accountability

As coaching guru Marshall Goldsmith so aptly states, however,

“What got you here won’t get you there.”

Now that you’re managing employees, your goal is not only to continue to keep doing the things that helped you become a manager, but also to motivate others, too, to exhibit those behaviors.

Spotting Micromanaging Behavior

In most management situations, motivating and engaging employees is a simple three-step process:

  1. Identify the behaviors you want to occur.
  2. Determine what outcomes your employees value (money, promotions, autonomy, leadership positions, etc.).
  3. Show employees how performing the desired behaviors will lead to outcome they care about.
  4. Lead in a manner that motivates and engages your employees rather than demotivates and disengages them.

That sounds so easy, right? But the reality is that even if you make the connection between what employees value and how they can achieve it, your management style can create disengaged workers who care only about finding their next opportunity. In particular, micromanaging employees is one practice that can turn off employees completely.

Many managers have trouble recognizing the difference between empowering their employees and micromanaging them. “I’m just helping them do their best work,” they tell themselves. But sometimes “helping” crosses a line and becomes “telling them what to do.”

The following responses highlight the difference between those two management strategies. For each one, think about which of the two reactions is the one that best suits your own management style. (Be honest here—you don’t have to share your answers with anyone!)

Scenario #1

  • “Remember to stay calm. I know you can handle this.”
  • “Do you want me to sit in on the call?”

Scenario #2

  • “Have you thought of approaching your correspondence this way?”
  • “May I review the e-mail before you send it?”

Scenario #3

  • “What are your suggestions for how we can improve the process?”
  • “We need to improve the process. I’ll review it later this week.”

Scenario #4

  • “Remember, sometimes improvement takes time. Change is difficult for everyone.”
  • “We’ve always handled the documents this way—it’s efficient.”

Scenario #5

  • “How would you suggest handling this situation?”
  • “Tell the client we’ll send the product by Friday and offer them a 50% discount.”

Scenario #6

  • “How could we make our product more efficient to ship?”
  • “Dimensions will never change, so be sure you calculate the shipping accurately.”

Scenario #7

  • “I’m not sure what happened. Let’s call the client now and sort it out.”
  • “I’m sure I copied you on that e-mail. Let me look through my sent messages folder.”

Scenario #8

  • “Great idea! Let’s get it written up ASAP and discuss it on Friday.”
  • “I need that idea typed up within the hour, so clear everything else on your plate.”

There are plenty of situations in which each of these statements is appropriate. (For example, someone who’s on a tight deadline will probably have a different management style from someone who’s having a normal work week.) But if you find that your overall management style leans more toward telling than toward coaching, the odds are good that you’re a micromanager.

Shifting the Focus from Micromanaging to Empowering Behavior

From Micromanaging to empoweringIf you’re still not sure whether you’re a micromanager, pay attention to your weekly all-staff meetings. When you ask for input, do your employees offer their own suggestions? Or do they wait for you to tell them how you want them to proceed? If it’s the latter, chances are, you’re a micromanager. Remember, nothing strangles inspiration more than constant rejection of others’ ideas.

If you’ve identified yourself as a micromanager, now is the time to break that habit for the good of your employees and for the good of your career! After all, leaders must focus on overall strategic initiatives for their departments, and that task takes a great deal of your time and attention—both of which will be in short supply if you’re micromanaging your employees.

Start by reviewing the lists below. Every time you find yourself engaging in a micromanaging behavior, replace it with the related empowering behavior.

Micromanaging Behavior Empowering Behavior
Give employees step-by-step directions for exactly how to complete projects. Assign projects and let the employees figure out how to meet its goals.
Ask for employee input and then disregard it, because you’ve already made up your mind about the next course of action. Ask for employee input and then incorporate their suggestions.
Monitor employees’ daily or weekly activities and tell them what they should be doing in their day-to-day work. Focus on long-term goals for your employees and for your department.
Require that all decisions be run through you. Give your employees the ability to make meaningful decisions. (If a decision has no consequences or impact, then it’s not meaningful.)
Solve problems for your employees. Ask questions designed to help employees solve their own problems.
Give instructions and demand immediate action. Let employees manage their schedules to meet deadlines. If they are not meeting deadlines, coach them on how to prioritize.
Focus on the immediate tasks on your employees’ plates. Focus on long-term growth for your employees and for your department.


Next Steps in your Empowerment Journey

It’s hard to make the transition from being an individual contributor to being a manager (especially because few companies offer training on that topic). As you work on developing your own management skills, always keep in mind the following best practices:

  • Convey your expectations clearly and concisely, then let your employees figure out how to solve the problems they encounter and complete their assigned projects.
  • Coach your employees by asking them questions about how to apply their existing skills to new situations.
  • Ask questions designed to push your employees beyond their comfort zones and to come up with new ideas and think outside the box.
  • Don’t slaughter your employees when they make mistakes. Instead, teach them how to learn from those experiences.

Best of luck in your own management journey!

2 thoughts on “The Fine Line between Micromanaging and Empowering”

  1. Love this – I don’t consider myself a micromanager, however a few of the scenarios definitely offered a new perspective on how language could make it seem that way, even when it’s not the intent.

    1. So glad to hear it was useful Brenda! Thanks for reading my blogs. I do LOVE writing them! Best of luck to you! Val

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