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How to Stop Micromanaging Your Team

Five creative solutions to keep employees accountable.

Holding employees accountable to their assigned tasks without micromanaging is a classic workplace dilemma that can be difficult to navigate.

The leaders of some of the best workplaces have turned the challenge on its head by building environments where people actually seek accountability and act as owners of the business, in turn eliminating the need for you to hover over them. As evidence, consider that 90 percent of employees in the organizations included in our 2010 Great Place to Work Rankings: Best Small & Medium Workplaces report believe management trusts them without looking over the shoulder and 92 percent say they are given a lot of responsibility. The report was released last September with Entrepreneur.

How have they accomplished this? Here are five insights from their approach to resolve a classic problem:

  1. Commit to hiring the right people. It's much easier to create a culture of accountability with accountable people. At RadioFlyer, the famous maker of children's wagons, accountability is a core value central to finding new employees. Prospective job candidates are screened on whether they proactively seek needed information and feedback, and whether they strive to accomplish team goals. The company remains doggedly loyal to this value, going so far to keep positions open for more than a year if they are unable to find an ideal match between the candidate, the culture and the position. Additionally, all 55 of RadioFlyers's employees, hiring managers and the executive team receive training on the selection process annually.
  2. Make people accountable to each other. There is nothing like peer pressure to drive behavior. At Bridge Worldwide, a Cincinnati-based digital and relationship marketing agency, employees are given the chance to give anonymous feedback to various teams in a quarterly satisfaction survey and an annual benefits opinion survey. Through these regular audits, employees have the chance to give genuine feedback on performance from other departments as it relates to their job. The goal is to create a productive community culture.
  3. Clearly and frequently articulate expectations. Entrepreneurs often find themselves micromanaging their staffs when they don't adequately communicate their expectations. Employees at Hoar Construction, a construction management firm, are evaluated twice annually, and receive personal, detailed feedback. New tracking measures, goals and developmental needs are determined during these evaluations. The frequency is even greater at FatWallet, the Illinois-based online discount clearinghouse, where employees and managers set "Key Performance Indicators" at the beginning of each quarter to re-evaluate goals, progress and successes/failures.
  4. Give employees decision-making power. Your employees are much more likely to "own" their work when they help create or have a voice in what they're doing. Bridge Worldwide puts many decisions to a company vote or suggestion. An example of this was the process of naming its conference rooms. Employees were asked to nominate a 20th-century icon who embodied the company's values. Based on these nominations and subsequent votes, the company now has rooms named after the people who inspire the dynamic culture -- including Henson (Jim), Parks (Rosa), Einstein (Albert), DiMaggio (Joe) and Coltrane (John).
  5. Give them an ownership stake. If you want employees to work like they own the company, then give them a stake in the game. For example, at Hilcorp, a sense of ownership is instilled through its long-term incentive "Buy-in Compensation Plan." Through this plan, the Houston-based energy company grants each full-time employee phantom participation interests in company projects (which essentially are stocks, except they are for a particular product or project, not the overall company). Employees also have the opportunity to buy additional interests using either their money or by taking advantage of company loans. Employees received cash distributions totaling more than $130.7 million between 1997 and 2008.

    It's a large investment, and one that has paid dividends several times for the company. For example, when Hurricane Ike and Gustav disrupted 90 percent of the company's operations, Hilcorp employees scrapped together to secure scarce services, equipment and personnel which expedited repairs and allowed Hilcorp's oil and gas fields to get back on-line months prior to other operators in the area.

Striking the right balance between empowerment and accountability is not easy. But small business owners who set the right tone will enjoy the benefits of greater employee initiative and innovation, as well as the freedom to transition from managing to leading.  

Marcus Erb is a senior research partner and senior consultant with the Great Place to Work® Institute. He focuses on the financial services, manufacturing and health care industries.
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