Micromanagement

3 Signs You Have Succumbed to Helicopter Management

There is nothing efficient about hovering over the people you hired because you trusted they can do the job.
3 Signs You Have Succumbed to Helicopter Management
Image credit: Willie B. Thomas | Getty Images

Helicopter parenting took off in the 1980s, when paranoia was at an all-time high over child abductions, and the U.S. was in an economic boom that made things like SAT prep classes and expensive extracurriculars the standard. For years now, there have been discussions about how helicopter parenting is ruining America’s children and we know that helicopter managing (more commonly known as micromanaging) can be just as damaging to an entire company as it can be to an individual’s career.

However, few of the guilty are conscious of their overbearing ways. As a Stanford dean wrote in a book on the rise of helicopter parenting on college campuses titled "How to Raise an Adult," even she -- an academic writing about the phenomenon -- failed to fully realize that she and her husband did a fair amount of helicoptering in their own home. You can notice helicoptering, dislike it and still be guilty of it.

Just as certain cultural factors seeded this style in parenting, others have seeded it in the workplace, making it more tempting than ever to micromanage. The rise of open offices, real-time messaging and collaborative tools like Google Docs make it downright easy to jump into a team member’s work and take the reins.

Related: How to Avoid Micromanaging

Like helicopter parenting, helicopter managing often comes from a good place. You don’t want to see your reports fail and you want your team to succeed. That’s why, as Harvard Business Review writes, “Micromanagement has a way of spreading in organizations, where goals and accountability are intricately nested. What your team delivers affects what you deliver, and so on up the chain of command -- so the pressure is on everywhere to make sure everyone comes through.”

If you’re being micromanaged, you’re more likely to micromanage your own reports, and then inefficiency spreads throughout the organization. This inefficiency can stunt growth and hurt the company long-term if it’s not rectified.

Here are a few signs you’ve slipped into helicopter managing:

1. Your employees are getting testy.

You ask for status updates multiple times before something’s due, you make to-do lists for your team members, you jump in and offer advice when a team member hasn’t asked for it, and when you ask your employees the status of something, they usually reply with “I’m on that and will update you in our next meeting.” Not every exasperated employee is being micromanaged, but if your entire team is getting irritable, you might want to take a look at your management style.

The habit of overly checking in within open office environments can feed this exasperation. “Wide-open workspaces and copious real-time data on how individuals spend their time can leave employees feeling exposed and vulnerable,” writes Ethan Bernstein for Harvard Business Review. “Being observed changes their conduct. They start going to great lengths to keep what they’re doing under wraps, even if they have nothing bad to hide.”

Related: The 3-Step Cure for Micromanagement

It’s easy to fall into a vicious cycle. You might intervene to make sure you  support employees every step of the way, the same way well-meaning helicopter parents can now spy on their kids’ homework. But when you insert yourself too much, they often feel less empowered to step up, and then you feel more like you need to direct, thus creating an unhealthy dynamic that never stops.

2. Your team isn’t failing -- ever.

Everyone needs to fail every now and then in order to grow and, if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll realize that some of the most important lessons you ever learned were because of failure -- even minor failure. And while it’s really important to note here that employees are by no means like children, there are still parallels in the relationship:  failure is a difficult thing to watch both as a manager and a parent. Slate writes, “When children aren’t given the space to struggle through things on their own, they don’t learn to problem solve very well… The other problem with never having to struggle is that you never experience failure.” Substitute “employees” for “children” in that statement, and it’s equally true.

It's extremely challenging for as a manager to see an employee do something that you know will not work out. You’ll always be tempted to jump in, and you also can’t always let people fail. Being too hands off could cost the company millions, so you have to find a balance.

People think not micromanaging should be easy -- it sounds like less work, in theory. However, one of your jobs as a manager is to find the times it's okay to let an employee try something new and perhaps fail, as long as you take the time to walk your team member through anything that goes awry and how to improve next time. The whole process can feel painfully slow and less than efficient, especially when you see the mistake before it happens, but it’s still good management.

So don’t deny your team members the opportunity to learn from occasional failure. Ultimately, these small failures will grow your team members in ways that will help grow the organization, too.

3. You’ve lost sight of the big picture.

Suddenly you’re nearing the end of the quarter, and you realize you’re still carrying too much of the workload of your team, and it could even affect your overall success for your larger corporate goals. Sometimes when you get too in the weeds with everyone else’s day-to-day tasks, you fail to see the big picture and think strategically about what needs to happen to achieve your goals. It’s also tough to hit your goals and grow in step with your company when your team isn’t growing at all.

Related: Entrepreneurs Can Save Their Startups When They Stop Micromanaging

Realistically, you can’t hit big picture goals and intricately manage every moving piece at the same time -- it becomes too easy to lose focus. Similarly, helicopter parents might achieve amazing goals along the way, like getting their child into a top school or ensuring they play piano well, but they often miss the big picture goal, which is raising an independent adult.

Sometimes it’s hard to take a step back and ask yourself if you’re a helicopter boss. However, you have to recognize when it’s happening, and not just because you’re risking a bad reputation as a manager: it’s harmful to a company’s bottom line. The good news is that micromanaging is a bad habit that can be broken -- it just takes recognizing it, stepping back, and training rather than “doing”. Sometimes the hardest part of parenting and managing is letting go, but doing so is key to the health and growth of everyone involved.