How to Strike a Balance Between Micromanaging and Under-Managing

Research shows that micromanagement can have significant costs. Under-management can be equally detrimental.
How to Strike a Balance Between Micromanaging and Under-Managing
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Entrepreneur; Founder and CEO, JotForm
6 min read
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Recently, I was listening to a podcast interview featuring Seth Myers. Before his entrance into late-night television stardom, Myers was a cast member on Saturday Night Live.

According to Myers, the environment at SNL was filled with anxiety, and not just from stage fright. Producer Lorne Michaels was notorious for rarely giving feedback. Myers explained that cast members had no idea whether their contracts would be renewed at the end of each season. With no feedback, save for audience applause, no one knew where they stood, or how well they were performing.

It got me thinking about different types of managers. The hands-off, or “under-management,” style might make for great television, but it doesn’t foster a great company culture. Nor does the other extreme: micromanaging.

Related: Become a Better Leader: Learn How to Delegate Instead of Micromanage

A few years ago, “Essentialism” author Greg McKeown gathered data from 1,000 managers at 100 top companies, including Apple, Cisco, Microsoft, Intel, HP, and IBM. Half the participants described their most dysfunctional managers as “nice, but weak” -- classic under-managers.

The other half described their worst boss as controlling, over-involved, and tyrannical -- micromanagers. You know them: the bosses who hover over your shoulder and tell you what to do and how to do it. This style may appear more helpful, but it can be just as ineffective.

As CEO of my own company, I try to avoid either of these extremes and practice what I call the “middle way.” I’ve come up with a few strategies for figuring out how to do so.

But first, how can you tell if you are (or your boss is) under- or over-managing.

Signs of an under-manager

An under-manager's signature behaviors include weak performance management, a tendency to avoid conflicts with employees, and generally poor accountability. They give scant feedback on their employees’ work and make minimal efforts to get up-to-speed.

According to Harvard Business Review:

“On one hand, these bosses give employees considerable initiative and empowerment. On the other hand, they can sometimes be so removed from the action that they’re unable to intervene when needed, making employees feel like they’re left to fend for themselves.”

If employees believe that their supervisor is not invested, they become less engaged as well. The company’s culture suffers, as does its ability to attract top talent.

This management style may result in smooth sailing for a while -- in fact, under-managers are often well-liked --  but it also prevents employees from having meaningful opportunities for growth. 

Explains McKeown:

“These nice, but somewhat absentee managers can continue to survive, unchecked for decades. At least a controlling boss who yells all the time gets noticed: they create acute pain and people complain. In contrast, the pain these nice ‘Neutralizers’ produce is chronic. The pain is inflicted slowly, drip by drip.”

How to spot an over-manager

Over- or micromanagers, on the other hand, are too involved in their employees’ day-to-day activities. They incessantly keep tabs on team members and request updates on where projects stand. They might even take pleasure in constantly making corrections.

Related: What's Worse Than a Micromanager? Meet the 'Lawnmower' Leader.

Unlike under-managers, these bosses barely cut their employees any slack. While their commitment to the organization might be unquestionable, their faith in their employees is far from it. As a result, subordinates have no opportunity to figure things out or learn from their mistakes -- which are necessary and important teachable moments.

Researchers from Southern Illinois University found that long-term micromanagement can have significant costs, including “low employee morale, high staff turnover, [and] reduction of productivity.”

According to the study’s authors, micromanagement is among the top three reasons why employees resign.

It’s worth figuring out how, as managers, we can achieve a middle way.

Strategies to find the middle way

Managers, like everyone else, learn from experience. Sometimes we find ourselves veering off-track toward an imbalanced managerial style. We correct as needed and hopefully, learn not to make the same mistakes.

But we can also learn from others -- past bosses who have either met or missed the mark, and successful leaders who share what worked for them. In looking at what sets the best leaders apart -- those who practice the middle way -- here are a few behaviors we can try to replicate:

1. Hit conflict head-on

I’ve written before about how some respectful disagreement is necessary to foster innovation. But you’d be hard-pressed to find an entrepreneur who enjoys true interpersonal conflict in their organization. Nonetheless, it’s something that we all encounter from time to time and have to deal with. Like a cavity, ignoring it under will only delay resolution or exacerbate the problem.

Middle-way managers resolve a conflict by tackling the problem right away. They listen and ask questions. Rather than instructing, they guide team members to a solution.

2. Embrace employee autonomy (to a degree)

Effective leaders recognize that their role is to assign projects and let people figure out how to complete them. It’s important to explain benchmarks and deliverables -- the “what.” But then have faith that your team members are competent enough to get there -- the “how.”

I realize that maintaining control seems comforting. But loosening your grip and allowing employees freedom can have impressive results.

Take Decathlon, a French sports retailer with over 80,000 employees. In 2013, Decathlon implemented a philosophy of “corporate liberation,” which allowed each business unit to build its own freedom-based environments. For example, one warehouse director let employees determine their area of responsibility and change any organizational practices that prevented them from being more effective.

Following their corporate liberation, the Decathlon soared: revenue grew from $9.11 billion in 2013 to $12.79 billion in 2017. It was also ranked the #1 Great Place to Work in France.

Related: 3 Ways to Prevent Stress from Taking Over Your Life. Not Micromanaging is One of Them.

3. Offer ongoing feedback

A Society for Human Resource Management survey of managers in the U.S. found that “only 2 percent provide ongoing feedback to their employees,” which is incredible considering how much employees stand to benefit from it, both in terms of performance and job satisfaction.

Middle-way managers give regular feedback, beyond just annual reviews. And with that feedback, they focus on cultivating strengths just as much as improving weaknesses.

Effective leaders also recognize that each staff member is a complex individual -- not solely an employee. They tailor their feedback and interactions accordingly.

Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy once remarked that “employees who believe that management is concerned about them as a whole person, not just an employee, are more productive, more satisfied, more fulfilled. Satisfied employees mean satisfied customers, which leads to profitability.”

It pays to treat employees and colleagues with empathy. Putting in the effort to resolve conflicts and offer regular feedback, plus a little self-determination, can go a long, and profitable, way.

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